The debate in the Roman Catholic Church over whether priests should be allowed to married is about to gain steam.

As Religion News Service’s David Gibson reports, officials from the Catholic and Orthodox churches in North America have begun to press  the Vatican to let married men become priests in Eastern rite Catholic churches, a move widely considered a sign that optional celibacy could become a front-burner issue under Pope Francis.

The idea of married men becoming priests in Eastern rite Catholics churches continues to garner support among North American church leaders, Gibson reports.

Eastern rite Catholic churches resemble Eastern Orthodox churches but are loyal to the Vatican and fall under the pope’s jurisdiction.

The issue of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, while seemingly cut and dry, is not so straightforward.

Exceptions exist, and as PennLive reported in 2010, such an example exists in the Harrisburg Diocese.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI approved a dispensation that allowed the Rev. Paul Schenck, a married man and father, to be ordained. Schenck was ordained at St. Joseph’s Church in York with his wife of then-33 years, Becky, and several of their eight children in attendance. Schenck is chairman of the National Pro-Life Center in Washington.

The path to priesthood for Schenck, then 51,  was paved some 30 years prior as a result of a  special dispensation decreed by Pope John Paul II.

In 1980, to welcome Anglican ministers into the Catholic fold, Pope John Paul instituted the Pastoral Provision, which, in this country was geared toward Episcopalian ministers. The requests undergo scrutiny at the local diocese level, and eventually wind through the Vatican hierarchy to the pope, who reviews each application and has final saying.     

Debate over allowing Catholic priests to marry is about to heat up

Pope Francis has given signals that he is opened to debating the issue of allowing priests to marry. Franics is shown here cheered by faithful during his visit to the Santa Maria dell’ Orazione (St. Mary of Prayer) parish church, in Rome. AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia 

Now, the tone from the top seems even more favorable to opening up the debate. Pope Francis has given signals that he is open to optional celibacy. In February, he gave permission for a married Maronite Catholic to be ordained in St. Louis, the first ordination of a married man in the Maronite Catholic Church in the U.S. in a century, Gibson reports.

Francis also told a visitor in April that he would be open to discussing optional celibacy if national bishops’ conferences “make concrete suggestions.”

How willing is Francis to revisit the celibacy debate? Said Francis last month: “since it is not a dogma of faith, the door is always open.”