DUBLIN, Ireland -- A prominent Roman Catholic bishop has been ordered to the Vatican next month to explain his insistence that the church in Ireland should have an open debate on the requirement of celibacy for priests.
The dispute has set off widespread contention in Ireland, where 95 percent of the country's 3.5 million people are members of the church. It has been front-page news since early June as the bishop, the Most Rev. Brendan Comiskey, and the primate of Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, have exchanged volleys in newspaper articles and interviews. Call-in radio shows have taken hundreds of calls on the issue.
Church officials acknowledge that the church's image has been tarnished and its authority weakened by scandals involving priests convicted in cases of sexual abuse of children and disclosures that several priests have fathered children.
Vatican officials, confirming that Bishop Comiskey has been summoned to see Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the head of the Congregation of Bishops, said the Holy See was concerned more about the clash between the Irish churchmen than about the celibacy issue.
They said that such a summons was unusual and added that if Bishop Comiskey failed to back off from his campaign for a celibacy debate, the pope could strip him of his diocese, which is based in the coastal city of Wexford, about 90 miles south of Dublin.
The dispute began several weeks ago when Bishop Comiskey, in an interview in the Sunday Tribune, said that the Irish church was suffering a steady decrease in the number of young men entering the priesthood and proposed a debate on whether compulsory celibacy should continue. In other articles and interviews he has said that he is not advocating the end of celibacy.
"The only thing I did was call for a debate," he told the Irish Times. "I did not question celibacy itself."
He blamed Cardinal Daly for the summons to Rome. "The cardinal is behind all this," he told the Irish Times. "Otherwise why would Brendan Comiskey be called to Rome?"
Cardinal Daly, who denies that he was behind the summons, at first responded by saying that Bishop Comiskey's views were purely personal, with no stamp of church authority. Later, the cardinal appeared to be joining in the debate on celibacy, however indirectly, when he said that his "main objective" in speaking out on Bishop Comiskey's proposal was "to outline the reasons for celibacy and its conformity with Scripture."
Experts on church history note that celibacy is a practice that was imposed in the early centuries of the Christian era, not a matter of faith or morals that all Catholics must obey.
So far, none of Ireland's 34 other bishops has come out for or against Bishop Comiskey.