A married priesthood?

A shortage of Roman Catholic priests has led some clergy to call for celibacy to be optional. Though controversial, 'Rent-a-priest' helps fill the gap for some Catholics.

Pope John Paul II has been emphatic about celibacy, and the issue has been off the table for 25 years. But in a daring step designed to put it on the table, some of his faithful priests in the United States are urging publicly that the Catholic priesthood be opened to married men.

The impetus comes not from the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, but from another long-developing crisis in the church: the shortage of priests. With fewer men entering seminaries and an aging clergy, some 16 percent of US parishes are without priests. The situation is worse overseas.

The shortage "could signal the most momentous structural change in the Roman Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation," according to the late sociologist Richard Schoenherr.

"People are saying this is like the elephant in the living room - everyone knows we have a declining priesthood," says the Rev. Joseph Aufdermauer, one of the Milwaukee priests spearheading the call. "If we don't get more priests, the next generation is not going to have the Eucharist; many don't have it now."

While a number of denominations face a clergy shortage, the priesthood and Eucharist are at the core of Catholic belief, and some worry about a "protestantizing" of the faith should lay leaders, who cannot celebrate mass, have to run parishes.

The shortage is already felt by priests and lay Catholics alike. Many priests are overworked, trying to serve more than one parish; some Catholics are seeing their parishes close down or cannot find priests in time of need.

The archdiocese of Milwaukee is in its second five-year planning cycle on how to deal with the shortage. "Five years ago, the plan was to close some parishes, put in some parish directors, and ask priests to do more work," says Father Afdermauer. "Now it's obvious in the second phase that the approach will be the same." Despite an aggressive program to seek recruits, it became clear, he adds, something had to be done to broaden the pool of candidates.

So more than 160 Milwaukee-area priests last month signed an unprecedented letter to the US bishops conference. The letter urges that celibacy be optional, and also speaks of an "ever growing appreciation of marriage and its many blessings so compatible with priesthood and even enhancing of priestly ministry."

The Rev. Bob Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests Councils, called the letter "courageous" and said he'd ask that a US bishops' committee discuss it.

In the past week, associations of priests in major cities - Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Boston, plus southern Illinois - announced that they will consider the issue this month and probably take similar actions.

"This is a significant step forward because there's been a malaise on the part of ordained clergy throughout the country," says the Rev. Donald Fisher, of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests. "I'd expect even certain bishops would be smiling."

Rome is still opposed

But Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference on Catholic Bishops, told AP last week that he opposed any reconsideration of the celibacy requirement.

Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington, expects the bishops to discuss the issue. "But the chance of their taking action is remote because the people in Rome are opposed," he says. Still, "one new thing is that people are starting to give up hope this can be turned around through better recruiting."

Another factor is that over the past 20 years, the pope has allowed more than 100 former Episcopal priests and other Protestant clergy to convert and serve in the priesthood while married.

And after the outbreak of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, many Catholics came to believe that, had many clergy been married, the problem would have been dealt with much sooner.

Having conducted surveys on the subject for more than 15 years, Dr. Hoge says the celibacy issue "is on everyone's mind." A 2001 survey of priests, supported by the bishops, found:

• 56 percent of priests agreed celibacy should be a matter of personal choice. • 52 percent think priests who have resigned should be invited to reapply, married or single. • 72 percent agree that the church should continue to welcome married Episcopal priests.

Yet there are thousands of Roman Catholic priests who are now married and, because of the celibacy rule, are barred from a clerical role. Polls show that 71 percent of US Catholics feel that should change.

Louise Haggett of Framingham, Mass., came to that conclusion after she was unable to find a priest to visit her dying mother. A devout Catholic, she didn't want "other seniors going through their lives faithfully and in time of need not being able to find a priest," she says.

