Dolan Meets with Petition Organizers
No Discipline Imposed over Letter on Celibacy

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
September 3, 2003

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan shared his differing opinion but did not impose discipline or punishment in a meeting this week with three diocesan priests who got more than 160 of their fellow priests to sign a letter in favor of optional celibacy, sources said Wednesday.

"It was cordial, respectful," Father Steven Dunn, one of the petition organizers, said of the meeting they had Tuesday afternoon in the archbishop's residence on the grounds of St. Francis Seminary.

"There is no disciplining because this whole thing has been done openly and consultatively. There's a divergence of viewpoints, obviously, but a respectful discussion. It was an enjoyable discussion, a bishop and his priests talking openly and cordially."

Dunn added that Dolan asked to be kept informed but did not tell the priests to stop their actions supporting a broad discussion of celibacy among the Roman Catholic hierarchy, priests and the laity. Dolan has been a vigorous supporter of celibacy in his writings and comments.

Church channels

The three priests were careful to go through church channels first as they exercised their rights under canon law.

They got an endorsement from priests in the archdiocesan district that serves the southwest side of Milwaukee County and then brought the letter proposal to the Archdiocesan Council of Priests - the deans, or leaders, of the archdiocese's various districts - of which Dolan is president. The council opted not to take on the project and instead came to a consensus that the three priests should undertake it themselves.

Priests in other parts of the country have been watching the situation in Milwaukee closely because the letter urging that the priesthood be opened to married men was the first effort by priests anywhere in the country to bring up the controversial topic in more than 25 years, church experts said.

"I think that Milwaukee will continue to be watched by everybody," said Dean Hoge, a prominent sociology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who has written about the church and the priesthood.

"In so far as there is no obvious punishment, I think it will embolden priests elsewhere to do the same. It will happen where there are large enough numbers, because in larger numbers, there is more security for the priests. The fact that some of the biggest dioceses are where the action is supports this theory.

"I think the archbishop doesn't have a lot of room for maneuvering right now."

Circulating letter

Representatives of Catholic priest associations in Boston, New York, Chicago, southern Illinois and Pittsburgh have said that they are seeking approval from their organizations to circulate a similar letter. The groups 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 of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the man to whom the Milwaukee-area priests addressed their letter.

Gregory recently told The Associated Press that he opposes any reconsideration of the celibacy requirement for priests. And he said during a meeting with the New York Times editorial board on the topic of sexual abuse by clergy that he does not expect the Milwaukee letter to prompt another review of the celibacy issue by U.S. bishops.

"Since the Second Vatican Council the question of celibacy has been raised by popes and a number of synods and bishops' conferences, and I think we have a fairly clear position on the importance of celibacy and its relationship to the Catholic priesthood," Gregory told the Times.

Through a spokeswoman, Gregory declined to be interviewed for this article.

Dolan shared a letter from Gregory with the three priests on Tuesday, said Jerry Topczewski, archdiocesan director of communications. That letter is expected to be published in this week's edition of the Catholic Herald archdiocesan newspaper, which comes out today, he said.

Dolan also will address the issue and explain his position in his "Herald of Hope" column in that edition, Topczewski said, adding that Dolan will not give interviews.

"He would rather have people receive his column in its completeness and give them time to read it, reflect on it, and think about it rather than media sound bites that might take it in part instead of the whole of what he is writing," Topczewski said.

The three priests who organized the petition here were Dunn, 44, associate pastor of St. Gregory the Great Church in Milwaukee; Father Tom Suriano, 64, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Whitewater; and Father Joe Aufdermauer, 61, associate pastor of St. Matthias Church in Milwaukee.

Suriano declined to be interviewed, and Aufdermauer, whose day off is Wednesday, could not be reached for comment.

The priests indicated in their letter to Gregory that they were concerned about the priest shortage and its impact on the availability of the sacraments to Catholics. Dunn described it as both pro-marriage and pro-celibacy.

People in parishes throughout the 10-county archdiocese are being invited to help draft a plan that will change how ministry is provided and parishes are run in light of projections that the number of diocesan priests here will decline 20% in the next five years.

Since the signed letters were sent to Gregory on Aug. 19, six more area priests have submitted letters to the three priests, bringing the total to 169, Dunn said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.