Bolivian president Evo Morales was in the Vatican on Monday morning for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Besides the formalities of the visit, the president made suggestions as to how the Church might modify the priesthood.
The leader of Bolivia was accompanied on his first visit to the Vatican by seven others, including the head of his cabinet and the country’s ambassador to the Holy See, during his nearly 30-minute visit with the Holy Father in the Papal Library.
Journalists described the president as “very courteous” during the encounter, referring always to the Pope as “Holiness” and thanking him effusively for hosting him and his entourage. He told the Pope that he was “surprised and honored” for the chance to have an audience.
According to a statement from the Vatican following the encounter, discussions included a “fruitful exchange of opinions” on international and regional politics and the need for a greater social and ecological sensibility.
Talks, which also took place between Morales and officials from the Vatican's Secretariat of State, additionally focused on Church-State collaboration in education, health and politics, especially as they apply to the defense of the weakest in society.
Following the audience with the Pope, the two leaders exchanged gifts before saying goodbye. The Holy Father gave Morales the customary gift of the medal of his Pontificate, while the Bolivian president left him with a white Alpaca wool scarf “for the cold” and a pair of statues representing indigenous farmers.
The Paraguayan news agency ABC reported after the visit that the Bolivian president had also delivered a pre-written statement to the Pope in which he proposed, "as a base member of the Catholic Church," that celibacy be abolished and that women be allowed access to the priesthood.
Morales "respectfully proposed" the cancellation of the vow of celibacy so that the Church can overcome the sexual abuse crisis, according to the news report.
But just two weeks ago, the Vatican's Secretary of State told the Spanish publication La Vanguardia that "Celibacy has nothing to do with deviant behavior. There is widespread evidence that celibacy faithfully observed, is of great value to the priests and helps the people of God."
The president's suggestions to the Pope come just days after he "admitted" his Catholicism to the Bolivian people, despite his history of clashes with Church leaders in the country. At the same time, Evo Morales has previously encouraged worshipping "Pachamama" or Mother Earth.