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Catholics urge ditching celibacy rule for priests

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Catholics urge ditching celibacy rule for priests
Photo: DPA
12:25 CET+01:00
Facing a dire shortage of priests, influential voices in Germany have begun questioning some central tenets of the Catholic Church including celibacy for the clergy. Kyle James reports.

In his therapy practice in the eastern German city of Jena, Gerhard Streicher focuses on relationship problems. He and his wife Monika have had the practice for 15 years, but he began counselling long before that.

However, while these days he often wears comfortable sweaters in the office, he used to go to work in a white collar. Streicher used to be a Catholic priest. That is, until he told his bishop about the seven-year relationship he had been having with the woman who is now his wife.

"That relationship made me a better priest," he said. "I understood people and their lives better. But celibacy was the big contradiction, since the thing that actually made me a good priest pushed me to the margins of the Church."

The rule of celibacy has become a central issue for Catholics who want to see reforms to address what many say is a time of crisis for the Church in Germany. The Church was rocked last year by a series of sex and abuse scandals, and is finding it increasingly difficult to find priests to serve its parishes across the country.

Looming priest shortage

By 2020, according to the German Bishop's Conference, two-thirds of parishes in Germany could be without clergy, and the blame can be at least partly put on the celibacy rule, critics say. According to them, the prohibition on marriage, and by extension, sex, keeps young men from entering the seminary and prevents the Church from ordaining married men who feel a calling later in life.

The calls for reform in Germany have been getting louder and have come from some surprising quarters.

Last month, more than 140 Catholic theologians signed a public appeal calling for the Church to embark on a reform program and scrap the celibacy vow. Their demand came on the heels of a letter by a group of well-known conservative Catholic politicians asking Church officials to rethink celibacy, especially since it's not a doctrinal requirement.

"The Church doesn’t change very quickly and we know that, but we think we’ve come to a point where we have to demand it," said Hermann Kues, a parliamentary liaison in the Family Ministry from the conservative Christian Democratic Union and one of the letter signers.

"Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well," he added.

Most German Catholics agree with the calls for change, in several areas. Surveys consistently show that big majorities disagree with official Church positions on the role of women, gays and lesbians, and sexuality in general. A poll in January found that 76 percent of German Catholics do not think celibacy, which became obligatory in the 12th century, makes sense any more.

"Celibacy should be the liberty of every priest and they should be able to decide," said Andreas Schmidt, 36, as he came out of mass at St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin recently. "But I think it's good that the discussion has started and I hope it's not stopped by the head of the Church."

Exceptions made

In February, Pope Benedict XVI did give special permission for a 61-year-old Lutheran convert to be ordained as a Catholic priest in Germany and remain married to his wife. In addition, Catholic priests ordained in the Eastern Rite – a much smaller number than Roman Catholic clergy – can remain married if they already are.

But the pope, who is German, has not indicated he is willing to relax the rules as they stand. Even though, it was discovered last month that in 1970, Father Joseph Ratzinger, as the pope was known back then, signed an appeal asking that older married men be ordained. But since then Ratzinger has turned away from his more liberal views. This month, Cologne's powerful Archbishop Joachim Meisner called celibacy for priests "essential."

For its part, the German Bishops Conference has said it was interested in dialogue with the advocates for reform and would discuss the various proposals at its meeting in mid-March.

But according to Vatican reporter Francis X. Rocca of Religion News Service, celibacy for the great majority priests is not likely to be phased out anytime soon.

Part of the Catholic identity?

"No, not in our lifetimes and in any major way," he said. "The pope and I’m sure the overwhelming number of cardinals and bishops see celibacy as a very important part of Catholic identity."

That is an identity that former priest Streicher says he is glad to have left behind. He still has a relationship with the Church, attending mass regularly and ensuring that his three children were baptized when they were young. But he says he could no longer live within the institution's rigid system of rules and hierarchy.

"The Church is still like a mother to me and I have a lot to thank her for. But I don’t do everything that my mother says," he said. "At some point, I grew up."

Streicher believes the Vatican doesn't want to touch the celibacy requirement because it is afraid that doing so might unleash an avalanche of change.

"The Church has been through change before, even though often unwillingly," he said. "I just think it would be better if the church would learn how to embrace it."

If it doesn't, he worries, and things do stay the way they are, the Church could become like a museum with plenty of pretty objects, but not much life.

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