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Catholic paper poses questions on celibacy

Opening the door on a topic the Vatican has said is closed for discussion, the Archdiocese of Boston's newspaper published an editorial yesterday raising questions about the Roman Catholic Church policy requiring celibacy of its priests.

The editorial appeared in The Pilot, the nation's oldest Catholic newspaper, in a special edition dealing with the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has racked the Boston church and led to a wave of revelations across the country of past cases of priests molesting minors.

The editorial asks four questions, which it leaves unanswered:

  • Should celibacy continue to be mandatory for priests?
  • If celibacy were optional, would there be fewer sexual scandals?
  • Does priesthood attract a disproportionate number of homosexual men?
  • Why are a sizable number of Catholics not convinced that an all-male priesthood was intended by Christ and is unchangeable?"Even if our present woes in the archdiocese were suddenly to disappear," the editorial said, "these questions have taken on an urgency and will not slip quietly away."The celibacy of priests is mandated by Catholic canon law, which could conceivably be changed by church officials. The ordination of women, by comparison, is considered prohibited by a divine mandate that the pope couldn't change even if he wanted.Church observers from the left and the right called the editorial extraordinary. It was written by the paper's executive editor, Monsignor Peter V. Conley."The tone is certainly astonishing," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative religious magazine, First Things."I think the casual reader would say this is challenging the church's teaching and practice. If you read it very carefully, it's saying something pretty obvious, namely, that these questions aren't going to go away. Everybody knows that."But the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame University theologian with a liberal point of view, said the fact that The Pilot even raises the issue is extraordinary."Up to now, the American bishops, including Cardinal [Bernard F.] Law, have simply followed the position of the Vatican. And that is that certain issues are not up for discussion: married clergy, women clergy, the church's teaching on birth control," he said.In Rome, a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said: "The pope has spoken to this. He has said celibacy remains, it is a great gift to the church. He has spoken clearly in favor of celibacy."A spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese said Law had no idea the editorial would be published. The Rev. Christopher Coyne, the spokesman, said he did not know if Law agreed with its contents but the cardinal had not expressed any dissatisfaction.But McBrien, who said he knows The Pilot's editor, doesn't buy that."I do know Peter well enough and I know the situation in Boston well enough to know he would not have said what he said in this editorial if he felt the cardinal would be exceptionally displeased and would land on him for it," McBrien said.The Notre Dame theologian believes Law allowed the editorial to appear to defuse the anger against the church and against him.Readers of The Pilot can expect more editorial fireworks next week. Conley wrote that he expects to tackle an equally explosive issue: the priestly ordination of women.The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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