Pope Francis said late yesterday that he believed that Roman Catholic priests should be celibate but the rule was not an unchangeable dogma, and "the door is always open" to change.
Francis made similar comments when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires but his remarks to reporters on a plane returning from a Middle East trip were the first he has made since becoming pope.
"Celibacy is not a dogma," he said in answer to a question about whether the Catholic Church could some day allow priests to marry as they can in some other Christian Churches.
"It is a rule of life that I appreciate very much and I think it is a gift for the Church but since it is not a dogma, the door is always open," he said.
The Church teaches that a priest should dedicate himself totally to his vocation, essentially taking the Church as his spouse, in order to help fulfil its mission.
However while priestly celibacy is a tradition going back around 1,000 years, it is not considered dogma, or an unchangeable piece of Church teaching.
There has been pressure for change, particularly in the wake of recent sexual abuse scandals with proponents of optional celibacy in the Church arguing that sexual frustrations could drive some priests to sexually abuse children.
But the Church has rejected this argument, saying that paedophilia, whether in the Church or outside of it, is carried out by people with psychological problems.
Priests are allowed to marry in the Anglican and other Protestant churches as well as in the Orthodox Church.
FIRST MEETING WITH ABUSE VICTIMS
The pope also said that he will have his first meeting with a group of sex abuse victims at the Vatican early next month and said he would show zero tolerance for anyone in the Catholic Church who abused children, including bishops."Sexual abuse is such an ugly crime ... because a priest who does this betrays the body of the Lord. It is like a satanic Mass," he said in some of the toughest language he has used on a crisis that has rocked the Church for more than a decade.
"We must go ahead with zero tolerance," he said, adding that three bishops were currently under investigation.
Francis said he would meet with eight victims and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston, who is head of a commission set up to study ways of dealing with the crisis.
The 77-year-old pontiff fielded questions on a range of topics, including Vatican finances, priestly celibacy, his concern for the environment, and whether he himself would one day retire like his predecessor Benedict XVI instead of serving for life. The concept of a "pope emeritus" could someday become normal in the Church, he said.
During his trip he invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican next month.
He said that the meeting would not be a mediation but a prayer meeting that he hoped could encourage the stalled peace process.