Debate Flares in Catholic Church As Priests Question Celibacy

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
September 4, 2003

A debate that has simmered for years among Roman Catholics in the United States about whether the priesthood should be opened to married men is now on the front burner, pressed by priests concerned about their dwindling ranks.

Leading bishops today released letters defending mandatory celibacy for priests, while groups of priests in several dioceses are now considering whether to join the priests in Milwaukee who recently called for the requirement to be dropped.

About 30 percent of the priests in Milwaukee signed a letter to bishops last month lamenting that the severe shortage of Catholic clergy means that many parishioners are going without the Eucharist and two other sacraments, which can only be offered by priests according to Catholic doctrine. Many parishes, especially in rural areas, are now without pastors of their own, and priests are assigned to several parishes at once.

In his first formal response to the Milwaukee priests, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a letter dated today that priests will have to look to other means to renew the church and expand access to the sacraments.

He called celibacy "a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ," and said that it had been reaffirmed by popes from Paul VI to John Paul II.

His letter was issued the same day as one from Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper, "This is the time we priests need to be renewing our pledge to celibacy, not questioning it."

"The problems in the church today are not caused by the teaching of Jesus and of his church, but by lack of fidelity to them," Archbishop Dolan wrote. "The recent sad scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors, as the professionals have documented, has nothing to do with our celibate commitment."

As the bishops reaffirmed a requirement that has been part of church practice for nearly 1,000 years, priests and laypeople added their voices to those in Milwaukee calling for change. According to the National Federation of Priests Councils, associations of priests in Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Charleston, and in the states of New York and Illinois, are all considering issuing manifestos like the one issued in Milwaukee.

Bishop Gregory and Archbishop Dolan both argued that the shortage of Catholic clergy has little to do with celibacy, and is a problem shared by many Christian denominations and even Jewish synagogues.

However, Dean R. Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America who has studied clergy in Catholic and Protestant churches for more than 30 years, said that the shortage of priests in the Catholic church is "far more severe" than any other denomination in the United States. He said that for every 100 priests who die or leave ministry today, Catholic seminaries are now training only 30 or 40 to replace them.


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