controversy swirls around the Catholic Church, many faithful
if it might be time to rethink priests’ vows of celibacy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
is the oldest reform group in the country, organized after
the Second Vatican Council in 1974.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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,”
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.
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.”
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.
Brief History of Celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church
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
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
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.”