WASHINGTON—The sex scandal of the Rev. Alberto Cutie, a Catholic priest well-known throughout the Spanish-speaking world who was photographed frolicking with a woman on a Miami beach, has rekindled the debate about clerical celibacy.

Cutie was the head of the St. Francis de Sales parish in the South Beach area of Miami Beach and the director of the radio stations owned by the Archdiocese of Miami. At one time he hosted a TV talk show. And his popularity seems intact: A survey by The Miami Herald among Catholics indicates that 78 percent continue to have a favorable opinion of him despite the sinful pictures on the sand.

True to his nature, Cutie’s appearance Monday on “The Early Show” on CBS was a virtuoso performance. He came across as sincere when he explained that he is in love with the woman; that the relationship went beyond friendship two years ago; that he had never dishonored his vows before; that he apologizes to the church and his parishioners; and that he is now in the wrenching process of deciding between his priesthood and her.

Is Cutie the hero that his supporters claim he is for defying the Catholic Church’s unnatural celibacy mandate, and showing that one can love God and a woman at the same time? I am not so sure.

He is by no means the first priest to wrestle with celibacy. The debate within the church itself dates to at least the Synod of Elvira (303 A.D.), the first ecclesiastical council instructing religious authorities to abstain from sex. Even after clerical celibacy became a definitive church regulation in the Council of Trent during the 16th century, some Catholic rites continued to deviate from it. The Gospel does not mandate clerical celibacy, the example of Jesus’ life and Paul’s opinions on abstinence notwithstanding. Peter, whom Catholics regard as the first pope, was married, as were many of his successors.

Karl Popper defined utopia as “a state rationally designed on a traditionless tabula rasa.” When the church adopted celibacy, it designed a new world removed from tradition by substituting a universal mandate for personal choice in matters of sex. One can always start something and work at it in the hope that it becomes a tradition. But “tradition” is the opposite of deliberate design, the reason why the celibacy mandate, which the church misleadingly calls a “tradition,” is a recipe for disaster in a world in which men like Cutie love both God and a woman.

However—and this is where I part company with those who are unconditionally praising him—the celibacy mandate is both perfectly legal and well-known to those entering the seminary. Unrealistic though it may be, the church, as a private organization, has the right to decide its rules; those who do not accept them have the right not to become priests. If a priest discovers the splendors of the flesh, he has, I would suggest, a moral obligation to say so—and make his decision. He may even go on to make a public case for the end of celibacy. In fact, that would be the honest course of action. But what is not right is to lead a double life for years, letting some people become aware of the situation—as a few of the pictures taken in the company of friends suggest he did—and hide the truth from the institution, for whom celibacy is an essential tenet, and his parishioners, who expect him to sustain the rules he has accepted to represent. Not to mention that in many countries, the Catholic Church receives governmental subsidies.

Shouldn’t a priest have a private life? Yes. Even a politician who commits adultery should, in my view, be spared the public humiliation of a media scandal unless the relationship affects the exercise of the office. But Cutie’s relationship violates a central tenet of an institution that preaches a moral code—which means his relationship is not just a private matter.

“Underneath this cassock there is a man,” proclaimed Cutie after getting caught behaving like one. Actually, there were two. That was partly his fault for not confronting the truth earlier, and partly that of the church for a rule that is impractical and unfair to priests like him.