The Vatican's newly-designated Secretary of State Pietro Parolin said in an interview published here that priestly celibacy is an issue up for discussion within the Catholic Church.
Celibacy "is not a dogma of the Church, and it can be discussed because it is an ecclesiastical tradition," he said in the interview published Sunday by the Caracas newspaper "El Universal."
He acknowledged that a debate over whether priests must be celibate is "a great challenge" for the new Pope Francis, who named Parolin as the Vatican's number two on August 31.
Parolin cautioned, however, that a number of factors must be considered in reaching a decision on priestly celibacy.
"One cannot simply say, it belongs to the past," he said, adding "all these decisions should be taken as a way to unite the Church, not divide it."
"One has to take into account, when decisions are adopted, these criteria (the will of God, the history of the Church) as well as an openness to the signs of the times," he said.
The 58-year-old Parolin, who was born in the Veneto region in northwestern Italy, has served as the Vatican's ambassador to Venezuela since 2009, a period marked by tensions between the Venezuelan church and the government of president Hugo Chavez, who died in March.
He takes up his duties as the Vatican's secretary of state on October 15, replacing the controversial Tarcisio Bertone.
Parolin said changes could be made in the Vatican in a "democratic spirit" and with the "collegial leadership of the Church, in which all its parts can express themselves."
"It has always been said that the Church is not a democracy. But it is good, in these times, that there be a more democratic spirit in the sense of listening attentively, and I think the pope has indicated that is one of the objectives of his papacy."
A broad reorganization of the Curia -- the Vatican government -- has been underway since Francis' election in March.
The pope has named various commissions and charged them to reform the Curia and the Vatican bank. The broad outlines of the reforms are due to be made public in early October.