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Father Figures

As controversy swirls around the Catholic Church, many faithful wonder if it might be time to rethink priests’ vows of celibacy

By Michelle Chihara

When Charles Ara fell in love, at the age of 39, he faced an anguished choice. As a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he had taken a vow of celibacy. But after working alongside the 28-year-old religion educator in his parish for almost three years, he felt that his vows had become impossible to live out honestly.

“I struggled with that decision,” he says. “I agonized over it for about a year. It was probably very unfair to my wife-to-be, to ask her to wait while I worked through my own issues.”

Ultimately, Charles Ara, who still calls himself Father, says, “I decided to add love and marriage to my priesthood.”

The church did not look kindly on Ara’s decision. “The pastor announced that no one could attend my wedding,” Ara says. “A bishop told my parents they could not attend.”

But on the day of the ceremony, at a parishioner’s home, his parents were not the only faithful who made the decision to support Ara. Hundreds of uninvited parishioners showed up. On Oct. 10, 1970, more than 300 Catholics watched as several married priests, one Orthodox priest, one Episcopalian and a group of nuns presided over the marriage of Charles Ara and Shirley Meyers. The wedding party ran out of food, what with the unexpected turnout, but the guitar music from the ’60s played on.

While the church does not recognize him as such, Ara, a father of four, still considers himself a Roman Catholic priest. “It affected my faith,” Ara says. “But I will always love my church, and my faith.” Ara now works as a marriage and family counselor. He does seem to miss the leadership role he had as a priest, though: He’s running for Congress.

Ara is one of as many as 100,000 men worldwide who have left the Roman Catholic priesthood, many of them in order to marry. In the United States, there are as many as 20,000 married priests (conservative estimates put the number lower; there exists no official figure). Thousands of these men have taken a certain canonical law to heart: Once a priest, always a priest.

Despite the fact that the church hierarchy no longer recognizes their right to officiate, they still perform weddings, baptisms, and even the occasional mass. The church may have turned its back on them, but these men still have hope for the church. They represent an organized, vocal and dedicated group at the margins of Catholic life in the United States and Europe. They may even represent the church’s best hope for the future.

Today’s Catholic Church has been watching its moral authority erode with every damaging headline about sexual abuse by its priests. The church’s veil of secrecy—its policy of keeping victims quiet with expensive settlements and shuffling abusers quietly from parish to parish—has exploded in its face. That known child molesters were quietly shifted around within the church throws a criminal taint onto the entire hierarchy. And the irony is not lost on married priests: While they neither harmed minors nor lied about their sexual choices, the church abandoned them, often dramatically, at the same time that it shielded sexual predators.

The scandal is bringing new, intense pressure to bear on an organization with a long history of dedicated resistance to change. But resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three in four Catholics in America believe the church has been handling the scandals badly. And in June, at a conference in Dallas, Texas, the bishops’ statements showed that they are more sensitive than ever to public opinion. On July 20, Voice of the Faithful, www.voiceofthefaithful.org, an influential new lay organization, is holding a conference in Boston in an attempt to galvanize further change and provide a forum for the Catholic public. The bishops will be paying attention.

“The space holds 5,000 and we are expecting to fill it,” says Mike Emerton, a VOTF spokesperson. Besides supporting victims of abuse and priests of integrity, VOTF’s primary goal is to push for the laity’s inclusion in church governance.

There’s a lot more at stake than just arcane questions of church governance. The laity’s role is crucial. It’s the central axis that connects a host of hot-button issues for Catholic America: optional celibacy for priests, birth control and the ordination of women.

“The underpinning of all this is really a level of diametric opposition of two totally different world views about what the church is supposed to be,” says Russ Ditzel, an activist for a priesthood of single and married men and women with the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service (CORPUS). “It’s a clash of the church as the people of God, and as a hierarchical, structured organization.”

If the church is forced to listen to the laity, optional celibacy for Catholic priests—which massive numbers of Catholics have expressed support for in numerous polls and surveys—is likely to be one of the first items on the agenda.

While optional celibacy is at best a remote possibility under the current pope, in many ways it is one of the least controversial issues. Celibacy is not dogma, it’s a rule passed in the 12th century [see “A Brief History of Celibacy,” page 20]. And the Catholic Church already has married priests: scores of Anglican priests who were allowed to switch to Roman Catholicism, even though they were already married. Homosexuality, for example, is a much more explosive topic, despite the fact that some experts believe that as much as 30 percent of the Catholic priesthood is gay.

