Wednesday 18 September 2019

Let priests marry: the Church's survival may well depend on it

A Bloody Sunday hero is right to suggest that celibacy for clergymen should be abolished, says Ulick O'Connor

In his memoirs, A Troubled See: Memoirs of a Derry Bishop, published last week, Bishop Edward Daly makes this comment:

"I believe there should be a place in the modern Catholic Church for a married priesthood and for men who do not wish to commit themselves to celibacy."

This is a courageous statement which coincides with the action of an international group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who last Wednesday announced their intention to sue Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity through the International Criminal Court.

Bishop Daly became a national hero and famous throughout the world on January 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday, when in the face of British Army machine-gun fire he carried a wounded man to safety and became known in the media as "the priest with the blood-stained hanky".

There has been an increasing demand among leading Catholics to abolish celibacy for priests on the grounds that it is a cause of child sexual abuse.

The famous Swiss theologian Fr Hans Kung has written:

"Everyone agrees the celibacy rule is just a church law dating from the 11th century, not a divine command. They are defending a patriarchal church with a patriarchal God. We must fight the Church's misunderstanding of God."

Other Christian churches don't require their priests to remain celibate. The Protestant, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, for instance, allow clergymen to marry.

This country has experienced an explosion of child sexual abuse by priests. Names like Fr Brendan Smyth, Fr Ivan Paine and Fr Sean Fortune are engraved on the public mind. Wexford (where Fr Fortune served) appears to have had well-organised communities of priests who passed unfortunate children from parish to parish to be used for sexual purposes. How can these priests have forgotten the words of Jesus?

"But whosoever shall offend one of these, my little ones, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

To undertake a celibate lifestyle is to deprive oneself of a human emotion which is a natural part of the psyche. There are indeed those to whom celibacy is part of their journey on the way to sanctity. However, to make celibacy compulsory in the highly charged sexual atmosphere of today is a dangerous undertaking and children are likely to be the most vulnerable victims.

Bishop Daly's courageous statement, therefore, is hugely important in confronting this mammoth problem.

It is not surprising, however, for anyone who remembers his courage on Bloody Sunday. After I first saw on television the episode in which 13 innocent people were shot dead by the army, it occurred to me that it might be used to bring the situation as it was in Northern Ireland to a world audience. As one of a steering committee advising then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch, I persuaded him to arrange with the Minister for Justice to send Fr Daly to America, where he could place before the media the true story of the awful events of Bloody Sunday. With the help of a brilliant civil servant, Bart Cronin, Fr Daly flew to New York immediately after having celebrated the requiem Mass for the victims, and within days took part in a series of television shows which we had secured for him, on which he told the true story of the events of that terrible day.

This was to have a profound effect on American public opinion and has to have made an important contribution to the eventual breakthrough in the Northern situation in 1998.

Now in the hour of danger for his Church, this brave cleric has set out his formula for survival. He should be listened to.

Sunday Independent

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