The Catholic Church should consider allowing married men to become priests, Pope Francis said, in what would be a radical departure from current Vatican teaching.
The lifting of the ban on married men being ordained would apply only in specific circumstances, for instance in remote areas of the world where priests are in short supply, the Pope said. But it would effectively reverse the centuries-old principle that Roman Catholic priests must be celibate.
In an interview with Germany's 'Die Zeit' newspaper, the pontiff said he was open to the idea of so-called "viri probati" - married men of deep faith who are already involved in the Church - being allowed to become priests.
"We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities," he said.
Francis's greater flexibility towards some of the Church's contemporary problems has been a pillar of his papacy.
The compassion he has brought to bear on issues such as whether Catholics who divorce and then remarry should be allowed to take Communion has earned him rock star status among liberals but earned the opprobrium of many conservatives, especially in the US.
As the Church's first Latin American Pope, Francis is acutely aware that large countries like Brazil suffer from a lack of priests. In the Amazon region, for instance, there is just one priest for every 10,000 Catholics. Loosening the rules on who can be ordained could help solve that problem.
There are already a limited number of married priests, including Anglican ministers who defected to Rome, some Coptic Catholics and members of some Eastern rite Catholic churches. (© Daily Telegraph London)