BY VIVIANE HEWITT AND CATHERINE MILNER
IN A STATEMENT SOME Vatican observers predict may open the door for married priests, Pope John Paul II admitted this week that celibacy was "not a law promulgated by Jesus Christ."
He went on to recognise that the essential nature of the priesthood did not require making the "courageous choice" of celibacy and therefore all Churches, such as the Uniate or Orthodox churches, whose priests but not bishops may be married did not impose it. He also recognised that the early Christian Church allowed married priests.
But there was no doubt that celibacy was the most coherent way of life for holy orders, John Paul stressed. Celibacy, given that souls in Paradise would live an asexual existence, was the "most similar" way of life on earth and, therefore, the most "exemplary".
The Pope's statement comes amidst renewed efforts by a number of clergy to drop the ban on married priests. The possible entry of married Anglican vicars to the Catholic priesthood as a result of last November's Synod vote to ordain women has been cited as art argument in favour of a married clergy.
Recent revelations in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops about violations of celibacy have also been raised as an argument for a Vatican acceptance of married clergy.
The Provincial of the Jesuits in Britain, Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston, told the Catholic Herald that he hoped married priests "will come into being as soon as possible. The conception of celibacy is purely disciplinary not doctri
nal. There are lots of married priests already. I see no reason why there shouldn't be more."
Insistence on celibacy is often blamed for the fall in vocations and for priests leaving the Church.
In his statement, made to a weekly audience of tourists and pilgrims, the Pope conceded that the celibate life was encountering "obstacles" today that could only be overcome by fostering "the right conditions".
These conditions had been outlined at the 1990 Synod on the priesthood and included more intense reflec don and prayer, and a greater equilibrium.
"Jesus didn't make a law, but proposed an ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood that he was establishing," the Pope said.
The Pope stressed that celibacy became a rule in the Western Church due to a "maturing of an ecclesial conscience" based on awareness that "the needs of the priesthood" are better served by celibacy, John Paul II contended.
Celibacy was the "Church's challenge to the attitudes and fatal attractions of the century", the Pope reminded dissidents.
This was his third address on the commitment of the religious life in as many months. He recently recommended that priests be more understanding in the confessional and earlier this month he rebuked progressive nuns for campaigning for more active participation in the Church.
Dominican friar Fr John Mills said the Pope's latest statement on the issue of priestly celibacy showed that "The fact that things will change is fairly clear; but the changes will be far from simple."
The problems, he said, were economic rather than pastoral: "The Catholic Church in this country is not financially arranged like the Anglican Church. It doesn't accomodate the decent middle-class life-style that the Anglican Church is able to. This is not an objection which is often raised but it is a real problem. We simply don't have the cash."
One former married Anglican vicar who has been ordained in the Catholic Church, Fr Peter Cornwell, told the Catholic Herald that "What the Pope has said is nothing more than was said in Vatican II's document on the priesthood which allows for married priests in the Eastem Church. The practice of the Eastern Church has been to ordain married men but not to allow marriage after ordination: there's even a reference in the document to `excellent married priests'."
Fr Cornwell, chaplain at Prior Park school in Bath, said that he would not be surprised by a Vatican rethink on married priests, "if the Catholic Church discovered that it works in the East it could equally work in the West. I believe it's a subject in its own right. For people that have come to terms with their own sexuality it has a spiritual value of its own."