Just don't cross the Pope

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The Independent Online
The cardinal sin in the modern Catholic Church is to break the rules in public. Whether you are a priest betraying your vow of celibacy, or a bishop musing over the need for a married clergy, the ecclesiastical bigwigs are happy to turn a blind eye, as long as you do it in private. But challenge the official line in public and they are down on you like a plague of locusts.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey, presently packing his bags for a three-month sabbatical in America, is the latest victim of such hypocrisy. His remarks about the urgency of straight talking in the Catholic Church about a married priesthood saw him rebuked by the Primate of All Ireland and summoned to God's business address on earth like a naughty schoolboy to "explain" his remarks.

They need little explanation. The Catholic Church in Europe and the Americas is perilously short of vocations. Parishes are without priests, seminaries are empty and the missions are peopled by an ageing group who won't be replaced. Celibacy is the reason most often quoted by devout young men as to why they bolt at the seminary portals. In the meantime, an estimated 100,000 priests have left the active ministry since the late Sixties, most of them to get married.

The Catholic Church's twinning of a vocation to the priesthood with a vocation to celibacy cannot be justified by precedent. The New Testament tells that St Peter, the first Pope, was married. For the first millennium of Christianity, a married priesthood was the norm. And today a whole posse of married Anglican vicars, hot under the collar about women's ordination, have been accepted by Rome as Catholic priests.

It was the unusual flexibility shown by the Vatican in this last case that prompted Bishop Comiskey's public apostasy. Like many senior clerics, he felt that there had been a chink of light in what had previously been a theological dead-end. The speed with which Rome has now moved to silence him has once more swept dissent under an already lumpy carpet.

The principal obstacle is Pope John Paul himself. He is passionately opposed to married priests, and it is he who is treating all those who step out of line on celibacy in a fashion reminiscent of the erstwhile Communist overlords of his beloved Poland.

The papacy is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world. The Pope's word is final, and John Paul, for all his charisma and encouragement of political democracy in Eastern Europe, is not about to relinquish those powers.

The public debate that Bishop Comiskey wanted is therefore on hold until a new broom arrives at the Vatican. Given John Paul's policy of packing the College of Cardinals, the body which will elect the next Pope, with men of similar conservative minds to himself, it may be a long wait.

The writer was formerly editor of the `Catholic Herald' (1988-92).