The Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, had been summoned to the Vatican to explain himself last July, but the invitation was withdrawn after it became apparent he had received a great deal of support for his suggestion that priestly celibacy be openly discussed.
The most recent expression of this support came from the National Priests Conference of England and Wales, which voted a week ago to set up a commission to examine the matter, and which sent a message of support to Dr Comiskey.
Dr Comiskey is to spend his sabbatical in the US, where he will "reflect on the role of a bishop in a rapidly-changing society", a diocesan statement said. Observers pointed out that it was unlikely his absence from Ireland was any sort of punishment, since the US is probably the last country from which the Vatican would want bishops to learn.
Research by a Dr Richard Sipe, a psychiatrist and former monk, suggests that about 50 per cent of supposedly celibate priests in the US are sexually active at any one time.
The matter of celibacy is especially acute in England where the ordination of 1,400 women priests in the Anglican church has led to an exodus of married men wishing to become Roman Catholic priests. No one yet knows how large this exodus will prove, but more than 200 male Anglicans have applied to become Catholic priests. Less than half are believed to be married.
Some of these married men will be employed as parish priests though without the full legal status of their celibate counterparts. This has produced some resentment among Roman Catholic priests who left the ministry to marry.
Priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is a matter of discipline, not doctrine.
Pope John Paul II has proved an implacable opponent of attempts to liberalise the position for Catholic priests. During his pontificate, priests who have left to get married have found it almost impossible to get dispensations from their priestly vows.Reuse content