THE Catholic Church was staying silent last night on comments from one of its bishops that priests should be allowed to marry.
Bishop of Killaloe (beside Shannon Airport) Willie Walsh voiced his opinion which is in direct conflict with the Vatican in a newspaper interview in which he said celibacy was meaningless if it had a negative impact on priests and the church they served.
"I have known some very fine priests who have left the priesthood because they found the challenge of celibacy not life-giving for them. Men like that are a great loss to the ministerial priesthood," he told the Sunday Tribune.
"Unless in some way celibacy is a generous gift to others and to God, it is meaningless. If we see celibacy simply as abstaining from sexual intimacy, then it is negative, not life-giving."
Bishop Walsh said for some priests, celibacy was a gift that allowed them to give more generously to their vocation but others found the loneliness and isolation too much to bear.
He said the priesthood should be open to both married and celibate priests and urged a full debate within the Church on what he described as a "very serious question".
It is not clear if he will face sanction from the hierarchy in Ireland or Rome.
Staff of the Catholic Communications Office did not return calls yesterday and there has been no public response.
Speaking from his residence in Ennis, Co Clare last night, Bishop Walsh would not say whether he had been contacted by any member of the hierarchy or had received any official reaction.
He confirmed that his views were accurately reflected in the interview although he was concerned at the headline, which he felt suggested he believed all priests should marry.
Bishop Walsh is regarded as one of the more liberal clerics in Ireland and his views have often stirred controversy, though he has not previously challenged Church teachings directly.
Galway-based Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery, who has also been outspoken on the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, backed Bishop Walsh's decision to speak out.
He said the bishop would not fear sanction from his superiors as he had never displayed any interest in the careerism that had forced other clerics to stay silent.
"One of the great strengths of Bishop Walsh is the fact that he has never sought power in the church," Fr Flannery said.
"He has that sense of closeness with his people. He's very much in touch with them because he listens to them and then he has the courage to be the spokesperson to talk out without fear or favour."