National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

From the Editor's Desk

The questions won't go away

Twenty-three years ago, the Vatican created a “pastoral provision” allowing the Catholic church to provide “special pastoral attention” to clergy and laity of the Episcopal church. Translated, that means that married Episcopal priests were permitted to become Roman Catholic priests without leaving their wives and families. It also meant that members of the Episcopal church disenchanted with the direction their denomination was taking on a number of issues could ask to be received into the Catholic church.

Since 1983, according to the Pastoral Provision Web site, more than 70 men have been ordained Catholic priests under the provision and seven “personal parishes” have been established. Even laity received approval to “retain certain liturgical elements proper to the Anglican tradition.”

All of that accommodation -- and I am glad the church was so pastorally sensitive to disgruntled Episcopalians -- comes into sharp relief against the backdrop of discussion about married priests in recent weeks. In late August, a group of 163 Milwaukee priests signed a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging an end to mandatory celibacy for candidates for the priesthood and requesting dialogue with the bishops on the issue.

The group made clear that the signers were not anti-celibacy, but merely for expanding the possibilities of those considered for ordination.

As the “pastoral provision” noted above makes clear, those possibilities are already in place.

The question is not, then, why married men cannot be ordained to the priesthood, but why some married men are excluded.

The Milwaukee group also was acutely aware of the possible pitfalls in their request. They made sure that their local bishop was aware of their intentions and, most important, grounded their request in a concern for preserving the eucharistic character of the Catholic community.

What is the Catholic church if it is not a eucharistic community?

That should be the question front and center in the minds of bishops and other church leaders as we continue to see the numbers of priests declining and the number of parishes without priests increasing.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, greeted the request with a predictable response. In a recent interview with editors of The New York Times, Gregory said he saw little hope for the letter “fostering another review of a topic that has been fairly well discussed.”

“Since the Second Vatican Council the question of celibacy has been raised by popes and a number of synods and bishops’ conferences, and I think we have a fairly clear position on the importance of celibacy and its relationship to the Catholic priesthood,” he said in the interview.

His response, though predictable, was disappointing. One can imagine that Gregory, who has had the unenviable job of trying to navigate the conference through the tangle of the sex abuse scandal, doesn’t need another hot button issue to deal with.

Ironically, the Aug. 29 issue of NCR, the same issue that carried the story about the Milwaukee priests, carried the notice of the death of Msgr. Philip Murnion, whose final plea to the bishops was “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” with each other, with their priests and with the laity.

If the issue of married priests appears settled by previous discussions at conferences and synods, it is also a church reality that such gatherings usually are the farthest thing from true dialogue. We know how synods go: If the discussion doesn’t move the way the Vatican wants, it hardly matters. The final report will throw out the challenging questions and life goes on as if nothing significant has happened.

But the questions don’t go away. We know that, too.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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