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Ex-priests vow to fight Catholic celibacy rule

Celibacy is an issue for many priests (RBD)

Former Swiss Catholic priests who were forced to step down after admitting sexual relationships have formed a group to challenge the celibacy rules.

The Catholic Church is in a dialogue with the group, Priests in Relationships, but refuses to recognise it formally despite claims that the enforcement of celibacy is eroding the church's integrity.

Six years ago Ciril Berther was forced to leave his Zurich flock and lose a chunk of his pension at the age of 62 when he revealed that he was in a relationship with his partner, Elisabeth.

Berther co-founded Priests in Relationships in June 2005, after discovering many more people in a similar situation, in addition to practising priests who are currently living with the guilt of hiding a sexual relationship.

"The celibacy law is not the law of God but of the Church," he told swissinfo. "It is a myth that a celibate priest can give more to the community."

Berther says there are other professions, such as social worker and doctor, who can deal with being married while serving the community, so why not a priest?

"The Church law says that a priest is not allowed to marry or have children. The question is: how do you live this law? A person's inner feelings are not considered by this rule."

More to life

The organisation has 16 members, all former priests. It aims to put pressure on the Roman Catholic Church to change the celibacy law and supports working priests who are in relationships. Around 20 priests have been in contact with the group.

Celibacy for priests is a discipline in the Catholic Church, not a doctrine. The law can be changed at any time by the pope, although it is extremely unlikely that Benedict XVI would do so because of his traditional values.

Berther kept his relationship secret for five years, but decided to come out when the guilt became too great for Elisabeth. But he has no regrets about breaking the celibacy rules.

"Morally it was not a problem for me because I saw celibacy as a Church law and nothing to do with being a priest.

"When I started as a priest, I did not promise word-for-word that I would stay celibate so I did not make an official promise. I was happy for a long time living as a priest on my own, but suddenly I realised there was more to life."

Damage

Berther says the Church authorities in Switzerland should face up to the question of celibacy in the priesthood, which he believes is causing more damage that is being admitted.

"The bishops have problems with us, which is understandable because they want to think that priests who are in relationships are in a tiny minority," he said.

"I don't know the exact numbers, but there are a lot of priests who have gone away from the job because of the celibacy issue."

Berther concedes that forcing changes will be difficult, but the Catholic Church in Switzerland says it is listening.

"Priests In Relationships is an important grassroots movement in the Catholic Church of Switzerland because of its new approach," said Church spokesman Charles Martig.

"Celibacy is definitely an issue in the Swiss Catholic Church. It's part of the general policy on priest identity and openly talking about the issue meant severe consequences for priests until now."

Martig says the group's new approach is a sign of hope for the Catholic Church, as it starts to break the silence.

Denial

The Swiss Bishops Conference, however, refuses to discuss the issue during its meetings, and general-secretary Agnell Rickenmann believes Priests In Relationships is distracting the Church from more important matters.

"Some organisations focus on this issue as if it is the most important theme to discuss," he told swissinfo. "It is one important theme to discuss because we have to think about the needs of priests. But the Bishops Conference has thousands of other themes to talk about too."

Martin Steiner, another group member who left the priesthood because he disagreed with the celibacy laws, believes that the Catholic Church would benefit from reforming.

"Sexuality is a positive thing, but in the Church we have in our mind that it is not good. This is not natural," he said.

"Enforcing celibacy on priests is bad for the integrity of the Church because people see that priests are having to hide their relationships. The integrity of the Church is more important now than it was 100 years ago."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Priests in Relationships was formed in June 2005 and currently has 16 members.
41.8% of the Swiss population is Catholic.

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