Father figures

Tens of thousands of men have left the Roman Catholic priesthood, many of them in order to marry. Is it finally time for reform?

Photo By Noel Neuberger

When Charles Ara fell in love at the age of 39, he faced an anguished choice. As a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he had taken a vow of celibacy. But after working alongside the 28-year-old religion educator in his parish for almost three years, he felt that his vows had become impossible to live out honestly."I struggled with that decision,” he says. “I agonized over it for about a year. It was probably very unfair to my wife-to-be, to ask her to wait while I worked through my own issues.”

Ultimately, Charles Ara, who still calls himself Father, says, “I decided to add love and marriage to my priesthood.”

The church did not look kindly on Ara’s decision. “The pastor announced that no one could attend my wedding,” Ara says. “A bishop told my parents they could not attend.”

But on the day of the ceremony, at a parishioner’s home, his parents were not the only faithful who made the decision to support Ara. Hundreds of uninvited parishioners showed up. On October 10, 1970, more than 300 Catholics watched as several married priests, one Orthodox priest, one Episcopalian and a group of nuns presided over the marriage of Charles Ara and Shirley Meyers. The wedding party ran out of food, what with the unexpected turnout, but the ‘60s guitar music played on.

While the church does not recognize him as such, Ara, a father of four, still considers himself a Roman Catholic priest.

“It affected my faith,” Ara says. “But I will always love my church and my faith.”

Ara now works as a marriage and family counselor. He does seem to miss the leadership role he had as a priest, though—he’s running for Congress.

Ara is one of as many as 100,000 men worldwide who have left the Roman Catholic priesthood, many of them in order to marry. In the U.S. there are as many as 20,000 married priests (conservative estimates put the number lower; there exists no official figure). Thousands of these men have taken a certain Canonical law to heart: Once a priest, always a priest.

Despite the fact that the Church hierarchy no longer recognizes their right to officiate, they still perform weddings, baptisms and even the occasional mass. The Church may have turned its back on them, but these men still have hope for the Church. They represent an organized, vocal and dedicated group at the margins of Catholic life in the United States and Europe. They may even represent the Church’s best hope for the future.

Moral authority

Today’s Catholic Church has been watching its moral authority erode with every damaging headline about sexual abuse by its priests. The Church’s veil of secrecy—its policy of keeping victims quiet with expensive settlements and shuffling abusers quietly from parish to parish—has exploded in its face. That known child molesters were quietly shifted around within the Church throws a criminal taint onto the entire hierarchy. And the irony is not lost on married priests: While they neither harmed minors nor lied about their sexual choices, the church abandoned them, often dramatically, at the same time that it shielded sexual predators.

The scandal is bringing new, intense pressure to bear on an organization with a long history of resistance to change. But resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three out of four Catholics in America believe the church has been handling the scandals badly. And in June, at a conference in Dallas, the bishops’ statements showed that they are more sensitive than ever to public opinion. On July 20, Voice of the Faithful (www.voiceofthefaithful.org), an influential new lay organization, is holding a conference in Boston in an attempt to galvanize further change and provide a forum for the Catholic public. The bishops will be paying attention.

“The space holds 5,000 and we are expecting to fill it,” says Mike Emerton, a VOTF spokesperson. Besides supporting victims of abuse and priests of integrity, Voice of the Faithful’s primary goal is to push for the laity’s inclusion in Church governance.

The laity’s role is crucial: It’s the central axis that connects a host of hot-button issues for Catholic America—optional celibacy for priests, birth control and the ordination of women.

“The underpinning of all this is really a level of diametric opposition of two totally different world views about what the Church is supposed to be,” says Russ Ditzel, an activist for a priesthood of single and married men and women with the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service (CORPUS). “It’s a clash of the Church as the people of God, and as a hierarchical, structured organization.”

If the Church is forced to listen to the laity, optional celibacy for Catholic priests—which massive numbers of Catholics have expressed support for in numerous polls and surveys—is likely to be one of the first items on the agenda.

While optional celibacy is at best a remote possibility under the current Pope, in many ways it is one of the least controversial issues. Celibacy is not dogma; it’s a rule passed in the 12th century. And the Catholic Church already has married priests—scores of Anglican priests who were allowed to switch to Roman Catholicism, even though they were already married. Homosexuality, for example, is a much more explosive topic, despite the fact that some experts believe that as much as 30 percent of the Catholic priesthood is gay.

Priest shortage

Added urgency comes from another unavoidable Catholic crisis: a shortage of priests. In 1975, America had 60,000 Catholic priests; by 2001 there were just over 45,000. Their numbers continue to decline at a rate of about 12 percent a year. For individual regions, the burn rates translate into dramatic declines: In 1966 in Chicago, there were 1,340 priests. That number has now dropped to 657.

