The Vatican yesterday directed the bishops of North America and Europe, where three-fourths of the world's Roman Catholic priests live, to draw up plans to shift some of their clergy to Latin America and other Third World countries.
While the Vatican presented the directive as simply a means of providing greater pastoral care in areas historically short of priests, some observers suggested that it could be a move to impose traditional Vatican disciplines in countries that have tried to adapt liturgies and ministries to their own cultures.
One priest familiar with the Vatican's attitude on the issue said the directive could "indirectly be the answer to the demand by countries who have few priests that they be allowed to ordain women and married men."
The 29-page document issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy directed national bishops conferences to prepare plans for transferring priests on a volunteer basis from well-staffed parishes to outlying portions of the own countries and to regions of the world where there are few clergy.
"There is a great disproportion in the distribution of clergy," it said. "Some dioceses have a great number of priests but there are others where the scarcity of clergy puts the continuation of faith in danger."
In some big city dioceses in North America and Europe, it said, priests are so numerous that "they are frustrated because they cannot fill their day and would much prefer to work harder and more intensively."
One approach, the directive said, would be for North American and European dioceses to "twin with dioceses in the Third World.
It said there are only 15 priests for every 100,000 Catholics in Latin America and 33 in Africa but that in Europe there are 93 priests and in North America 120 for every 100,000 Catholics.
Europe and North America have 45 percent of the world's 740 million Roman Catholics and 77.2 percent of the priests, the document said, while Latin America and the Philippines, also with 45 percent of the Catholics, have only 12.6 percent of the priests.
"It is clear that the most needy churches can be greatly helped by the transfer of priests," it said.
Plans to shift large numbers of priests from the developed North to the underdeveloped South were originally proposed by Pope John XXII and the Second Vatican Council but had been only sporadically revived since then, largely because of a reluctance by bishops to give up their priests, whose numbers are diminishing even in the developed world.
Observers said yesterday that issuance of the directive, which caught church officials here by surprise, almost certainly was prompted by Pope John Paul II's impressions from two visits to Latin America and one to Africa since he took office.
The trips exposed John Paul to regions where the local churches have attempted to adapt the Roman liturgy and rituals to their own cultures and, especially in Latin America, to pleas that women and married men be permitted to take on priestly duties.
"Many of the local churches in those countries have been trying to develop special ministries for their own people and trying to adapt the church's liturgy to their own culture," one priest who returned recently from several years in South America said.
"I think they would resent it if 'safe types' of priests from Europe or North America went there to undo their efforts."
At the same time, right-wing military regimes in Latin America are likely to oppose any large-scale influx of priests from abroad.
The experience in the recent past has been that, regardless of their political ideologies when they arrived, most American and European priests have eventually sided with the poor and the leftist opposition, sometimes playing major political and social roles against the government.