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Effect of Milwaukee celibacy letter debated
Some foresee changes, some advocate tradition

By TOM HEINEN - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Aug. 19, 2003

The Milwaukee-area Catholic priests who signed a letter supporting optional celibacy have roiled the waters of debate, with some people saying the ripples could turn into a tidal wave of change while others believe the issue will wash meaninglessly against the walls of the Vatican.

The priests' action will have a tremendous impact if it is the first wave of a grass-roots movement to make celibacy optional, said Richard Sipe, a former priest and a nationally known author who has written five books on the topic.

"I have not heard of this happening anywhere else in the country or in the world," Sipe said. "This is a big deal."

More than 50% of priests are sexually active at any one time and hundreds more are secretly married and continue to work as priests, Sipe said his research has shown.

"The problematic equation is that priest equals celibacy," Sipe said. "That is the public presentation. But that is not the fact."

Al Szews, president of the Milwaukee chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, a group that describes itself as staunchly orthodox, called the action of the priests "unfortunate."

"Being married is no silver bullet to being a good priest or solving the problem of vocations," Szews said. "A priest is married to the church. You can't be a bigamist and these people want to be bigamists."

Exceptions to the rule

Advocates of optional celibacy note that the church allows married Protestant clergy - most notably Episcopal priests - to convert to Catholicism and to function as married priests. An estimated 100 Episcopal priests - a majority of them married - have been re-ordained as Catholic priests in the United States since Pope John Paul II permitted that in 1980, authorities said.

Terry Ryan, southeastern Wisconsin coordinator of Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic reform group, said, "Rome should be encouraging open dialogue about this issue instead of hiding its head in the sand. The aging of our priests is a fact, and there will be many retirements in the next few years.

"The petition and the process used by these three priests shows the need for open dialogue and genuine collaboration. This is how revolutions occur. . . . As a result of their courageous efforts, momentum for systemic reform could build in other parts of the country . . . or world."

Dean Hoge, an author and sociologist at Catholic University of America, expects priests in other parts of the country to wait for the 163 diocesan and religious order priests who signed the letter to be punished.

"I think most people are going to watch Milwaukee very carefully and see what happens," Hoge said. "If nothing much happens, it will embolden others to do something."

But Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said similar petitions were common a few decades ago and then died out because they got no response, or negative responses, from local bishops and the Vatican.

"The pope has made it very clear that this is an issue that's not open for discussion," Reese said. "The best the bishops can do is bury it in a committee. More likely it will be another firm endorsement of mandatory celibacy by the bishops."

Father Andrew Nelson, the retired rector of St. Francis Seminary, said he did not sign the letter but was in sympathy with the cause.

"My concern is the timeliness of it," Nelson said. "Under the present papacy it's not going to be received or attended to." He added that it was also "a bit awkward" that Archbishop Dolan, a vigorous supporter of priestly celibacy, will be in charge of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee that will be asked to discuss the letter.

"For many priests, celibacy has been a blessing. It is certainly a wonderful part of our tradition. But for many it is a serious burden and a great source of difficulty."

The three diocesan priests who orchestrated the effort sent the letters Tuesday to Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the conference. The letters urge that the diocesan priesthood be opened to married men as a way of keeping the sacraments available to the faithful and enhancing priestly ministry in light of the continuing shortage of priests.

Gregory's spokesman said the bishop had not received the letter and had no comment.

Conservatives disagree

However, conservatives such as Father Joseph Fessio disagree with the idea.

The Jesuit priest, who is editor of Ignatius Press, a religious publishing house, and chancellor of the newly founded Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., points to the recruitment successes that some seminaries in conservative dioceses such as Lincoln, Neb., have had and says there would be no priest shortage if seminaries were more orthodox.

"There is no evidence that Protestant denominations have any more ministers than the Catholic Church does with unmarried priests," Fessio said. "There's a shortage of ministers everywhere."

David Gawlik from CORPUS, an international organization comprising mainly married men who left the canonical Catholic priesthood, said change must come first from the people and then from the priests. He cited the example of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose resignation was accepted by the pope this year after more than 50 priests signed a petition calling for his removal over his handling of clergy sexual abuse.

"If it comes from the clergy, it has a little more clout," said Gawlik, of Mequon.

From the Aug. 20, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


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