November 27, 2004
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
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
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
"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
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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