National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Admit married men to priesthood, 163 Milwaukee priests urge


In a letter sent Aug. 18 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 160 retired and active priests -- all from the 10-county Milwaukee archdiocese -- urged an end to mandatory celibacy for candidates for the priesthood.

“We join our voices to those of so many others at this time,” the letter states, “voices urging that diocesan priesthood now be open to married men as well as to celibate men.”

“It’s not an anti-celibacy petition at all,” said one of the letter’s initiators, Fr. Steven Dunn of St. Gregory the Great Church in Milwaukee. “We recognize the blessing that celibacy has been for so many.” But, he told NCR in a telephone interview, “We need a broader and more diverse priesthood that uses more of the gifts of the people and could be enhanced by married life and children.”

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan has not commented directly on the letter, which he has known about for some time. “We took it through all the proper channels,” Dunn said, “We weren’t going to pull a fast one on anyone. We did this respectfully.” In fact, the archbishop was present at the priests’ council meeting where the letter idea was formally floated months ago. He didn’t say much, according to those who attended the meeting, but neither did he try to stop the initiative, which was ultimately undertaken independently of the council.

Copies of the letter went out to 442 retired and active diocesan priests in the archdiocese, and 128, or 29 percent, signed and returned the letter. Although the letter refers only to diocesan priests, it also was mailed to 340 religious order priests, of which 35 signed.

Dunn believes that among diocesan priests, the actual level of support for optional celibacy is greater than the 29 percent who signed the letter. “I know there are a number of priests who are in favor of optional celibacy who didn’t sign for various reasons,” he said.

Dean Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said, “It’s been 25 years since anybody signed anything.” In 2001 Hoge worked on a national survey that revealed 53 percent of diocesan priests and 60 percent of religious order priests agreed with the statement “Celibacy should be a matter of personal choice for diocesan priests.”

“If you talked to a random sample of priests privately,” Hoge speculated, “you’d get the same result that we got in our anonymous survey. That is, a majority would agree with the statement. But you know, it’s a dangerous thing to sign your name. And that’s what’s new here. And therefore it’s going to be a little bit interesting to see what happens to these 163 men.”

It was the numbers that convinced Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests, to take the issue to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry for discussion. “Because it has been voiced and it has been significant, I would bring it to the committee. Along with other issues of loneliness and isolation and whatever else is out there,” said Silva. “That’s my job.”

Underlying the priests’ initiative, according to both Dunn and Silva, is concern that the eucharistic character of the church could be in jeopardy as the number of priests continues to diminish.

“We certainly hope that the bishops will be brave enough to candidly discuss the issue,” Dunn told NCR. “We all know that there are people in high positions who would be in favor of this but publicly won’t say so. I think through that whole stew of dialogue and debate, the Spirit works and we come to a consensus.”

Dunn noted that the Eastern Catholic churches allow married priests and that former Episcopal priests and Lutheran ministers who are married have been ordained as Catholic priests. “We have married priests and we have the historical precedent for it. It seems to be the time to do this.”

Jeff Guntzel is a freelance writer in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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