Added urgency comes from another unavoidable Catholic crisis: a shortage of priests. In 1975, America had 60,000 Catholic priests; by 2001 there were just over 45,000. Their numbers continue to decline at a rate of about 12 percent a year. For individual regions, the burn rates translate into dramatic declines: In 1966 in Chicago, there were 1,340 priests. That number has now dropped to 657.

The numbers in the seminaries are even more dire. While there were around 47,000 seminarians in 1965, in 1997 there were only 5,000 (according to figures cited by Chester Gillis in Roman Catholicism in America, from the Columbia Contemporary American Religion series). Ironically, the ranks of Catholics in the United States are growing, swelling with an influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.

To put it baldly, the American priest appears to be a dying breed. But if the church were to welcome back its married priests, it could increase its ranks by as much as a quarter.

“The priesthood is going downhill fairly fast,” says Dean Hoge, a sociologist and former priest at the Catholic University of America. “The crisis over sexual misconduct only makes things a little worse.” Hoge helped conduct a 1987 study that polled Catholic undergraduate students at Catholic schools around the country. “We concluded that you would have a fourfold increase in seminarians if you had optional celibacy. It’s the biggest deterrent.”

“There is no shortage of priests,” says Ara. “They’re not using the priests they already have. I get referrals from parish priests,” he adds. “If for some technicality they can’t do it, they don’t have a problem referring people to me.”

Only about half of both homosexual and heterosexual priests “in good standing” with the Church are actually practicing celibacy, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, former priest and author of Sex, Priests and Power.

At any one time, according to his surveys of priests, he estimates that as many as 20 percent of priests are involved in ongoing sexual relationships with adult women.

“This sense that priests are set apart and above,” Sipe says, “I think that erects a structure for duplicity. This is why many priests, who are still priests, lead double lives. They’re good men, and they do good things, but they have a woman in another town, or have affairs or relationships with a man—or in the worst cases, relationships with children—that are contrary to what they say and stand for in their official lives.”

Priests who marry, on the other hand, are priests who are unwilling to lie. “My experience with priests who marry is a desire for honesty,” Sipe says. “They can’t or won’t lead a double life, they sacrifice the security of the priesthood, their employment, their livelihood, status—all of that.”

Most married priests, especially those organized into groups pressing for reform like CORPUS or Call to Action, are straightforward about who they are. Some are uncomfortable with the idea of practicing, especially with the idea of charging for services not recognized by the church. But many others are hungry for reform. Several hundred are listed online in a regional database run by a group called Celibacy Is the Issue at “Rentapriest.com.” That Web site trumpets, “We married Roman Catholic Priest/couples invite you to receive the Sacraments. COME AS YOU ARE!”

CITI was founded by a laywoman named Louise Haggett, who was moved to action when she couldn’t find a priest to minister to her dying mother. “Mom never saw a priest until she was practically comatose in the hospital,” Haggett says. “I felt so betrayed by the church.

“The disciples were married men,” she says. “If the Berlin wall came down, why can’t celibacy be abolished?” Convinced that married priests would solve the shortage, she started a one-woman campaign to restore credibility to married priests.

By her own account, Haggett has been succeeding. Hundreds of married priests across the country are performing weddings and baptisms regularly, even stepping in to give mass if the regular priest is not available. The Catholic system allows for lay people to carry out many parish duties, but only ordained priests can give the sacraments. “There are 5,300 parishes without a resident pastor,” says Haggett. Married priests, she says, are bound to fill those holes. “Cannon 843: No priest can refuse sacramental ministry to anyone who asks,” Haggett recites. “Cannon 290: Once a priest, always a priest.”

Not everyone agrees with Haggett’s analysis, or even with her numbers.

“I’m not denying it’s a serious problem,” says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University. “I just don’t think there’s a crisis.”

Doing away with celibacy, Gautier says, would not solve the problem. “The seminaries would not fill up tomorrow with young men,” she says. “It would have some impact, but it’s a larger issue.” She describes the larger issue as “more of a generational thing.”

“Young people are not making long-term commitments to anything,” Gautier says. She admits, however, that her belief is not based on any particular study, but on her perception of young people today.

But most sociologists agree that the Catholic Church is facing a crisis.

Eight years ago, Richard Schoener and Lawrence A. Young wrote, “At least among Christians in this country, the paucity of pastors in contrast with the steady growth in church membership is a crisis unique to Roman Catholicism.” Since that book, Full Pews, Empty Altars, was published, things have only gotten worse.

