Father figures

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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.

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 guitar music from the ’60s played on.

While the Church does not recognize him as such, Ara, now 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—so 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 United States 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.

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 dedicated resistance to change. But resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three in four Catholics in America believe the Church has been handling the scandals badly. And in June, at a conference in Dallas, Texas, 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 spokesman. 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.

There’s a lot more at stake than just arcane questions of 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.

Added urgency comes from another unavoidable Catholic crisis: a shortage of priests. 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.”

Priests who marry 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 such as 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!”

CITI was founded by a laywoman named Louise Haggett, who was moved to action when she couldn’t find a priest to minister to her dying mother. “Mom never saw a priest until she was practically comatose in the hospital,” Haggett says. “I felt so betrayed by the Church,” she says. “The disciples were married men,” she says. “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 celebrate 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,” says Haggett. Married priests, she says, 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 (CARA). “I just don’t think there’s a crisis.”

Doing away with celibacy would not solve the problem, Gautier says. “The seminaries would not fill up tomorrow with young men. Young people are not making long-term commitments to anything.”

CORPUS is the oldest reform group in the country, organized in 1974 after the Second Vatican Council. “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 sea change in Catholic attitudes. After Vatican II, priests faced their audiences; they celebrated Mass in the language of the people. Vatican II promised a more open Church, one more inclusive and responsive to the laity.

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 Maryknoll priests who stood up for the rights of the Japanese-American community during the internment camps, to liberation theologians in the 1970s, the list goes on.

Padovano says that the married priests he knows come from that legion of priests inspired by Vatican II and 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. But I was just … sorry, that I could not continue my work, only because I wanted to marry a woman that I loved.”

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 priests like him, the desire to marry was just the final expression of larger philosophical differences.

“There’s no real justification any longer for exclusive and autocratic government in the Catholic Church,” says O’Rourke, 62. 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,” he says, “for constitutional and human rights. You can find this in Catholic social thought, in its advocacy of economic as well as political rights, that we feel so strongly about.”

It seems clear that such 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 O’Rourke, and had O’Rourke baptize both of his children. It doesn’t bother Lencioni that O’Rourke no longer has the right, within the Church, to perform these sacraments.

In some paradoxical way, married priests may create a space that many Catholics trust, and feel is still Catholic, outside of some of the Church’s teachings. Lencioni articulates the kind of internal reconciliation that many Catholics have been making for years. Many of the Church’s teachings, especially around personal issues like birth control and divorce, have proved impossible for modern Catholics to live by.

“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,” says Lencioni.

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.