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Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

U.S. clergy frustrated, divided, says leader

The outpouring of letters from diocesan priests to their bishops in recent months is the result of widespread, but by no means unanimous, frustration, said Fr. Robert Silva, president and executive director of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.

“Ever since the 2002 bishops’ meeting in Dallas, many priests feel devalued,” he said, as if their input and experience is neither needed nor wanted on issues like optional celibacy or the handling of priest abuse cases.

Silva travels extensively around the country meeting with diocesan councils, about 125 of which (representing two-thirds of all councils in the country) are affiliated with the federation. What the priests want and are beginning to demand, he said, is face-to-face communication with bishops on the serious issues. “They are good priests,” he said, “but they are not going to put up with top-down communication,” often through a spokesman for the local bishop.

Priests became emboldened last August, said Silva, by the letter signed by some 170 Milwaukee priests declaring that a married priesthood is necessary for the good of both clergy and laity. “The Milwaukee men had the energy to sign their names and go public,” he said, thereby opening a floodgate of similar initiatives elsewhere (NCR, Dec. 26, 2003).

Silva said it would be a mistake to think all priests, or even a majority in many dioceses, agree with the recent activism. “The U.S. priesthood has never been so divided as it is today,” noted Silva, who has been federation director for three and a half years. He recalled a time when he believed he could confidently speak on issues for the vast majority of the clergy.

Although the group’s leadership has gone on record favoring an open discussion of celibacy, Silva said, “it’s almost impossible for the organization to take a stand on anything anymore.” The major fault line on subjects like celibacy is age, he said, with the older clergy pressing for a voice in decision-making and the younger, especially those ordained in the past 15 years, preferring “to let the bishop be a bishop” and make decisions as he sees fit.

“This is a very unique period in the history of the American church,” said Silva.

-- Robert J. McClory

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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