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Time to rethink celibacy in Catholic Church? Jesuit publication says so

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 30, 2009 | 9:27 am

In the past 10 years, journalists have repeatedly broached the topic of celibacy in the Catholic Church, wondering whether this contributed to the clergy sexual abuse scandal or whether the election of a new pope might open the door to married priests. But it’s not everyday that a leading Catholic publication, in this case the Jesuit magazine America, urges church leaders to diligently and sincere consider rescinding the centuries-old—it goes back to Medieval times—prohibition against priests marrying.

Among other possible solutions to the continuing decline of Catholic priests, the editors at America opined:

Silence and fervent prayer for vocations are no longer adequate responses to the priest shortage in the United States. As the church prepares to observe the Year of the Priest, which begins on June 19, open discussion about how to sustain the church as a eucharistic community of faith and fortify the pastoral life of Catholic congregations has become imperative. For making do within the limits set by present demographic trends presents a double threat to Catholic life: Catholic communities will become only infrequent eucharistic communities, or eucharistic communities will be severed from the pastoral care and public witness of priests.

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What about the recruitment and training of married men as priests? Married priests already minister in the Catholic Church, both East and West. Addressing the married clergy of the Eastern Catholic churches, the Second Vatican Council exhorted “all those who have received the priesthood in the married state to persevere in their holy vocation and continue to devote their lives fully and generously to the flock entrusted to their care” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” No. 16). That exhortation now applies to the more than 100 former Anglican priests and Lutheran ministers who have entered the Catholic Church, been ordained and now serve in the Latin rite. As we face the challenges of the priest shortage, some of the more than 16,000 permanent deacons in the United States, many of them married, who experience a call to priestly ministry might be called to ordination with a similarly adapted discipline. In addition, the views and desires of some of the more than 25,000 priests who have been laicized (and are now either single or married) should also be heard.

Our plea is modest. The bishops of the United States should take greater leadership in openly discussing the priest shortage and its possible remedies. These should not be conversations in which we face a problem only to find every new avenue of solution closed. Rather, they should be exchanges fully open to the possibilities offered by the Spirit.

Two years ago, I wrote about Bill Lowe, of those former Anglican priests who was about to become the first married priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. An excerpt is after the jump:

Some priests and parishioners, however, hope Lowe brings more than experience—that his ordination will help fuel the discussion about whether celibacy should be optional, as it was for the church’s first 1,000 years.

“This move is not only historic but prophetic,” Monsignor Padraic Loftus, pastor of St. Mel Catholic Church in Woodland Hills, wrote in his parish’s Feb.18 bulletin. “Having a married priest in our midst must surely make us pause and reconsider, at this time of rapidly diminishing priests, why this privilege given to this couple could not be more widely granted.”

Since 1985—for various reasons not limited to celibacy—the number of active U.S. priests has plummeted from 57,317 to 41,794, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

One proposed solution, rejected by the Vatican, is to drop the celibacy mandate. After John Paul died two years ago, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 63 percent of U.S. Catholics thought priests should be able to marry.

The biblical basis for celibacy comes from the Gospel of Matthew: “Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

But in the 12th century, when the Catholic Church adopted a celibacy requirement, it was as much about protecting property as it was committing priestly intimacy to God, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University.

“The church was worried about church property going to the descendents of priests,” he said.

The internal drive against the celibacy requirement dates to at least the Reformation.

Celibacy has caused thousands of priests to leave ministry since the end of the Second Vatican Council 42 years ago, according to Corpus, an organization that pushes for priesthood reform.

“I am a married priest,” said Russ Ditzel, the organization’s president.

But to marry, Ditzel had to leave ministry in 1978, though he technically remains an ordained priest. Others, he said, have surreptitiously married and remained behind the altar—“leading a double life.”

Though Lowe agrees change is needed, he said he doesn’t want to be a cause celebre. He just wants to get back to his calling.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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