Bishop of Muck comes clean over the problems of celibacy

Cleric who disappeared with a woman resigns and asks the Pope for prayers and forgiveness
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The Independent Online
The Roman Catholic bishop who disappeared with a woman member of his flock yesterday let it be known that he had resigned, asking the Pope for "forgiveness and your prayers".

The Right Reverend Roderick Wright, 56, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, has written to the Pope resigning his see and apologising for the distress he has brought to his people and to the family of Kathleen MacPhee, 40, the divorcee who disappeared with him, the Scottish Catholic Bishops' Office said yesterday. The couple's whereabouts is not known.

The bishop, who dropped out of public view a week ago, met Cardinal Thomas Winning, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, on Sunday. "It was a very emotional meeting because he was very upset and I didn't think he realised the kind of trauma he put everyone else in,"the cardinal said.

"He was very insistent on expressing his deep, deep sorrow and regret for the hurt he had caused by his sudden disappearance."

He added: "I had the distinct impression he was leaving because he had damaged the Church so much that he could not go back to being the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles.

"It did not come across that he was leaving to live with this lady for the rest of his life, I did not get that impression.

"We have offered them both facilities for counselling because I think they are going to need it very much, and the bishop's future is not at all clear in his own mind."

Archbishop Keith O'Brien has taken over the temporary running of Bishop Wright's diocese.

Bishop Wright said in a statement yesterday: "I now wish time and privacy to reflect on my future as I await acceptance of my resignation as a bishop. I am spiritually and physically unable to sustain the responsibilities of a diocesan bishop."

The only unusual thing about Bishop Wright, who also happens to include the isle of Muck in his diocese, is that he has turned out to be bishop, and not Father or Monsignor Wright. , Compulsory celibacy has become more difficult to maintain in the modern world. About 100,000 priests have left the Catholic Church in the 30 years since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. The difficulties of maintaining celibacy are thought to have been a major factor in this loss of priests.

Even the priests responsible for training others in the disciplines and rewards of celibacy believe that the days of compulsory celibacy are numbered, at least for ordinary parish clergy Mgr Jim O'Keefe, newly appointed president of Ushaw Seminary, said yesterday: "My own feeling is that it will change, but more slowly than people think. I think it extremely unlikely there will be any change without the equivalent of some kind of council."

Celibacy has been a problem for the Church for almost as long as it has had a priesthood. The Eastern Orthodox churches permit their parish clergy to marry, but bishops must be celibate. St Augustine put away his concubine on becoming a Christian, but other great theologians married - Martin Luther, in a double blow against celibacy, choosing a nun.

However, celibacy was re-established among the Catholic clergy during the counter-reformation, and it is only in the latter part of this century that it has become a problem. Dr Richard Sipe, a married former monk who has made a study of celibacy, reckons that about 50 per cent of the priests in the developed world have fairly regular sexual relationships - and that elsewhere the proportion is somewhat higher. These figures are disputed, but no one disputes the general picture.

Pope John Paul II has set his face against any weakening of the discipline. But it is generally accepted that something will be done once he is dead. Though all Catholics value the idea that some men are called to be celibate priests, it becomes harder to find any who believe that all who are called to be priests are also automatically called to be celibate.

In this country and in the United States there are small but influential numbers of married Catholic priests who are ex-Anglicans. In the Third World it is taken for granted that a large proportion of the parish clergy have families.

Priests in the developed world talk about two main factors. The first is that sex is a far more public and pervasive factor than it used to be. Speaking at the weekend, Cardinal Basil Hume said: "In our society's elevation of freedom of choice to the apparent exclusion of other values, and in its seemingly endless obsession with sex we are witnessing the peddling of unreal fantasies about what it is to be human ... Far from reflecting experiences of genuine love and human intimacy [sex] seems to offer a fantasy in compensation for the lack of such experiences."

In some ways priests may be more vulnerable than the more experienced, as part of the changes in their role since the second Vatican Council. Mgr O'Keefe said: "Thirty years ago the job itself was far more clearly prescribed. Now it is much more open and far more demands are made on us. The uncertainty, the lack of clarity, the complexity of how we began to understand being a priest, was a destabilising phenomenon in the lives of many men."

Like Dr Sipe, Mgr O'Keefe believes that there are three main attitudes to celibacy among the priesthood. There are those, he says, who have the gift, and know they are called to celibacy. There are others who see celibacy as an integral part of being a priest; and those who use celibacy as a way of escaping the difficulties of growing up as a sexual being. "It is the third group I would feel most anxious about; that when the crunch comes, after seven or 25 years, they break out of the mould completely."