The numbers in the seminaries are even more dire. While there were around 47,000 seminarians in 1965, in 1997 there were only 5,000 (according to figures cited by Chester Gillis in “Roman Catholicism in America,” from the Columbia Contemporary American Religion series). Ironically, the ranks of Catholics in the United States are growing, swelling with an influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.

To put it baldly, the American priest appears to be a dying breed. But if the Church were to welcome back its married priests, it could increase its ranks by as much as a quarter.

“The priesthood is going downhill fairly fast,” says Dean Hoge, a sociologist and former priest at the Catholic University of America. “The crisis over sexual misconduct only makes things a little worse.” Hoge helped conduct a 1987 study that polled Catholic undergraduate students at Catholic schools around the country. “We concluded that you would have a four-fold increase in seminarians if you had optional celibacy. It’s the biggest deterrent.”

“There is no shortage of priests,” says Charles Ara. “They’re not using the priests they already have. I get referrals from parish priests. If for some technicality they can’t do it, they don’t have a problem referring people to me.”

Apart and above

Only about half of both homosexual and heterosexual priests “in good standing” with the Church are actually practicing celibacy, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, former priest and author of Sex, Priests and Power. At any one time, according to his surveys of priests, he estimates that as much as 20 percent of priests are involved in ongoing sexual relationships with adult women.

“This sense that priests are set apart and above, I think that erects a structure for duplicity,” Sipe says. “This is why many priests, who are still priests, lead double lives. They’re good men, and they do good things, but they have a woman in another town, or have affairs or relationships with a man—or in the worst cases, relationships with children—that are contrary to what they say and stand for in their official lives.”

Priests who marry, on the other hand, are priests who are unwilling to lie.

“My experience with priests who marry is a desire for honesty,” Sipe says. “They can’t or won’t lead a double life. They sacrifice the security of the priesthood, their employment, their livelihood, status—all of that.”

Most married priests, especially those organized into groups pressing for reform like CORPUS or Call to Action, are straightforward about who they are. Some are uncomfortable with the idea of practicing, especially with the idea of charging for services not recognized by the church. But many others are hungry for reform. Several hundred are listed online in a regional database run by a group called Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI) at “Rentapriest.com.” That Web site trumpets, “We married Roman Catholic Priest/couples invite you to receive the Sacraments. COME AS YOU ARE!”

A laywoman named Louise Haggett, who was moved to action when she couldn’t find a priest to minister to her dying mother, founded CITI.

“Mom never saw a priest until she was practically comatose in the hospital,” Haggett says. “I felt so betrayed by the church. The disciples were married men. If the Berlin wall came down, why can’t celibacy be abolished?”

Convinced married priests would solve the shortage, she started a one-woman campaign to restore credibility to married priests.

By her own account, Haggett has been succeeding. Hundreds of married priests across the country are performing weddings and baptisms regularly, even stepping in to give mass if the regular priest is not available. The Catholic system allows for lay people to carry out many parish duties, but only ordained priests can give the sacraments.

“There are 5,300 parishes without a resident pastor,” Haggett says. Married priests are bound to fill those holes.

“Cannon 843: No priest can refuse sacramental ministry to anyone who asks,” Haggett recites. “Cannon 290: Once a priest, always a priest.”

Not everyone agrees with Haggett’s analysis, or even with her numbers.

“I’m not denying it’s a serious problem,” says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University. “I just don’t think there’s a crisis.”

Making celibacy optional, Gautier says, would not solve the problem.

“The seminaries would not fill up tomorrow with young men,” she says. “It would have some impact but it’s a larger issue. … Young people are not making long-term commitments to anything.”

Days of Vatican II

CORPUS is the oldest reform group in the country, organized after the Second Vatican Council in 1974.

“CORPUS is the only reform group that’s been in dialogue with so many hierarchies around the world,” says past president and active reformist Dr. Anthony Padovano. “They see us as the representative of married priests. CORPUS tries to speak within the church for change.”

Still a prominent Catholic, Padovano fits one of the most common profiles of married Roman Catholic priests in America. He studied in Rome for six years and was ordained in 1960, just before the Second Vatican Council. The documents issued by Vatican II marked an important change in Catholic attitudes. After Vatican II, priests faced their audiences; they said mass in the language of the people. Vatican II promised a more open Church, one more inclusive and responsive to the laity.

“That was the most moving gathering of God’s people,” Padovano remembers. “I know most Catholics don’t want to go back to the kind of church we were before.”

