Ripple from Priests' Celibacy Letter Continues, Most Recently in Illinois

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
September 13, 2003

The signing of petition letters last month by more than 160 Milwaukee-area priests in favor of optional celibacy is producing aftershocks in the nation and abroad, but not yet upheavals.

The latest tremors were in Belleville, Ill., the home diocese of Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Southern Illinois Association of Priests, which is based there, mailed a letter to Gregory on Friday, urging him to "do all in your power to make the charism of celibacy a grace and not a mandated law for diocesan priests of the Roman Catholic church in America."

The letter was signed by 14 of the association's 16 members, with one abstaining and another not able to attend the Thursday meeting where the action was decided. Of the signers, two were retired and 12 were active priests, representing 15% of the 79 active priests in the Diocese of Belleville, said Father Jim Dougherty, chairman of the 34-year-old group.

Dougherty said in an interview that he believed more priests in the diocese supported opening the priesthood to married men but would be reluctant to come forward because they fear being seen as disloyal or are reluctant to get involved in controversy.

The association used stronger language in its news release, saying it "is deeply troubled by Bishop Gregory's refusal to begin a dialogue on the issue. . . . Refusal to talk about this issue, already deemed resolved by the hierarchy but not by a majority of Catholics, further alienates them (the bishops) and others who love the church."

Both Gregory and Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan have issued strong responses in support of mandatory celibacy, terming it a "providential blessing" and "a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ." They said the issue already has been addressed at length by popes, synods and bishops.

Meanwhile, the president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy said last week that he had sent a letter in support of mandatory celibacy to Gregory on behalf of his organization, which describes itself as standing for the orthodox, authentic teachings of the church. The 28-year-old organization has more than 600 members, about 90% of whom are priests.

Father John Trigilio Jr., president of the group and a pastor in the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., said optional celibacy is not the answer to the sexual abuse crisis and other problems in the church.

" . . . Nor is it the panacea; it is a placebo," he wrote in the letter, dated Aug. 29. "It will do nothing. The current crisis in the Catholic Church is threefold. Bad theology, bad liturgy and bad morality have caused the damage and, like a malignant tumor, needs to be excised."

Trigilio said in an interview that he based his letter on a resolution the group's members approved at their annual convocation last year at a retreat house in Alabama not far from the offices of the Catholic-based Eternal Word Television Network. Among other things, that resolution upheld mandatory celibacy for the Western church. About 85 members were present, he said.

A number of priests associations have responded to the Milwaukee priests' call to open the priesthood to married men as one way to ease the priest shortage and continue to make the sacraments available to the faithful.

Leaders of the Boston Priests' Forum voted Sept. 5 not to circulate a petition in favor of optional celibacy, saying they were sympathetic to the Milwaukee priests' effort but needed to concentrate on rebuilding trust and confidence with their new archbishop after devastating clergy sexual abuse scandals there.

The Association of Chicago Priests is surveying its members to determine how to respond. The Association of Pittsburgh Priests and the Voice of the Ordained, a priests association serving New York area dioceses, will consider action this week.

Meanwhile, the leaders of FutureChurch, which advocates ordination of women and married men, began organized action last week. It has about 5,000 members nationwide, including laypeople, priests, nuns and religious brothers.

"Our leadership council met (Thursday) night, and we will be launching a national petition campaign, as well as a 'letter-writing to your bishop' campaign, hopefully by the first week in October," said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of the Cleveland-based group. "We're viewing this as a long-term thing, and so it will be a more concerted effort over the next eight or nine months."

Lay members of Call to Action Wisconsin, the state chapter of a national Catholic reform group, reported Saturday that 543 petitions from the United States and abroad had arrived so far at the Milwaukee post office box they set up under the name People in Support of Optional Celibacy.

Of that total, 42 signers identified themselves as nuns, 15 as Roman Catholic priests, and five as married priests who left the Catholic church. There were signers from 34 states, including 245 from Wisconsin. Twenty-one petitions came from Canada and 17 from various parts of Europe, according to organizers, who sent translations in French and Spanish to Europe and South America last week.

Corpus, a national organization of former priests, is participating in that effort.

Organizers plan to set up a petition-signing booth at Call to Action's national conference, which will be held in November in Milwaukee.

"It's too soon to really figure out if the numbers are high or low," said Nancy Pritchard of Milwaukee, one of the petition organizers. "I wish we had a little more support, but I'm optimistic."


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