An energetic sales representative, she did some research and learned that 25,000 US priests had left the clerical life in the past 30 years, most to marry. And she says she learned other surprising facts: that priests, bishops, and 39 popes were married during the first 1,200 years of church history; that church law provides that once a man is ordained, he is a priest for life - he can be dismissed from the clerical role, but his ordination remains valid; and that canon law says that if asked by the faithful, priests are obligated to provide the sacraments.

Using a large sales bonus, Ms. Haggett in 1992 started a new organization, CITI Ministries (Celibacy Is The Issue), and began traveling the country, using frequent-flier miles to find married priests and nudge them back into ministry. To boost public awareness, she came up with the catchy "Rent-a-priest," and in 1997, set up a website (www.rentapriest.com).

Last year alone, she says, the married priests who have joined the effort conducted some 2,500 weddings, 300 funerals, 250 baptisms, and 650 anointings. Most people calling for help are among the 70 percent of Catholics who no longer attend church regularly. Some entering second marriages, for example, don't want to go through the church annulment process, often feeling that a marriage with children should not be invalidated.

While the church acknowledges that the sacraments administered by married priests are valid, the weddings are not recognized by the church; marriages must be performed by a priest who is under a bishop's jurisdiction. But the state does recognize the marriages.

John Shuster, a married priest in Port Orchard, Wash., says that 50 to 60 percent of his ministry involves weddings, but he also provides spiritual counseling, and works with survivors of abuse. His ministry is on top of a full-time job in the medical supply business. "I'm providing spiritual help to more people more effectively because I'm married," he says.

One in three US priests is married

To him, mandatory celibacy is a tremendous waste. "One of every three Catholic priests in the US today is married," he says. "In the Seattle area, there are about 100 priests and about 150 married priests - and the church wants nothing to do with us."

While some priests left the celibate priesthood in order to marry, Shuster left because of the failure of priests to keep their celibacy vows. He says he was accosted by several gay priests during seminary and after, and his superior simply brushed the problem off. He later found the superior had a regular girlfriend.

"I enjoyed the work of a priest but was tired of double standards and sexual corruption," he says. Married priests could make a difference and "take the church back to where it was in the early days."

A small group of married priests and their wives are working on that kind of community in Framingham. Since spring, they've held a weekly Saturday mass, now at a local Unitarian Universalist church, with four priests taking turns officiating. They've had from 15 to 50 in attendance.

Mary Ritchie, there last week with her young son, Ryan, says she "couldn't go to church anymore after the clergy-abuse crisis," but then saw an ad for this service. She felt welcome and has been coming regularly.

Several people disenchanted by the crisis have come, says Ed Minderlein, but others "have been told it's a sin to attend our service, and they'd have to go to confession if they participate." Serving in parishes for 14 years, mostly in Puerto Rico, Father Minderlein found clerical life sheltered and lonely; he left in 1986, and married Fran, a former nun, in 1990.

It took a great deal of courage for the Milwaukee priests to speak out, he adds. At the same time, some priests have quietly called on him for help.

Haggett says some clergy have turned to married priests to perform sacraments or in-home mass, and on occasion to celebrate it in the congregation if no regular priest is available. She's even had a bishop tell her in a large public meeting, "Don't stop what you are doing. God bless you."

While the church hierarchy opposes the effort as it does optional celibacy, Haggett says that "our message is to the people.

"What we're suggesting is radical action like that in the '80s, when parishes ignored the Vatican and used altar girls," she explains. "Eventually that was approved." She ticks off other examples of custom changing church law, such as ending meatless Fridays and using local languages in the mass.

She's delighted that priests in Milwaukee and elsewhere are speaking out. CITI will continue to encourage Catholics to call on married priests. "The invitation has to come from the people - that's what activates the canon laws that we use," she says. "Let's just do it, and provide the ministry people would not otherwise receive."

Aufdermauer, meanwhile, says the priests' actions may have little effect right now. "But if enough people let our bishops know they are willing to accept a married clergy, when American cardinals go to Rome to elect the next pope, it might influence whom they choose."

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