Group Seeks Celibacy Debate
Wisconsin Letter Cites Abuse Crisis and Shortage of Priests

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post [Wisconsin]
August 20, 2003

In a rare expression of dissent, 163 Wisconsin priests called yesterday for the Roman Catholic Church to open its clergy to married men in the wake of the sex abuse crisis and a growing shortage of priests.

Organizers said their letter to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was intended to rekindle a significant debate over celibacy for the first time in more than 25 years.

"We join our voices to those of so many others at this time, voices urging that diocesan priesthood now be open to married men as well as to celibate men," the letter said.

One of the principal authors, the Rev. Joseph A. Aufdermauer of St. Matthias Church in Milwaukee, did not hold out any hope of immediate change. "Our fondest goal is to open up the discussion, because right now nobody is talking about it -- at least not openly," he said in a telephone interview.

Aufdermauer said he decided to raise the issue after seeing his archdiocese close or merge about 25 parishes because of a lack of priests. Nationwide, the number of priests has dropped nearly 25 percent since 1975.

Another organizer, the Rev. Thomas Suriano of St. Patrick Church in Whitewater, Wis., said in a sermon last year that some people with psychosexual problems may be drawn to celibacy. "Celibacy does not cause pedophilia, but it does limit the pool of candidates who choose to be priests," he said.

Since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston early last year, some groups of victims and lay Catholics have urged the church to ordain women and make celibacy optional. Traditionalists have argued just the opposite: that Catholic teachings on sexuality should be strengthened, not weakened.

"We look at this list of so-called solutions, and they look to us like the causes of the problem. If priests had been celibate, there wouldn't have been a scandal," said Deal W. Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic journal.

Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for the liberal Catholic organization Call to Action, said the Wisconsin priests took a "brave action." Hudson called the priests' letter "outrageous" and "shameful." He said conservatives plan to "give our side of the story" in Washington next month with Gregory and other prelates.

Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University who has conducted several polls on the issue, said more than half of U.S. priests and more than two-thirds of U.S. Catholics favor allowing priests to marry. But the Vatican is dead set against it, he said. "This is a test case," he said. "If these priests get it in the neck, then nobody else is going to open their mouth very quickly. And if these men are seen as doing a good thing for the church, then others will certainly do the same."


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