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Lucerne Catholics move to abolish celibacy rule

Many Catholic priests have been forced to have secret relationships or have left the Church in order to have families Keystone

A Swiss branch of the Roman Catholic Church has taken a revolutionary step towards abolishing the rule of celibacy and allowing women to become priests.

On Wednesday the synod of canton Lucerne signed a declaration, which is due to be presented to church leaders in Switzerland later this year.

If accepted, it would represent a milestone in modernising the Roman Catholic Church.

“It’s not all about abolishing celibacy,” said Paula Beck, spokeswoman for the synod. “If a priest decided not to get married even though he is allowed to, it [celibacy] will be of a higher value.”

Beck added that the ban on the ordination of women priests was discriminating. “There is no such law of God that does not allow a woman to become a priest.”

The Swiss Bishops Conference declined to comment on the issue.

Family life

The abolition of compulsory celibacy would be a sea change for many priests who are in secret relationships or have been forced to leave the Church because they wanted to start a family.

“There are many priests who have a relationship. People know about it but they turn a blind eye,” said Ciril Berther, who gave up the priesthood for a woman.

“I had a so-called ‘clandestine relationship’ with my partner for two years and the people in my parish accepted it. But as soon it became public, I was forced to leave the Church,” he told swissinfo.

Berther said that one of his colleagues informed the bishop, who labelled the situation a “very ugly” one. But he emphasised that he had no regrets about leaving the Church five years ago.

“I think the Church is doing great things in the world, but now that I know what a relationship with a woman is like, I have seen that this is very important and precious. I have no regrets about not being with the Church anymore,” said the 67-year-old.

Giving up the priesthood

The Swiss parliamentarian, Ruth-Gaby Vermot, has had a similar experience: her husband, Jean-Marie, sacrificed the priesthood for a family more than 30 years ago.

The couple met in Togo, where Jean-Marie was working as a priest. And after living together for two untroubled years in Africa, the pair returned to Basel.

“Coming back was very difficult as my husband was expelled from the Church – in fact he was expelled from everything,” recalled Vermot.

“We still have the letter [from the Vatican] at home. It was very harsh and inhuman. The Church also denies my husband any pension – and that’s after 20 years of working for them.”

Old Catholic Church

The Old Catholic Church in Switzerland, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1870 over the fallibility of the pope, has had a female priest in Switzerland for nearly four years.

Denise Wyss was ordained in canton Solothurn in February 2000 – the first woman priest in Switzerland. However, her ordination received some criticism from her male colleagues.

“There were a few negative reactions inside our church after her ordination. Some people thought that because Christ was a man, the person representing him in front of the altar had to be male too,” said Daniel Konrad, a fellow priest and a close colleague of Wyss.

“However, those in favour of women priests said that Christ in the end became human, and so every human being should be allowed to represent him,” added Konrad.

swissinfo, Billi Bierling

The Roman Catholic Church was founded in 1AD
The Old Catholic Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1870, after some priests did not accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility.
Denise Wyss is the only female priest in Switzerland.
She was ordained in February 2000.

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