Married Priests Win New Support
Catholic Clergy Groups Expected to Champion Milwaukee Movement

By Mary Zahn and Tom Heinen
Journal Sentinal [Milwaukee Wisconsin]
August 26, 2003

Representatives of Catholic priest associations in Boston, New York, Chicago, southern Illinois and Pittsburgh said Tuesday they plan on taking action to support more than 160 Milwaukee-area priests who signed a letter urging that the priesthood be open to married men.

In addition, three liberal church reform groups that have long advocated optional celibacy used the Internet on Tuesday to launch state, national and international efforts of their own in response to the Milwaukee letter.

The fivepriest associations are considering circulating similar letters, their leaders said Tuesday. They represent more than 700 priests and include some of the largest dioceses in the nation, as well as the home diocese of Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops and the man to whom the Milwaukee-area priests addressed their letter.

They are: the Voice of the Ordained, which represents priests in three New York state dioceses, including the city of New York; the Boston Priests' Forum; the Association of Chicago Priests; the Association of Pittsburgh Priests; and the Southern Illinois Association of Priests, which includes priests in Gregory's diocese of Belleville, Ill.

Priest associations are typically formed to give clergy a voice independent from the church hierarchy, said Father Larry Dowling, a member of the Association of Chicago Priests. The groups tend to attract moderate to liberal priests, although some conservative priests are members, he said. The support is particularly telling because the Milwaukee letter was the first effort by priests anywhere in the country to bring up the topic in more than 25 years and is bound to be controversial for some Catholics.

"I would expect strong support," said Dowling. "There is a need for dialogue with the bishops, and this is a way to push that. The priest shortage is affecting everyone."

Neither Gregory nor Archbishop Timothy M.Dolan could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Actions planned elsewhere

Monday, the executive committee of the Association of Chicago Priests voted to ask its full board to approve a letter similar to that circulated by Milwaukee priests, Dowling said. That action, he said, is expected to be approved Sept. 8. The group represents about 320 priests out of 800 in the Chicago archdiocese and has been in existence for about 35 years, he added.

"I was very happy with what the Milwaukee priests did, and I was very happy with the way they went about it," said Father Robert Bullock, president of the Boston Priests' Forum. "This is a crisis that is in the structures and the governance of the church, and those issues have to be addressed. The shortage of priests is part of the systemic problem."

Bullock said about 200 of the 500 priests in the Boston archdiocese belong to the forum, which was started in 2001, partially in response to the low morale caused by the priest shortage.

The issue of whether to circulate a letter similar to the Milwaukee letter will be taken up at their Sept. 5 board meeting, Bullock said. He said he was confident that there would be support for the action.

The Voice of the Ordained, which has about 200 members from three New York City-area dioceses, will decide whether to draft a letter of its own at a Sept. 17 steering committee meeting, said Monsignor John Powis, a member of the committee.

The group's membership includes about 150 active priests and 50 others who left the priesthood primarily because they married, he said. The group was formed about a year ago to "give ordained people more voice in what's going on," he said. There are about 1,300 priests in the three dioceses, he said.

In addition, Powis said the group is contacting other priest organizations around the country.

"The idea is that there is power in numbers, and the fact that maybe at some point we all need to get together," he said. "It's not going to be an easy road, because we are dealing with people in the church hierarchy who get very frightened."

Father George Mauck, a member of the Southern Illinois Association of Priests, said his group has decided "to write a letter of congratulations and support to the Milwaukee priests."

About 17 priests of 80 in the Belleville diocese belong to the group, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, he said.

Mauck added that he was "sure" his group would vote to circulate a letter similar to the Milwaukee priests' at their Sept. 11 meeting.

A letter similar to Milwaukee's is expected to be approved at a Sept. 15 membership meeting of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, with a goal of taking it out into the community to get 5,000 signatures, said Joyce Rothermel, chairwoman of the group's church renewal committee.

"You can be assured that APP is very supportive of what happened in Milwaukee with those 163 priests," said Father Donald Fisher, a member of the association since it was founded in 1967. "I would be surprised if it were not approved."

The association, which includes laypeople, will consider other action after it holds three educational sessions this fall on the priest shortage. The group's 50 dues-paying members include about 20 diocesan and religious order priests. Fisher said there is a lot of support for the association among Pittsburgh's approximately 450 priests but that not many of them are willing to be openly active as dues-paying members.

National groups

Tuesday, Corpus, a national organization of former Catholic priests, and the Wisconsin chapter of Call to Action began distributing via e-mail a jointly crafted petition to Bishop Gregory. Recipients were urged to sign the letter, list their address and return it to "People in Support of Optional Celibacy" in Milwaukee.

"It is a Wisconsin effort to show support for our local priests . . . who really were courageous . . . but it's also a thought that if we could spark a larger constituency, it would be terrific," said Lois Ahlhauser of Milwaukee, president of Call to Action Wisconsin.

David Gawlik of Mequon, editor of Corpus' printed and electronic newsletters, said the petition went Tuesday morning to about 3,000 people on the group's daily e-mail list in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and the Philippines. It also was posted on Corpus' Web site at

And FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based group, issued an e-mail action alert to 3,650 activists, urging them to write Gregory about the impact that the priest shortage has had on their dioceses and to ask that the Milwaukee priests' letter be placed on the agenda for the U.S. bishops' semi-annual meeting in November, said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director.

FutureChurch and the national office of Call to Action in Chicago issued a joint statement Monday praising the Milwaukee-area priests for their "courageous public position" and supporting their effort.

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