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Pope Stresses Importance of Celibate Life for Priests


ROME — Pope John Paul II on Saturday strongly upheld the rule that Roman Catholic priests must lead celibate lives. He ordered bishops to "diligently investigate" charges of sexual misbehavior by clergymen and take "firm steps to correct it."

John Paul did not mention the American clergy. But his remarks, made to Nigerian bishops visiting the Vatican, were his most direct on the subject since clerical sex abuse scandals began shaking the church in the United States early this year. He spoke three days before the start of an extraordinary meeting with American cardinals to discuss the scandals.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said last week that he would press the pope and other Vatican officials at the two-day meeting to open discussion of a married priesthood.

But the pope made it clear Saturday that celibacy, a cornerstone of the priesthood for nearly 900 years and a symbol of ordained holiness, is not up for discussion at the meeting, or any other time.

"The value of celibacy as a complete gift of self to the Lord and his church must be carefully safeguarded," the pope said. "The life of chastity, poverty and obedience willingly embraced and faithfully lived confutes the conventional wisdom of the world and challenges the commonly accepted vision of life."

Sex scandals in America, in which numerous priests have been accused of abusing children and teenagers, have shaken the faith of American Catholics, cost the church millions of dollars in settlements and raised questions about American bishops' handling of investigations.

Vatican officials have been slow to respond, and the pope's previous remarks on the issue have been oblique and delicate. In a pre-Easter letter to priests, he lamented the "dark shadow of suspicion" cast over the entire clergy by "some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."

A week later, he prayed in a homily at St. Peter's "for those priestly brothers . . . who have not lived up to the commitment they made when they were ordained, or who are going through a period of difficulty and crisis."

Saturday's papal message, though it did not mention sex offenders or pedophilia, was a more forceful call for discipline, evidently addressed to the American cardinals as well as John Paul's Nigerian audience.

"Behavior which might give scandal must be carefully avoided," the pope said, "and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such behavior, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist."

He suggested that the church should address the problem more openly.

"It is of the utmost importance," he said, "that openness, honesty and transparency should always be the hallmark of everything that the church does."

American bishops, including some of the 13 cardinals who will meet the pope, have been accused of covering up misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known sex abusers from parish to parish.

In trying to shore up their credibility and moral leadership, the cardinals will be looking to the pope for guidance and support on a range of possible solutions, including a uniform American policy for reporting sex abuse claims to the police. They will also grapple with the question of whether the church should stop reassigning sex offenders.

John Paul did not mention such approaches. But he called for a new emphasis on seminary training to address potential problems.

"As true fathers," he said, "the spiritual renewal and growth of your priests must be among your top priorities."

He also reminded priests that they are supposed to live austere lives.

"Priests and candidates for the priesthood often live at a level both materially and educationally superior to that of their families and the members of their own age group," he said. "It is therefore very easy for them to succumb to the temptation of thinking of themselves as better than others.

"When this happens," he added, "the ideal of priestly service and self-giving dedication can fade, leaving the priest dissatisfied and disheartened." Priests must instead imitate Christ's "complete self-giving for the sake of the flock and the advancement of the Kingdom."

The sex abuse scandal has prompted debate in the United States about whether allowing a married clergy would reduce instances of clerical sex abuse.

Mahony is the first American cardinal to call for open discussion of a married priesthood since the current spate of scandals, although he says he is not necessarily in favor of one.

Some Vatican officials have also said celibacy should be discussed with the cardinals, but only to help them figure out how to better stress to seminarians the roots and rationale of the practice.

Father Thomas J. Reese, a New York-based theologian who edits the Jesuit magazine America, said the pope's remarks Saturday confirmed that this week's meeting "will not result in any widening of the discussion to include optional celibacy. That's not going to happen with these cardinals or with this pope. He's made himself perfectly clear, and this crisis is not going to change his mind on that."

Reese noted that other cardinals support the celibacy rule and do not believe that changing it will solve the sex abuse problem.

"Celibacy doesn't turn people into sexual maniacs," he said. "We have lots of sex abuse out there done by married men."

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