Letter: A marriage to the Church

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Sir: Is Andrew Brown ("A modest proposal for errant priests", 25 September) really surprised that Catholics are very sensitive to statements such as "Priests and bishops don't believe what they teach sexually"? Do the two letters about several priests who have not remained celibate genuinely justify your headline, "Celibacy does not denote holiness", on the accompanying Letters page?

The Catholic Church chooses her ordinands from men who have freely chosen to be what Jesus called "those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19 xii) and not, like Origen, those "who have been made eunuchs by others".

Before ordination we Catholic priests made an individual, carefully prepared decision to embrace lifelong celibacy which, like marriage, now has to be lived every day of life. The free choice we make each day is open to change, exactly like the free choice others make to stay married.

When things go wrong in marriage, relatives and friends first try to get the couple back together again. If they succeed, most people are happy, but sad for the would-be partner to a second marriage. Similarly, the Church's first honest reaction to a celibacy problem is to get the priest back again. To describe this as "a system where betraying a woman is a forgivable weakness" - which no one would dare to say to modern marriage- menders - is patently unjust.

Similarly, Brown overstates his case when he describes an errant priest's bizarre behaviour as "betraying an institution" (the Church) which regards it as "an unforgivable crime". The Church always reflects the Lord's forgiveness.

Celibacy has always challenged accepted values, been found difficult to live and been criticised in every age. We who live it every day choose it in order to serve God and to be sensitive pastors to the people we serve. To say that we do not believe what we "teach sexually" does not correspond with my experience of hundreds of celibate priests for well over 40 years.


Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria

The writer was Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle 1975-1992