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April 1, 2009
Column #1,440
Cardinal Egan: Optional Celibacy a "Legitimate" Issue
By Mike McManus

New York Cardinal Edward Egan stunned but pleased many Catholics when he asserted recently on the issue of celibacy, "It's going to be discussed; it's a pefectly legitimate discussion," in a recent radio interview. "I think it needs to be looked at."

At another point he asked, "Is it a closed issue? No. That's not a dogmatic stand."

This is a breath of fresh air on an issue the Vatican has indeed considered a closed subject for a thousand years.  Though the matter was raised during the Second Vatican Council, each of the last three popes has poured cold water on the issue.

In 2003, when 163 priests in the Milwaukee Archdiocese petitioned the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to open discussion on making celibacy optional, due to the shortage of priests, they were silenced by their Archbishop Timothy Dolan, whom Pope Benedict XVI chose to succeed Cardinal Egan when he retires April 15.

However, the shortage of priests has only grown worse. In Detroit, for example, there were 414 priests in the year 2000 but are only 245 today, and 48 of them are over 70 and could retire, but were urged to stay on because there are 280 parishes to be manned.  And that is after closing 50+ parishes.  Some priests are manning two, three and even four parishes - and are exhausted and demoralized as a result.

Fully 82 of Detroit area clergy are aged 60-69.  It will not be long before there are only 100 priests to serve 1.3 million Catholics.

Unless, unless the rules were to change.  What if celibacy were optional? "We could return faculties to 200-300 former priests who have married," said Tom Kyle who leads "Elephants in the Living Room," a marvelously-named group of priests and lay leaders willing to raise tough issues the hierarchy doesn't want to discuss.

"In Detroit we have 200 married deacons who could become priests.  And if married men could be ordained, the seminaries would overflow. We'll only ordain three this year."

Nationally, there are 1,000 fewer parishes since 1995, largely due to the priest shortage and 3,100 parishes of America's 18,500 have no resident priest, 17% of the total. That would be unthinkable in Protestant churches.

Though there are 67 million Catholics in America - more than the 13 largest Protestant denominations combined, Catholics added only 480 priests last year. Of America's 75,000 seminarians, only 3.300 are Catholic. However, there are now 16,000 married Catholic deacons who can baptize, marry, preach and conduct funerals - but who cannot celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions or conduct last rites for the dying.

"There is an inherent problem in making celibacy mandatory. What the Catholic Church believes is a gift from God, cannot be mandated. It is like trying to make a ballerina of one who can't do the two-step," asserts Father Donald Couzzens, Ph.D., a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

"It is important to remind people that the church has married clergy at the present time," he says noting the 401 "Eastern Rite" priests who are married since they come from the Middle East where Orthodox competitors are allowed to marry. In addition, there are 100-200 former Episcopal and Lutheran clergy who converted to Catholicism, and brought their wives and children into Catholic rectories.

"These married priests serve in Michigan parishes effectively as father, spouse, parent and pastor," asserts Father Larry Ventline, a celibate Catholic priest, seminary professor and counselor.

However, 25,000 Catholic priests left the church to marry, because celibacy is required by most U.S. dioceses. "This is a double standard. It is not right for the church to say to some, they can be a married priest, but we will not let you have this privilege," argues Dr. John Kinkel, a former priest and lecturer at Oakland University.

Will Cardinal Egan's encouragement of the discussion of optional celibacy have an impact on America's Catholic bishops? "I've been watching this for 30 years and can be surprised. But I don't expect anything to happen during this papacy. And since the Pope appoints the Cardinals, I doubt it will happen," sighs Fr. Tom Reese, author of books on the Vatican and former editor of "America" magazine.

However, Dr. William Manseau, a psychotherapist and President of CORPUS, a national organization of former priests, says he will encourage CORPUS members to "contact their local bishop and ask the bishop to place this topic on the agenda for the next national meeting of Catholic bishops. They should also request that they be given a voice, an opportunity to attend and share their experience in marriage.

"It would be eye-opening for the bishops to hear such testimony."

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