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Church reform

March 16, 2010

Catholic officials deny a direct connection between child sexual abuse by priests and the Church's strict celibacy policy. But the recent wave of abuse claims across Germany has revived the discussion.

A couple being married in a church
Some Catholics say priests should be allowed to marry tooImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Few, if any, Catholic priests or bishops are likely to say their church's vow of celibacy for priests is a direct cause of child sexual abuse. Yet the most recent wave of abuse allegations across Germany and Europe has reignited an ongoing debate in the Church over whether priests should be allowed to marry.

Hamburg Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke told the daily newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on Saturday that coexistence between celibate and married priests should be possible. He added that while he saw no direct connection between the large number of abuse cases and priest celibacy, "the celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality."

The president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Alois Glueck, also spoke out for dialogue on reforming the celibacy requirement.

"In other areas of society where celibacy plays no role, the problems [of sexual abuse] are ultimately not any less," Glueck told the regional daily Passauer Neue Presse. "But the issue of celibacy will come up in our debate for other reasons. We have to think of solutions to the lack of priests."

Hans-Jochen Jaschke
Jaschke says priests should be able to choose between celibacy or marriageImage: AP

Ursula Enders, founder and head of the sexual abuse victims outreach center Zartbitter, was more inclined to draw a link, however small, between celibacy and sexual abuse.

"Celibacy is not the cause of sexual abuse in the church," she said in an interview with public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "It's something that makes the church more vulnerable."

Movement for reform

The debate among German Catholics over celibacy is certainly not a new one. Shortly after taking office as the head of the German Catholic Church, Robert Zollitsch made controversial public statements calling celibacy a "gift" but not "theologically necessary."

Controversy also arose in the case of Michael Sell, a former priest in the Bavarian town of Hammelburg who was dismissed from his job late last year after he revealed that he planned to marry his partner, with whom he had recently fathered a baby.

Sell's removal led to the founding of the action committee "Church in Movement" to support him. Early last month the group submitted more than 7,000 signatures to Sell's diocese urging his reinstatement and that priests be allowed to choose between marriage and celibacy.

Indeed, about 80 percent of German Catholics say they are in favor of allowing priests to marry, according to Christian Weisner, head of the reform-oriented Catholic group Wir Sind Kirche (We Are Church).

Pope Benedict XVI greeting crowd
Pope Benedict XVI strongly supports the vow of celibacyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"If the pope would like to change the law of celibacy, he could do that with one signature," he told Deutsche Welle. "And I still hope that the Holy Spirit would bring the idea to the next pope."

Long road to change

Pope Benedict XVI has long supported mandatory celibacy for priests and shows no signs of changing his mind. Still, Weisner says the church must make sweeping reforms if it hopes to address the growing shortage of priests across the world.

"Only to discuss celibacy - that's not enough," he said. "We really need a new approach to sexuality, a new relationship between man and woman in our Church."

Weisner denied that there was Biblical justification for mandatory celibacy, and said the Catholic Church did not even have the policy during its first millennium of existence.

"The Roman Catholic Church is only arguing with the tradition of the last 800 or 900 years," he said. "But we have to remember - traditions can be changed."

Author: Andrew Bowen
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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