Catholic Amazon bishops suggested married men could become priests in the Amazon region to address a shortage. Pope Francis responded by recommending prayer for more eligible priests, plus sending more missionaries.
The pope's answer had been eagerly awaited but he chose not to directly reference the marriage question in his 111-point document entitled "Dear Amazon."
Francis called for more missionaries to be sent to the Amazon and urged all bishops, especially from Latin America, to "be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region."
Francis ducking the issue follows sharp criticism from more conservative quarters in the Roman Catholic Church. A recent paper extolling the virtues of celibacy, written by Cardinal Robert Sarah, was initially labeled as being co-authored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In the ensuing controversy, the German-born former pontiff appealed for his name to be removed from the document. The Argentine pope is broadly seen as comparatively progressive by the Vatican's standards.
Read more:Opinion: A synod that could make history
Pray for bachelors, send missionaries
"We cannot remain unconcerned" about the priest shortfall, the first Latin American pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, wrote. He called for a "specific and courageous response" from the Church, before urging bishops to pray for more priestly vocations instead.
The call for admitting married men into the priesthood was made by Amazon bishops at a Catholic summit last October.
Some Catholics in the most remote parts of the Amazon rainforests see a priest no more than once a year because of the acute shortage. Catholicism is also facing increased competition from other Christian denominations in the region.
The Roman Catholic church has had a tradition of priestly celibacy since the 11th century, enforced in part due to financial reasons to make sure that priests' assets pass to the church instead of heirs.
DW religious affairs correspondent Martin Gak explained that the pope's approach to the Amazon request was made in such a way to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.
"What we have is a situation of don't ask, don't tell so that in a way everyone stays content but at the same time it does not take the position of forbidding this [married priests] which would have put the church in those spots in a very bad position."
No women deacons
Francis' response is likely to please Catholic conservatives, of whom some used the priestly celibacy debate to encourage opposition to the pope. Progressives within the Church are likely to be disappointed. Liberal Catholic women's groups were left feeling outraged with the response. In the document, the pope did not address the issue of women deacons.
The Catholic Church maintains that the priesthood is reserved exclusively for men, on the basis that Jesus Christ and his apostles were male.
When asked whether the Catholic Church is still dominated by conservative forces, Gak responded that "at the ground level women are actually taking positions of both pastoral and administrative power of all sorts." Gak added that for the pope not to openly denounce such work "essentially gives leeways of benign neglect," reinforcing the idea of "don't ask don't tell."
The Pope's letter comes a day after the reform-endorsing Cardinal Reinhard Marx announced plans to step down as head the German Bishop's Conference, right at the start of a two-year process exploring possible changes in the Church.
kmm, mvb/msh (AP, dpa, AFP)