The Vatican on Thursday rejected calls for the Roman Catholic Church to allow priests to marry, reaffirming the "importance" of celibacy despite fears of a schism over the issue.
"The importance of the choice of celibacy for priests, according to the Catholic tradition was reaffirmed," the Vatican said in its statement after Pope Benedict XVI had met for three hours with the top leaders of the Holy See administration.
The pontiff met with 20 Vatican department heads to "analyze the situation" created by the "disobedience" of Zambian archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was ex-communicated in September for ordaining four married men as bishops, a Vatican spokesman said earlier.
Milingo, founder of the "Married Priests Now!" movement, is gathering some 1,000 married priests at a meeting in New York early next month.
The Vatican statement said the pope and his deputies "received detailed information on requests for exemption from the obligation of celibacy and for readmission to priestly ministries" before reaching their conclusion through "communal reflection."
Milingo said in Washington following his ex-communication by the Vatican: "We have nearly 25,000 married priests in the United States and 150,000 in the world who are not called to serve in this medieval Church that requires celibacy."
The former archbishop of the Zambian capital Lusaka, who stunned the Church in 2001 by marrying a South Korean acupuncturist in a mass "Moonies"-style ceremony, wrote an open letter to the pope on Nov. 4 asking that married priests and bishops be "gradually reinstated into the fabric of our Church."
During a worldwide shortage of priests, he wrote, "there are 150,000 married priests who are ready and willing to serve."
Milingo has widespread support among US Catholics, 63 percent of whom favor allowing priests to marry, which could encourage more men to enter the priesthood, according to a Gallup poll.
Between 1975 and 2004, the number of priests shrank by 28 percent in the US, while the number of Catholics grew 33 percent, Gallup said.