PARIS (Reuters) - Over 140 Roman Catholic theologians in Germany have urged the church to embrace far-reaching reforms to end priestly celibacy, ordain women, welcome same-sex couples and let lay people help pick their bishops.
The appeal, the second reform call in two weeks, came as the German church is struggling to overcome a wave of clerical sex abuse scandals and prepare for Pope Benedict's visit to his German homeland in September.
The proposals reflect liberal positions in deep disfavor at the Vatican. While they have no hope of being adopted, the fact that 144 theologians backed them meant Benedict's third trip to Germany since his 2005 election could be his most difficult.
A group of prominent Catholic politicians urged the bishops last month to ordain older married men in response to the worsening shortage of priests.
"The deep crisis of our church demands that we address problems that at first glance are not directly related to the abuse scandal and its decades-long cover-up," the latest appeal said.
Replying to the appeal, the bishops' conference said it would discuss the proposals at a meeting in mid-March.
The appeal said the priest shortage meant many parishes without resident clerics were slowly dying and the remaining priests had so much to do they were increasingly "burned out."
The German bishops estimate two-thirds of all parishes will not have their own priest by 2020 and have been merging parishes to spread the work among the dwindling number of clerics.
Supporters of a married priesthood caused a stir late last month when they unearthed a 1970 appeal to ordain older married men signed by nine German theologians including the then Father Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope.
Ratzinger turned away from his youthful liberal views in the 1970s, becoming a leading conservative theologian. Vatican Radio said the report of his signature on the 40-year-old appeal was "a sensationalist report" that was "not news."
The latest appeal said the scandal-hit church needed a new start to win back Catholics who had left in protest last year.
"The church needs married priests and women in church ministry," it said. Catholicism should also not "shut out people who live in love, loyalty and mutual support as same-sex couples or remarried divorced people."
It criticised Benedict's stress on bringing back older practices in Catholic worship, saying "the liturgy must not be frozen in traditionalism."
Editing by Andrew Roche