The cardinal was speaking in the aftermath of the disappearance of Bishop Roderick Wright, the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, 56, with Kathleen MacPhee, a 40-year-old divorced nurse with three children.
His mild reaction contrasts with that of Cardinal Thomas Winning, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland and Bishop Wright's superior, who said that only people who had "distanced themselves from the Church" would say the scandal proved the unworkability of celibacy.
"Lapses do not make us change the rules. They only make us change the people," Cardinal Winning said. He had met the bishop for an hour in his house on Sunday, and left open the possibility that Bishop Wright might abandon his romance and return to the celibate priesthood. "I think everybody will learn from this incident that there's a challenge to all of us to give the right model of living and to practice what we preach," he added.
Though there is nothing in Cardinal Hume's statement which could be called unorthodox, his timing will be seen as an encouragement to debate. Pope John Paul II, who starts a tour of France today, is implacably opposed to lifting the ban, but Catholic opinion in the developed world takes for granted that the ban on married priests will have to be lifted after his death if the shortage of priests is to be overcome. The only alternative would be to ordain women, which the present pope has done his utmost to render impossible.
Cardinal Hume has been in the forefront of the cautious experiments to introduce married priests to the Church in Western countries. He persuaded Rome to make it easier for former Anglicans fleeing women priests in the Church of England to be ordained as Catholic priests. In November, he will ordain four married men among 11 former Anglican priests.
Lower down in the Church there was considerably more understanding for the plight of the bishop, but also great caution about the possible practical impact of a married clergy. The scandal over Bishop Wright has exposed the degree to which even the official Catholic Church now takes for granted that it is possible to have a vocation to the priesthood without at the same time receiving a call to celibacy. Yet even such a limited reform would have profound financial consequences. At present celibate Catholic priests form an extraordinarily cheap and flexible labour force.
Advent, a group of married Catholics once forced to leave the priesthood, welcomed Cardinal Hume's comments.
"Although he sounds very cautious, reading between the lines, I think the Cardinal is preparing himself for change," said a spokeswoman.
Father Peter Cornwell, a former Anglican vicar, said he and other married Catholic priests like him were proof that marriage and Catholicism could go hand in hand. Fr Cornwell, who has been married for more than 25 years and heads a secondary school in Bath, said: "I would be glad to see any move to unyoke the link which is made between celibacy and priesthood.
"The usefulness of people like me is perhaps giving the Catholic Church in England a taste of what it might be like to have both celibate and married priests."Reuse content