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November 27, 2004
Column #1,213

                  Will Catholics Welcome Back Married Priests?
                        
       When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Washington last week, Sister Christine Schenk and Father Andrew Connolly delivered 11,000 letters/postcards asking bishops to focus on solutions to the steadily deepening priest shortage and open discussion on mandatory celibacy.

     They also released anonymous surveys in which two-thirds of priests from 53 dioceses pled with the bishops for "an open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule."

     A Denver priest commented, "I know several priests who resigned to get married. They are brilliant, wonderful and holy men. They would return tomorrow if allowed."

     There are 25,000 men who were once Catholic priests, but who left ministry to marry. Russell Ditzel, president of CORPS, a network of thousands of former priests, estimates that "two-thirds would be willing to be of support and service." That is a huge reservoir of talent.

     There is a desperate need for their service. Between 1975 and 2003 the United States suffered a 22 percent decline of priests from 58,909 to 45,699. In those same years, the number of Catholics grew by 32 percent, from 48.7 million to 64.3 million in 2003.

     What those numbers mean is that the average Catholic priest, who was serving 825 parishioners, now serves 1,407. That's TEN times as many people as an average Southern Baptist pastor with 137 members.

     "The Catholic Church's decline of active priests is stark," said Sr. Schenk who directs a group called FutureChurch (stet). "One out of five parishes in Boston is closing."

     Indeed, the Boston Archdiocese recently announced the closing of 83 parishes due to the priest shortage and financial cuts due to priest sexual abuse lawsuits. The closings sparked a firestorm of protest. Parishioners have occupied eight of the closed churches, 24 hours a day, refusing to allow them to be shuttered. Masses are no longer offered since priests are reassigned, only devout prayer  meetings. Individual parishioners are paying church electric bills.

     Archbishop Sean O'Malley relented in only one case, allowing one parish to reopen.

      Fr. Connolly said, "There is more to Eucharist than Sunday Mass. Priests help form the worshiping community in following Jesus...and that is hard to do if they have to circuit ride to three or four parishes."

     "St. Peter was married but the successors of St. Peter and most of the priests throughout the world are denied the same opportunity by a restriction that Jesus himself did not impose.  We must ask: does current (church) law actually serve the good of the People of God?  Does it serve the good of all priests?  Is it the desire of Jesus?"

     Good questions. Lamentably, the bishops offered no answers, nor did they react to the petitions for dialogue. "This is not a subject for discussion. The Pope's position is clear," a bishops' spokesman told me.

     However, the rule of celibacy is one that a future Pope could reverse. It is considered a "discipline" not a theological doctrine such church opposition to abortion, which will never change. The issue is, will the church's hierarchy reconsider?

     The answer is possibly. Four decades ago there was a mounting pressure to offer Mass in the local language, rather than Latin. The Vatican resisted it until Vatican II, where it became one of the major reforms urged by the world's bishops, and accepted by the Vatican.

      But there needs to be the kind of grassroots pressure on the hierarchy that Future Church and Call to Action, a reform group with 25,000 members based in Chicago are stirring up with their poll of priests and letter-writing campaign. They are midway in a two-year effort. The National Federation of Priests' Councils support the cause as do priests in Milwaukee, Chicago, Sacramento, Pittsburgh and two-thirds of those in Boston.

     Their key target is an International Synod on the Eucharist which will be held in Rome in October. However, preliminary documents indicate the priest shortage is not on the agenda.  "This is very odd, when there is a world-wide shortage of priests. Half of  Catholics do not have regular access to the Mass. Worldwide, the number of priests has remained at 405,000 since 1975 when the number of Catholic jumped by 52 percent to one billion people," said Sr. Schenk.

     However, 125,000 Catholic priests worldwide have resigned to marry.

     In the U.S. there are 3,157 parishes, 27 percent of the total without a resident priest.

     Change the rules, and not only would many former priests would return but there would be a multitude of young men entering the seminary.

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