BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – She uses a wheelchair and carries the weight of her 87 years, but Clelia Luro feels powerful enough to make the Roman Catholic Church pay attention to her campaign to end priestly celibacy.
This woman, whose romance with a bishop and eventual marriage became a major scandal in the 1960s, is such a close friend with Pope Francis that he called her every Sunday when he was Argentina's leading cardinal.
Luro's convinced that he will eventually lead the global church to end mandatory priestly celibacy, a requirement she says "the world no longer understands." She believes this could resolve a global shortage of priests, and persuade many Catholics who are no longer practicing to recommit themselves to the church.
"I think that in time priestly celibacy will become optional," Luro said in an interview with The Associated Press in her home in Buenos Aires, after sending an open letter to the pope stating her case. "I'm sure that Francis will suggest it."
John Paul II, Benedict XVI and other popes before them forbade any open discussion of changing the celibacy rule, and Francis hasn't mentioned the topic since becoming pope last month.
"I don't see how in any way this would form part of his agenda," said the Rev. Robert Gahl, an Opus Dei moral theologian at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome.
But as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he referred to the issue of celibacy in ways that have inspired advocates to think that the time for a change has come.
In his book "On Heaven and Earth," published last year, Bergoglio said: "For the moment I'm in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures." But he also noted that "it's a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change," and said the Eastern Rite Catholic church, which makes celibacy optional, has good priests as well.
"In the hypothetical case that the church decides to revise this rule ... it would be for a cultural reason, as with the case of the Eastern church, where they ordain married men," he said in "Pope Francis. Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio," re-published last month by his authorized biographers, Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti.
Luro and her husband, the former bishop of Avellaneda, Jeronimo Podesta, felt ostracized from the church for many years, but she says Bergoglio didn't hesitate to minister to them when Podesta was hospitalized before his death in 2000. They became such good friends thereafter that Luro said Bergoglio called her every Sunday for 12 years, and often discussed the celibacy issue as they debated all sorts of hot topics in private conversations.
Luro now feels that the cardinals' election of a Jesuit and Vatican outsider who is committed to expanding the global church and reaffirming its commitment to the poor shows their willingness to undertake profound changes to stem an exodus of the faithful.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and Vatican analyst at Georgetown University, said a first step might be for Francis to simply signal that it's OK to debate the issue.
"The Vatican led by John Paul and Benedict said that certain topics were just off the table, and any bishop who discussed them would be in trouble. And theologians who wrote about them would get into trouble. So this is part of a bigger question of how much open discussion Pope Francis is going to allow in the church," Reese said.
"This would be exactly the kind of open discussion that the Vatican does not like," Reese added. "Their attitude is that you shouldn't confuse the children by having the parents argue."
Canon 277 of the Vatican's legal code reads: "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbor."
Still, celibacy is not dogma — a law of divine origin — but a tradition of the Roman Catholic church. Dogma cannot change, but traditions can.
"We're very enthusiastic and hopeful that Francis could reverse this canonic measure," said Guillermo Schefer, a former priest who along with his wife, Natalia Bertoldi, are vice presidents of the Latin-American Federation of Married Priests. "It's important that the priests can also opt for a life of marriage and family. It would help them integrate more with the people."
In the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, seminarians who are already married can be ordained later as priests. Some married Anglican priests also have been allowed to convert to Roman Catholicism, and some widowers with families have become priests later.
But as Gahl notes, no Roman Catholic tradition allows men who have already "married the church" to later marry a wife. This would create a divided heart, a weakened commitment, and go against much of what Francis has said since becoming pope about the need for priests to deny themselves earthly pleasures as they spread the Gospel, he said.
"He's been preaching this pretty much every morning" at the Vatican, Gahl said. Advocates for optional celibacy are "saying priesthood is too hard; why don't we make it easier? But what the pope is saying is, "If you make this sacrifice, it would bring you pure joy.' "
Those resisting change say celibacy has other benefits, not least among them financial: Imagine if the world's 400,000 Roman Catholic priests all had families, presumably large ones given the church's ban on contraception. Suddenly, relatively meager priestly salaries would have to increase exponentially.
Still, tens of thousands of priests have left their ministries to marry, and many others, particularly in Africa and Latin America, have remained while having relationships with women and children on the side. Bergoglio condemns that practice in his books.
"What I won't permit is the double life," he said. "If he can't carry on his ministry, I tell him to stay home, that we seek a papal dispensation, and that way he can receive the sacrament of marriage."
Benedict reaffirmed mandatory celibacy in response to a high-profile crusade by a married African archbishop who was excommunicated after defying the Vatican and ordaining four married men as bishops.
Bergoglio's great friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil got into hot water when he noted that priestly celibacy is not a matter of divine law during a 2006 newspaper interview he gave before arriving in Rome to take over the Vatican's office for the world's priests. It sparked such speculation about a potential change that Hummes had to issue a lengthy statement reaffirming celibacy.
Luro was 39, separated and with six children when she met Podesta, then 45, in 1966. He was already a bishop, and very committed to social causes, advocating liberation theology as part of the Movement of Third World Priests.
"I was the first woman for Jeronimo," she recalls. Far from hiding it, they made their relationship public and launched a campaign for optional celibacy that took them to the Vatican's doors. Shortly thereafter, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" in 1967, ratifying priestly vows of perpetual celibacy.
Luro said Bergoglio's Sunday phone calls were a huge support for her. "We would speak of the church, we debated. I sent him Jeronimo's writings."
And after becoming Francis, he called her again, she said. Out of respect for the pope, she won't say what he told her.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.