CORPUS is the oldest reform group in the country, organized after the Second Vatican Council in 1974.

“CORPUS is the only reform group that’s been in dialogue with so many hierarchies around the world,” says past president and active reformist Dr. Anthony Padovano. “They see us as the representative of married priests. CORPUS tries to speak within the church for change.”

Still a prominent Catholic, Padovano fits one of the most common profiles of married Roman Catholic priests in America. He studied in Rome for six years, and was ordained in 1960, just before the Second Vatican Council.

The documents issued by Vatican II marked an important sea change in Catholic attitudes. After Vatican II, priests faced their audiences; they said mass in the language of the people. Vatican II promised a more open church, one more inclusive and responsive to the laity.

“That was the most moving gathering of God’s people,” Padovano remembers. “I know most Catholics don’t want to go back to the kind of church we were before.”

Padovano is one of many priests who were ordained in the years surrounding Vatican II, swept up in that era’s hope and idealism. According to figures from the Official Catholic Registry, the years between 1965 and 1975 showed a significant uptick in the numbers of both priests and seminarians. Father Charles Ara, in Cerritos, remembers sitting 100 feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I have a dream” speech. Other married priests tell stories of being arrested or sprayed with water hoses during those tumultuous years.

The priesthood was a perfectly logical choice for idealistic young men in the ’60s. The Catholic Church has a long history of advocating for the poor and the victimized: From the Jesuits in the 18th century who stood up for the indigenous Indians, to Marinole priests who stood up for the rights of the Japanese-American community during the World War II internment in “relocation” camps, to liberation theologians in the 1970s, the list goes on.

Dr. Padovano says that without a doubt, the married priests he knows come from that legion of priests inspired by Vatican II and are deeply dedicated to ideals of social justice.

The eventual choice to leave the priesthood, for many of these men, was a wrenching decision. “It’s very difficult to leave something you love for reasons that don’t make sense to you,” Padovano says. “In my years of working with married priests, the harder it is for you to resign, the better your marriage is going to be. That relationship must mean an enormous amount to you, if you are willing to put on the line something that was your whole life. I never, even for a second, regretted what I did. I never questioned it, never thought what I did was wrong. But I was just . . . sorry that I could not continue my work, only because I wanted to marry a woman that I loved.

“That was one of the more difficult things to try to understand, why marriage to a Catholic woman, to raise a Catholic family, would make me ineligible to practice the priesthood fully, especially when Christ chose married men to be his apostles.”

Padovano and his wife Theresa married in 1974. At the time Theresa was a nun, and a graduate student in his class. “I’m still crazy about her, “he says. “She’s extraordinary. Thank God I didn’t miss her. It would have been sinful for me to walk away from her. I think she was really a gift.”

Father Joseph O’Rourke, who lives in Chicago, worked with the peace movement in the ’60s and once was arrested for burning Dow Chemical files on the company’s front lawn. He got into trouble with the church when he baptized a baby whose 19-year-old mother had expressed her belief in reproductive rights and family planning. The church had refused the child baptism; O’Rourke stepped in and performed the ceremony on the steps of the parish church. “That got me into a lot of trouble,” he says. He was expelled from the Jesuit order, before he chose to marry.

Says Russ Ditzel of CORPUS: “My primary reason for transitioning was the lifestyle we were required to live—it was so isolated. I found that it distanced me from the people I was supposed to be serving. That was a period of time when we were still trying to live out the expectations coming out of the Second Vatican Council.”

Robert McClory, a former priest, journalism professor and author of a book about change and the Catholic Church says, “I left partly to get married, partly because of dissatisfaction with the church on issues like birth control. I wasn’t comfortable being the official proclaimer of doctrines that I couldn’t, in good conscience, ask people to follow.”

For priests like this, the desire to marry was just the final expression of larger philosophical differences.

“There’s no real justification any longer for exclusive and autocratic government in the Catholic Church,” says O’Rourke, 62. O’Rourke couches the debate as a fight for human rights against a paternalistic, patriarchal organization that is wasting its potential as an important moral leader in society.

“The church could become the most powerful spokesperson for religious liberty,” he says, “for constitutional and human rights. You can find this in Catholic social thought, in its advocacy of economic as well as political rights, that we feel so strongly about.”

It seems clear that these men not only represent a sheer numerical loss for the Catholic priesthood, but also a huge loss of talent, dedication and faith. While the church may not yet have recognized that loss, many laypeople have.

