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KLAK, Slovakia – A priest in the conservative Roman Catholic stronghold of Slovakia has challenged the church's celibacy rules, voicing his dissent at a time when clerical celibacy is once again a topic of debate amid ongoing sex abuse scandals.
The Rev. Michal Lajcha has written a book in two versions — one for theologians, the other for the laity — that asserts the church would benefit greatly if married men were allowed to be ordained and celibacy were made voluntary.
In "The Tragedy of Celibacy — The Death of the Wife," Lajcha called celibacy a "festering wound" in the church and said that making it voluntary could also help prevent sex scandals.
The title is intentionally shocking and morbid: A married man can only be ordained in the church if he is a widower.
"That's the tragedy of celibacy, the dead wife," Lajcha told The Associated Press in an interview. Another priest, the Rev. Peter Lucian Balaz, co-authored the version of the book for theologians.
Lajcha argues that priests simply can't understand the troubles and worries of ordinary Catholic faithful since they inhabit such a different world.
"The mission of the church is to be close to people. But how can I be close to people when I live such a radically different life?" the 34-year-old Lajcha asked. "There's a huge abyss between the clergy and the laypeople."
It's a point made recently by the Vatican's top family official, who made headlines when he said priests have "no credibility" when it comes to training others in marriage preparation, since they have no experience.
In the popular version of the book, Lajcha writes that a priest "has no worries and also no joys as those people he should take care of spiritually."
"It's like the difference between being on top of Mount Everest, and hearing a story about it," he wrote of the second-hand information priests have about the lives of their flock.
To make his point, he gives the example of the night he invited several men from his parish to watch a movie about a father who sacrifices his son to save the lives of passengers on a train. After some of the men were unable to hold back tears, Lajcha said he realized how harmful his celibacy had been for him, since he was only able to grasp "a small idea" of what it was like to be a father.
Lajcha doesn't propose the abolition of celibacy; only to make it voluntary.
His call is shared by many in the priesthood, including clergy in Ireland, Germany and the U.S., and prominent lay groups. They argue that the celibate priesthood is a tradition in the church dating from the 12th century, not doctrine, and therefore can be changed.
Pope Francis has made the same point, though in the 2012 book "On Heaven and Earth," written when he was still a cardinal, he said that "for now" he favors maintaining it.
As pope, however, he has expressed an openness to ordaining married men, particularly to respond to the shortage of priests in places like the Amazon, where the faithful can go weeks at a time without Mass.
Already, married men can be ordained as eastern rite Catholic priests, and married Anglican priests can become Catholic priests if they convert.
Francis has said he wants local bishops' conferences to come up with proposals to address the priest shortage issue, and he has paved the way for a possible change by calling a meeting of Amazon bishops for next year and decreeing just this week that their final document could become part of official church teaching.
While addressing the priest shortage, many people who favor ending the celibacy obligation also argue that it could also address another pressing issue in the church: sex abuse.
Prominent studies have found no correlation between the church's tradition of a celibate priesthood and the explosion of clerical sex abuse in recent decades, but some experts have long made the connection.
Most notably, the late A.W. Richard Sipe — a former U.S. priest and psychotherapist — argued that because many priests violated their celibacy vows, the issue was mired in hypocrisy and secrecy, conditions that then allowed abuse of minors to flourish.
"It's a paradox. The church demonizes sexuality and keeps it under cover, and at the same time there are children abused," Lajcha said. "I'm not saying that it would stop completely if we have voluntary celibacy, but we can agree that the situation would be a bit different."
Celibacy has returned to the forefront of church debate after a prominent U.S. cardinal was accused of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians. The scandal has uncovered evidence of the active sex lives of priests and seminarians that has long been quietly tolerated.
Lajcha, who is trying to get funding to have his book translated before the Amazon conference, said the church would have more credibility if it allowed married priests because the faithful hardly believe "we really live the life of celibacy." That is a reference to the widespread violation of celibacy vows in places like Africa, where there are known cases of priests having multiple children.
Lajcha points to the Rev. Rudolf Klucha, who served two mountain villages that were centers of Slovakia's uprising against the Nazis in World War II. On Jan. 21, 1945, the Nazis rounded up 300 villagers from Klak, planning to kill them all. Klucha worked to delay the killings until the troops received a different order — to destroy the village but allow the people to live.
Klucha, he said, fathered three sons and made no secret of it. Earlier this month, Lajcha unveiled a commemorative plaque to Klucha in Klak, adding: "He saved 300 lives but still remains unrecognized only because he broke the celibacy requirement."
Since the news about the book made local headlines last week, Lajcha said he has had to change his phone number because of negative responses from fellow priests and others. His activities are unlikely to remain unnoticed by his superiors.
Slovakia's Conference of Bishops declined a request by the AP for comment through its spokesman Martin Kramara, and so did the diocese of Banska Bystrica, to which Lajcha's parish belongs.
Lajcha said he was prepared to leave the church, even though the priesthood fulfills him.
"I want to have a family. This is unsustainable for me," he told the AP.
Giving up the priesthood would be sad news for some in his flock.
"Oh, God forbid to remove him!" said Olga Zubekova, 69, who on a recent day greeted him with a friend to get a signed copy of his book.
"His Masses are nice, his preaching is nice, he gets along with everyone, he's helpful to everyone. That would be a real shame," she said.