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March 13, 2004
Column #1,176

Only Half of Catholic Priests are Celibate

     "Obligatory celibacy and the church's official teaching on human sexuality are at the root of the worst crisis the Catholic Church has faced since the time of the Reformation," writes Father Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame in the Foreword of a new landmark book "Celibacy in Crisis," by A.W. Richard Sipe.

     In an interview, Father McBrien explained, "The Eastern Orthodox do not have celibate clergy, and they have no sexual abuse crisis. When you require celibacy as a life-long commitment from any control group, you are inevitably, automatically and infallibly limiting your pool of potential recruits to one of the thinnest slices of the population.

     "There are some healthy people who practice celibacy. But that requirement of the priesthood will attract a disproportionately high percentage of men who are sexually dysfunctional, sexually immature, or whose orientation will raise the question - are they attracted to the priesthood because of the ministry, or because it is a profession that forbids one to be married?"

     The issue goes far beyond the sexual molestation of minors. Sipe writes in his new book, "I estimate that (ital) at any one time 50 percent of priests are practicing celibacy" (close ital) He makes these shocking estimates: "Thirty percent of priests are involved in heterosexual relationships, associations, experimentation or patterns of behavior. Fifteen percent of priests are involved with homosexual relationships...Six percent of priests involve themselves with minors."

     (In a new study commissioned by Catholic bishops, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice calculated that 4,392 priests - 4 percent of those serving over the last 50 years - sexually abused minors. In Boston where the court forced the archdiocese to disclose internal records, 7 percent of priests were molesters.)

     Sipe's numbers are not casual estimates, made in the wake of the current crisis, but were actual counts of the sexual practices of 1,500 priests and were originally published in Sipe's 1990 book, "A Secret World." 

     Sipe himself was a monk for 18 years and a priest for 11 of them. He left the priesthood, married and became a therapist who interviewed hundreds of priests. He taught in seminaries from 1967 through 1996, and even wrote a book on how to be celibate: "Celibacy: A Way of Living, Loving and Serving."

     However, he gathered 1,500 case studies: 497 involving priests who were in therapy, 512 who were priests not in therapy and another 504 from sexual partners of priests.

     As a social scientist, Sipe takes no position on whether the celibacy rule should be changed. Others are not so silent. 

     Last August 166 Catholic priests in the Diocese of Milwaukee signed a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asking that the priesthood "be open to married men as well as to celibate men...The primary motive for our urging this change is our pastoral concern that the Catholic Church needs more candidates for the priesthood, so that the Church's sacramental life might continue to flourish." 

     In 1960 there were 53,796 priests to serve 42 million Catholics. Today there are only 43,000 to serve 66 million. Only 479 new priests were ordained in 2002. The average priest has ten times as many parishioners as the average Protestant pastor.

     The Milwaukee letter was the first time in 25 years that a group of priests has spoken out on celibacy, according to Dean Hoge, a prominent Catholic University sociologist. He said, "I do think it's impressive because it's a risky thing, and any priest would think twice before signing his name."

     Bishop Gregory did not respond to them directly, but wrote to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who had a cordial meeting with the three organizing priests, though he disagreed with them. With half of Milwaukee's active priests signing the letter, they have taken a second step to organize an independent Milwaukee Archdiocesan Priests Alliance. 

     Their major concerns are being overworked and having low morale over the fact that the number of parishes has shrunk from 265 to 219 and the diocese wants to shrink further to 175 due to declining numbers of priests, although the Catholic population is growing. "We should be moving to 275 churches, and expanding the pool of people allowed to be priests," said Father Dave Cooper.

     Hundreds of priests from Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and other dioceses have written letters to Gregory supporting optional celibacy. The bishops are opposed, but a national organization of priests pressing for reform will be organized next month.

     The demand for change has only begun. 

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