LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Mary McAleese, the former president of the Republic of Ireland, has backed calls for the Catholic Church to end priestly celibacy.

McAleese, currently chancellor of Trinity University, spoke to The Irish News after Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who also serves as an adjunct secretary of the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, called for allowing married priests.

Speaking to the Times of Malta, the archbishop said, “Why should we lose a young man who would have made a fine priest, just because he wanted to get married?”

Scicluna said priestly celibacy was optional for the first millennium of the Church’s existence, “and it should become optional again.”

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The Malta archbishop was answering a question from the newspaper about Catholic priests who secretly live in a romantic relationship while they publicly continue to serve their duties as priests.

“A man may mature, engage in relationships, love a woman. As it stands, he must choose between her and priesthood, and some priests cope with that by secretly engaging in sentimental relationships,” he said.

“This is a global reality; it doesn’t just happen in Malta. We know there are priests around the world who also have children, and I think there are ones in Malta who may have too,” Scicluna added.

McAleese served as president of Ireland – a largely ceremonial position – from 1997-2011.

She has clashed with Church leaders in the past and was barred from attending a conference taking place at the Vatican in 2018.

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A longtime critic of the Church’s position on human sexuality, the former president, who has long described herself as pro-life, admitted she voted to change Ireland’s constitutional prohibition on abortion in a 2018 referendum.

“I am delighted [Scicluna] came out and said it because he is regarded very, very highly by pretty much everybody in the church,” McAleese told the Irish newspaper.

She noted that Scicluna was tasked in 2018 with investigating allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up in Chile.

“It established his credentials and integrity … when he speaks, people listen,” McAleese said.

She noted that Pope Francis has agreed there is no formal church doctrine on celibacy and marriage, and admitted a future pontiff may change the rules, but he has decided not to do so.

McAleese told the newspaper she believes the most “interesting possibilities” for the next pope are from what she called the “excellent leadership” in Belgium and Germany.

She also claimed that if the status quo on celibate priests is maintained, the Catholic Church will be “looking at the western world in 30 years where there will not be any priests.”

Speaking about the opposition to married priests in the global south, she compared the situation to Ireland 100 years ago, where she claimed young men, often surrounded by poverty, saw the church as a route to education, a job, status and influence.

“And we know where that ends up,” McAleese said.