Paul Lencioni, a 38-year-old developer for Cisco systems, was married by Father O’Rourke, and had O’Rourke baptize both of his children. It doesn’t bother Lencioni that Father O’Rourke no longer has the right, within the church, to perform these sacraments. “Celibacy is a dated concept,” Lencioni says. “It should be abolished.”

In some paradoxical way, married priests may be doing the Catholic Church a favor. Married priests create a space that many Catholics trust, and feel is still Catholic, outside of some of the church’s teachings. “We’re the sheepdogs,” says O’Rourke.

Lencioni articulates the kind of internal reconciliation that many Catholics have been making for years. Many of the church’s teachings, especially around personal issues like birth control and divorce, have proved impossible for modern Catholics to live by.

“I think it’s OK to blend different philosophies in your own faith, and sometimes we have to do that,” Lencioni says. “Sometimes, when you make those reconciliations, your faith is stronger. It’s that, versus being unhappy with your church and moving away from it. I don’t think that, ultimately, is a positive outcome.”

“When I see the church today, I see masses that are poorly attended, I see people who are disgruntled. A lot of that has to do with the need for some more open thinking,” says Lencioni.

On July 20, Voice of the Faithful will gather the faithful from across the nation in an attempt to move the Catholic Church closer to the more open vision of Vatican II, toward its potential as a church of the people. Married priests certainly will be in attendance. It remains to be seen whether they will be heard.

A Brief History of Celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church

The unfolding tragedy of the pedophilia scandal among American Catholic clergy has rekindled the debate over whether priests should be allowed to marry. To better understand this issue, it helps to look at the history of priestly celibacy. As it turns out, the wealth and power of Rome had more to do with the practice than spirituality. Clerics often married until the Middle Ages, until concern, mostly over the loss of Church lands to heirs of priests, led to the imposition of the celibacy rule. Here’s how it came to pass:

To begin with, Jesus designated St. Peter, a married man, to be the first pope. Priests had married in Judaism (the priesthood itself was a hereditary profession), and it would seem that Christ accepted this part of the tradition in his choice of Peter. Although St. Paul believed that spreading the Gospel was easier for a man who didn’t have a family to provide for, he still mandated that bishops, elders and deacons be only “the husband of one wife.” (Even then, polygamy among all ranks of the clergy persisted, and by the third century bishops alone were required to be monogamous.)

The change began with the Council of Elvira in Spain in about 306, which prohibited bishops, deacons and priests from marrying. Shortly thereafter, the early church fathers began to stigmatize sex as sinful in their writings. St. Ambrose (340-397) wrote, “The ministerial office must be kept pure and unspoiled and must not be defiled by coitus,” and the former libertine St. Augustine (354-430) even went so far as to consider an erect penis a sign of man’s insubordination to God.

With the advent of the Dark Ages around 500, the upheavals in society saw a decline in clerical discipline and with it, a return to marriage and even the keeping of concubines by priests. During this time, the wealth of the church was also increasing, a development not lost on Rome. Many priests were leaving church lands to their heirs, and others handed down land of their own through primogeniture. The Holy See saw that a return to the celibacy rule would result in a real-estate bonanza, and in about 1018 Pope Benedict VIII put teeth in the Elvira decree by forbidding descendents of priests to inherit property. Later, in the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII, who had assumed vast power by declaring himself the supreme authority over all souls, went even further by proscribing married priests from saying mass; he also forbid parishioners from attending masses said by them. Scholars believe that the first written law forbidding the clergy to marry was finally handed down at the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

Dissent persisted, though. At two 15th-century church councils, supporters of clerical marriage attempted to reintroduce the practice but were defeated by hard-liners, who tried to rewrite history by asserting that celibacy was apostolic in its origins. The law finally became official doctrine at the Council of Trent in 1563, and Rome’s position on the issue has remained essentially unchanged since then.

But as the current crisis in the church has shown, the controversy just won’t die.

When reached for comment, Father Edward Deimeke, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, acknowledged that the institution of celibacy was a “human rule” which could be altered, as opposed to a moral absolute (like the church’s stance on abortion). He also allowed that a majority of the priesthood, as well as the laity in America, favored the right of priests to wed.

Perhaps the sentiment of those advocating a change in the church’s policy is best summed up in the words of St. Paul: “It is better to marry than to burn.”

—Glenn Weiser

 


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