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CELIBACY RULES WON’T BE RELAXED, POPE DECLARES

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Pope John Paul II on Saturday said celibacy is not essential to the priesthood but made clear that the Vatican would continue to demand that priests be celibate.

The statement, made to a weekly audience of tourists and pilgrims, gave no indication of a softening of one of the central and most controversial tenets of the Roman Catholic priesthood.Instead, the pope appeared to be acknowledging two arguments by opponents of the marriage ban: that Rome accepts that priests in the Eastern Rite churches, which accept the authority of the pope, are allowed to marry; and that in its early centuries, the Christian church allowed married priests.

As if answering the critics, the pope in clear terms gave the church's reason for this seeming inconsistency.

Celibacy "doesn't belong to the essence of priesthood," he said. But he added that the church has come to conclude that being single is more suited to carrying out a priest's duties, and he made clear the Vatican is content with the ban on marriage.

"Jesus didn't make a law but proposed an ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood that he was establishing," the pope said. "This ideal is affirmed ever more in the church."

The pope's latest statement championing celibacy for priests seemed to indicate the Vatican would not lift the ban anytime soon.

The pope has repeatedly reaffirmed that Roman Catholic priests must remain celibate despite challenges from some clergymen and church members.

Most other Christian denominations allow priests to marry and raise families. Eastern Rite churches, a group of Catholic churches organized along ethnic lines, have considerable autonomy in ritual and questions of discipline, such as married clergy.