Padovano is one of many priests who were ordained in the years surrounding Vatican II, swept up in that era’s hope and idealism. According to figures from the Official Catholic Registry, the years between 1965 and 1975 showed a significant uptick in the numbers of both priests and seminarians. Father Charles Ara, in Cerritos, remembers sitting 100 feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I have a dream” speech. Other married priests tell stories of being arrested or sprayed with water hoses during those tumultuous years.

The priesthood was a perfectly logical choice for idealistic young men in the ‘60s. The Catholic Church has a long history of advocating for the poor and the victimized—from the Jesuits in the 18th century who stood up for the indigenous Indians, to Marinole priests who stood up for the rights of the Japanese-American community during the internment camps, to liberation theologians in the 1970s and the list goes on.

Dr. Padovano says that without a doubt, the married priests he knows come from that legion of priests inspired by Vatican II. They are deeply dedicated to ideals of social justice. The eventual choice to leave the priesthood, for many of these men, was a wrenching decision.

“It’s very difficult to leave something you love for reasons that don’t make sense to you,” Padovano says. “In my years of working with married priests, the harder it is for you to resign, the better your marriage is going to be. That relationship must mean an enormous amount to you, if you are willing to put on the line something that was your whole life. I never, even for a second, regretted what I did. I never questioned it, never thought what I did was wrong. But I was just … sorry that I could not continue my work only because I wanted to marry a woman that I loved.

“That was one of the more difficult things to try to understand, why marriage to a Catholic woman, to raise a Catholic family, would make me ineligible to practice the priesthood fully, especially when Christ chose married men to be his apostles.”

Padovano and his wife, Theresa, married in 1974. At the time, Theresa was a nun and a graduate student in his class.

“I’m still crazy about her,” he says. “She’s extraordinary. Thank God, I didn’t miss her. It would have been sinful for me to walk away from her. I think she was really a gift.”

The afterlife

Father Joseph O’Rourke, who lives in Chicago, worked with the peace movement in the ‘60s and was once arrested for burning Dow Chemical files on the company’s front lawn. He got into trouble with the church when he baptized a baby whose 19-year-old mother had expressed her belief in reproductive rights and family planning. The Church had refused the child baptism, but O’Rourke stepped in and performed the ceremony on the steps of the parish church.

“That got me into a lot of trouble,” he says. He was expelled from the Jesuit order before he chose to marry.

For him, like many others, the desire to marry was just the final expression of larger philosophical differences on everything from social issues to the Church’s hierarchical leadership.

“There’s no real justification any longer for exclusive and autocratic government in the Catholic Church,” says O’Rourke, 62. Father O’Rourke couches the debate as a fight for human rights against a paternalistic, patriarchal organization that is wasting its potential as an important moral leader in society.

“The Church could become the most powerful spokesperson for religious liberty … for constitutional and human rights,” he says. “You can find this in Catholic social thought, in its advocacy of the economic as well as political rights that we feel so strongly about.”

It seems clear that these men not only represent a sheer numerical loss for the Catholic priesthood, but also a huge loss of talent, dedication and faith. While the Church may not yet have recognized that loss, many lay people have.

Paul Lencioni, a 38-year-old developer for Cisco Systems, was married by Father O’Rourke and had O’Rourke baptize both of his children.

It doesn’t bother Lencioni that Father O’Rourke no longer has the right, within the Church, to perform these sacraments.

“Celibacy is a dated concept,” Lencioni says. “It should be abolished.”

In some paradoxical way, married priests may be doing the Catholic Church a favor. Married priests create a space that many Catholics trust and feel is still Catholic, even though it’s outside of some of the Church’s teachings.

“We’re the sheepdogs,” O’Rourke says.

Lencioni says that priests like O’Rourke are helping with the internal reconciliations that many Catholics have been making for years. Many of the church’s teachings, especially around personal issues like birth control and divorce, would have otherwise proved impossible for modern Catholics to live by.

“I think it’s OK to blend different philosophies in your own faith, and sometimes we have to do that,” Lencioni says. “Sometimes, when you make those reconciliations, your faith is stronger. It’s that versus being unhappy with your church and moving away from it. I don’t think that, ultimately, is a positive outcome.”

“When I see the Church today, I see masses that are poorly attended. I see people who are disgruntled. A lot of that has to do with the need for some more open thinking.”

On July 20, Voice of the Faithful will gather the faithful from across the nation in an attempt to move the Catholic Church closer to the more open vision of Vatican II, toward its potential as a Church of the people. Married priests will certainly be in attendance. It remains to be seen whether they will be heard.

This article is part of a national project in which more than 30 alternative weeklies nationwide are participating. Visit AlterNet.org to read the other stories on married priests and the Catholic Church reform movement.