Bishops Defend Celibacy of Priests
Dolan Deems It a 'Countercultural Virtue'

By Tom Heinen and Mary Zahn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
September 4, 2003

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued ardent endorsements of celibacy Thursday, calling it a "providential blessing" and "a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ."

Rather than open the door to new discussions on allowing married men to become diocesan priests, Dolan and Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, of Belleville, Ill., urged Milwaukee-area priests who want to make celibacy optional to reflect on other, urgent pastoral issues and to foster an interior renewal of priestly life.

Their separate comments, published Thursday in the Catholic Herald archdiocesan newspaper, essentially say that celibacy is neither a cure for the priest shortage nor a church rule that is out of place in the modern world. It has been reaffirmed over the years by popes, the Second Vatican Council and subsequent synods of Bishops and national conferences of bishops, they say.

However, the hierarchy's position on celibacy is not shared by a majority of lay Catholics, according to a statewide poll released Thursday. The Badger Poll found that 84% of self-described Catholics in Wisconsin favored permitting Catholic priests to marry.

The poll, sponsored by the Journal Sentinel and the Capital Times of Madison, was conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center Aug. 18-27. For the sample of 187 Catholics, the margin of error is plus or minus 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile, one of the three Milwaukee-area priests who touched off the current debate over celibacy with a letter campaign among archdiocesan priests said that he disagreed with the bishops on several points.

In their messages, Dolan and Gregory note that even denominations with married clergy are facing clergy shortages, and they hold celibacy up as a counterpoint to the world - in Dolan's words, a "countercultural virtue . . . in a world that feels one cannot be happy or whole without sexual gratification."

Gregory writes that celibacy was not an arbitrary imposition by the church at a particular moment in history but a growing consciousness from the earliest centuries of church history that there is a "powerful congruence between priesthood and the celibate example of Christ himself."

"Indeed," Gregory adds, "the vitality of the Church in the United States today owes much to the tens of thousands of priests who in previous generations were and today are faithful to their commitment to chaste celibacy and who have found it to be a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ."

Their overall tone was one of compassionate understanding for the challenges that priests face today, rather than one of admonition of the 163 Milwaukee-area priests who sent a petition to Gregory urging that optional celibacy be discussed as a way of ensuring Catholics access to the sacraments.

Gregory's comments came in a letter to Dolan that the Herald then published. He explained that he wrote to Dolan because it is the local bishop who shepherds the local church and who has a special bond with his clergy.

Dolan notes in his Herald of Hope column that the archdiocese has about 30 seminarians, the largest number in years.

He says that "this is a time when 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.

"The recent sad scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors, as the professionals have documented, has nothing to do with our celibate commitment; and the undeniable challenges of scandal, shortages, increasing work, and public criticism have left a priesthood not disheartened and decimated, but - if recent studies are to be believed - on the verge of renewal."

He cites a recent Los Angeles Times survey, saying it showed that 90% of U.S. priests are "happy, committed, and eager to do it all over again if given the choice."

Favored, at least in principle

G. Donald Ferree Jr., director of the Badger Poll, said the celibacy question did not differentiate between active Catholics and those who seldom attend Mass. It was added to a list of unrelated questions and was not a major focus of the poll, he said.

"It certainly means that in principle they would like to see this available as a matter of choice," Ferree said. "Does that mean they would personally like to have their own priest be married? We can't say one way or the other."

Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said a Gallup Poll that he and three other sociologists crafted in 1999 found that 71% of about 800 people nationwide who identified themselves as Catholics favored allowing married priests. The margin of error was plus or minus five percentage points.

Edmund Konopka of New Holstein, one of the Badger Poll respondents, said in a follow-up interview that he didn't understand why married Protestant ministers who convert to Catholicism are allowed to be priests, when other priests are forbidden to marry.

"If that's the case, why can't our priests that got married come back?" he said, adding that he is concerned about the priest shortage.

His parish priest at Holy Rosary in New Holstein is responsible for two parishes, he said. At a neighboring Chilton parish, he said, two priests are responsible for six parishes.

"The apostles were married," Konopka said. "Evidently it's a rule that was man-made."

Danielle Baerwald, a parishioner at St. Alphonsus in Greendale, said she is in favor of optional celibacy because of the priest shortage and also because the image of the priesthood had been tarnished since the church sex scandals surfaced last year.

"There is a public perception that maybe, perhaps, something is wrong with them, or they are living a secret life that they have to keep hidden," Baerwald said. "Most other religions seem to allow their pastors to maintain a personal and a religious life. I think in this day and age celibacy seems to be unreasonable. There is no one going into the seminaries, and they're not going in because they think it's unreasonable."

Shortage seen to worsen

Father Joe Aufdermauer, 61, one of three Milwaukee-area priests who circulated a petition seeking discussions on optional celibacy, said he respectfully disagreed with some of the bishops' responses. Aufdermauer said the priest shortage will continue to worsen, and he did not think that it was as severe in Protestant denominations as it is in the Catholic Church.

"We honestly believe that by allowing optional celibacy for diocesan clergy that we will have more priests so that we can have sacraments - celebration of Mass, anointing of the sick, hearing of confessions - for our people," Aufdermauer said.

"I certainly believe that optional celibacy would be at least one help for the shortage of priests. I'm not naive enough to think that this is the answer. I don't believe this will happen in my lifetime. We're going to have to continue until it comes to an absolute crisis before the Spirit is really going to lead us all to something."

Later this year, Dolan will take over the chairmanship of the U.S. bishops' committee that would deal with celibacy. But Gregory has indicated that it will not be discussed. In brief comments he made to news media since the Milwaukee priests' letter was mailed to him on Aug. 19, he said that the issue has already been addressed at length by popes, synods and bishops.

Dolan puts it this way in his Herald of Hope column Thursday:

"The church, of course, listens intently to many voices, and loud voices are not lacking today. She listens to petitions, committees, authors, advocacy groups, event columnists and editorial writers in newspapers, all free with advice.

"But she first and foremost listens to Jesus, His Word, and, as my teacher and mentor Monsignor John Tracy Ellis used to say, she listens, 'Not to the voice of today as much as to the voice of centuries.' That voice - of saints, scholars, and faithful of the past - speaks eloquently in praise of celibate chastity for priests, a praise admirably echoed by the signers of the letter as well."


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