BERLIN Several prominent Roman Catholic politicians have urged German bishops to lobby their countryman Pope Benedict for a change in Church policy to ordain married men in response to a worsening shortage of priests.
The group, including the speaker of parliament and a cabinet member, backed up its call by quoting a 1970 essay by the present pope where he predicts the Church "will know new forms of ministry and ordain upstanding (lay) Christians as priests."
The German bishops estimate that two-thirds of all Catholic parishes in the country will not have their own priest by 2020. As in other countries, bishops have been merging parishes to have the dwindling clergy minister to ever larger areas.
Pope Benedict has firmly ruled out any reform of priestly celibacy, despite calls from some bishops -- especially in German-speaking countries -- to consider a change.
The politicians, whose appeal will be printed in Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, argue that upholding celibacy is not as pressing as "the need of many priest-less parishes that are no longer able to celebrate Mass each Sunday".
"A reform of the Church (parish) structure alone cannot be the response to the priest shortage," writes the group including Bundestag speaker Norbert Lammert and Education Minister Annette Schavan from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The politicians said the Church should ordain "proven men," pious married Catholics whose wives are beyond child-bearing age. If the Vatican continues rejecting this option, they said, the German Church should "consider a regional exception".
The appeal appeared to have little chance of success in the Vatican, which often urges Catholics to pray for more vocations to the priesthood, but it reflected a deep concern among German Catholic laymen about the priest shortage.
Among its eight signatories were also former state governors Bernhard Vogel, Erwin Teufel and Dieter Althaus.
German Catholicism was shaken by the sexual abuse scandals that swept through Europe last year. Some critics blame clerical abuse of minors on celibacy, a link the Church denies.
In the wake of the scandals, polls have found that about a quarter of German Catholics are considering leaving the Church.
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; editing by Tom Heneghan/Maria Golovnina)