VATICAN CITY (AP) – While acknowledging the acute shortage of priests in the Roman Catholic Church, bishops from around the world reaffirmed the church’s stance on celibacy for priests Saturday in a set of 50 recommendations they agreed to submit to Pope Benedict XVI.

The proposals, meant for the pope to consider in a future document on the Eucharist, also dealt with whether Communion should be denied to Catholic politicians who support laws that contradict church teaching, such as the right to abortion, as well as the plight of Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment.

The estimated 250 bishops who gathered for the three-week Synod of Bishops voted behind closed doors on the recommendations, which disappointed some church reform groups by hewing closely to church teaching. The synod, which began Oct. 2, formally ends today with a Mass celebrated by Benedict.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia said at a press conference after the vote that the proposals were a “massive restatement” of the church’s celibacy rule for priests and other church traditions.

He also defended the meeting amid questions about why it was necessary to bring prelates from around the world to Rome to essentially approve the status quo.

“If you restate what are the central doctrinal positions of the church, with a massive unanimity on the nature of the Eucharist, that’s something,” he said. “And if you reaffirm a particular discipline, or two or three disciplines, that’s also something.”

Separately, the prelates sent a letter to four Chinese bishops barred by Beijing from attending the synod, expressing “great unhappiness” at their absence and saying they hoped the Catholic Church would soon be unified in China.

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches. Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.

Debate about the priest shortage dominated the synod, with bishops complaining that Catholics sometimes have to go weeks or months without having a priest to celebrate Mass because there are too few to go around.

Some liberal Catholics and church reform groups say more men would join the priesthood if they were allowed to marry, and several bishops at the synod raised the issue of whether so-called “viri probati” or married men of proven virtue could be ordained.

But the final recommendation reaffirmed the “inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy” and said the idea of ordaining “viri probati” was a “path not to follow,” according to the list of the propositions released by the Vatican.

The proposition also called for Catholics to pray for new priests, for pastors to encourage young people to go into the priesthood, and for bishops to be more willing to share their priests with dioceses in need if they have a surplus.

Several reform groups praised the openness of the discussion on the problem but said they were disappointed with the outcome.

“They opened the issue, talked solutions, then ran as fast as they could in the other directions,” said Sister Christine Schenk, of the reform groups FutureChurch and Call to Action.

We Are Church, another reform group, said in a statement it regretted the bishops’ “lack of courage” to make any concrete changes.

Among their other recommendations, the bishops said Catholic politicians should realize their “grave social responsibility” and not support laws that contrast with church teaching.

But no blanket recommendation was made on whether the politicians should be denied Communion, with a final proposal saying local bishops “should exercise the virtues of firmness and prudence taking into account concrete local situations.”

The issue gained attention during the 2004 presidential campaign when St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny the Eucharist to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Other church leaders said they were not comfortable denying Communion and the U.S. bishops’ conference is studying the issue.

Another major issue of the synod was how to deal with Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment. Church teaching says such Catholics cannot receive Communion because their situation “objectively contrasts with God’s law.”

The bishops reaffirmed church policy but called for these people to make “every possible effort” to have their previous marriages annulled. If the marriages cannot be declared invalid, the couple should celebrate their new marriage as a “loyal and trustworthy friendship” – meaning they shouldn’t consummate it.

Other propositions reaffirmed the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, called for priests to prepare better homilies and suggested some changes to particular Mass rituals, such as the placement of the “sign of peace” during Mass.

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AP-ES-10-22-05 2040EDT

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