By MARK GREAYES BISHOP MALCOLM McMAHON Of
Nottingham has said it is only fair that married Catholic men should be allowed to become priests.
He was speaking about a 1994 indult that allows married Anglican vicars to become priests after they convert but not ordinary married Catholics.
He said: "It is a question of justice for those men who want to be priests and to have a wife. Marriage should not bar them from their vocation, but they must be married before they are ordained?'
A spokesman later clarified that Bishop McMahon did not believe it was feasible for the Church to lift the ban on married priests at the moment.
The bishop, he said, was merely reiterating that the Church's rule on celibacy was "a matter of discipline rather than doctrine" and so could be overturned. The rule was introduced at the First Lateran Council in the 12th century.
Bishop McMahon is cited as a potential successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and some fear that his comments could unsettle his chances of becoming the next Archbishop of Westminster, a position Benedict XVI is expected to fill early next year.
The search has taken a long time because the see . of Westminster is considered to be of great importance by the Vatican.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph Bishop McMahon said that married priests brought "a great experience of family life" to their ministry But he said that lifting the bar on married priests would not solve the vocations problem even if there was a short-term rise in the number of applications to the priesthood.
He also said that supporting priests' families was likely to cause financial problems for the Church.
Speculation about the Vatican overturning its celibacy rule was ended in 2006 when Rome issued a statement reaffirming the "value" of celibacy.
The statement was provoked by a campaign for married priests led by maverick African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was later excommunicated for illicitly ordaining married men as bishops.
However, several senior Church leaders have shown support for the idea of married priests.
Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian head of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy, said in 2006 that celibacy was "a discipline, not a dogma", adding: "Certainly, the majority of the apostles were married. In this modem age, the Church must observe these things — it has to advance with history."
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who will step down as Archbishop of Westminster next year, has twice suggested that the Church could in theory overturn its celibacy rule at any time.
He told the Independent newspaper in 2004: "If you're asking 'can the Church change its laws about celibacy?' then the answer is `yes', any time in the next papacy.
"My view is that there is a strong case for the ordination of married men — but they have to have been married and brought up a family before they're ordained."
Priests, too, have shown support for the idea. In 2003 more than 160 priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese in America signed a letter in support of married clergy.
At the National Conference of Priests of England and Wales in 2004 just over half of those who attended voted in favour of the Church re-examining the rule. This fell short of the two thirds required for the motion to be approved.
However, it is highly unlikely that the Vatican will move to allow married men into the priesthood. The 1994 indult, granted after the Church of England's decision to ordain .women priests, was intended only for Anglican vicars who wished to convert to Catholicism and become Catholic priests.
Bishop McMahon, 59, worked as an engineer for London Transport before joining the Dominicans in 1976.
Ordained bishop in 2000, he is now the bishops' conference chairman of the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis and national president of the international Catholic peace movement Pax Christi.
He gained popularity among traditionalists earlier this year when he delivered an address at a Latin Mass training conference in Oxford — and received a standing ovation.