A Gathering Of Old Priests

David reports on the 2003 gathering of CORPUS members in Dallas, Texas.

The camaraderie was obvious among this group of about one hundred priests. We kidded one another about seminary pranks, laughed at some of the same stories, talked nostalgically about the professors who taught us scripture and moral theology way back in the sixties and seventies. The bond we felt with one another was accentuated by the fact that this was no ordinary gathering of Roman Catholic priests. The convention we were attending in Dallas was sponsored by CORPUS, a national organization of married Catholic priests. This priest's conference was notable for its lack of Roman collars and the presence of wedding rings.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church tries very hard to ignore the existence of a group like CORPUS. Refusing to recognize the witness of the 100,000 priests worldwide who have exchanged marriage vows for their promise of chastity, the Church does not give canonical recognition to Catholic priests who have married. Ironically, married Episcopal priests who wish to convert to Roman Catholicism are allowed to come into the church together with their wives and families and function as priests; but Catholic priests who marry no longer have a place at the altar.

The position of the Roman Catholic Church on mandatory celibacy for its priests seems neither fair nor very smart to the members of CORPUS. Most of them, whatever Rome's opinion on their status, still consider themselves priests. They refuse to accept the designation of "former priests" or "ex-priests." As Anthony Padovano, a married priest with four children and one of the speakers at the CORPUS conference put it, "Rome can take away my clerical standing but not my priesthood, my official functioning but not my ministry, my canonical appointment but not the sacrament of my love for a woman."

In point of fact, many married priests continue their ministry despite the disfavor of the church hierarchy. Married priests preside at marriages, offer Mass in small faith communities, work as chaplains in hospitals. So far they are small in number; but as the shortage of celibate priests reaches crisis proportions, it becomes less and less defensible not to call upon the services of men who have been called and educated to minister to the faithful.

It's not as though the practice of celibacy has been with the church since its foundation. Peter, the first pope, and most of the apostles were married. The members of CORPUS are simply saying, "If Jesus saw fit to choose his successors from the ranks of married men, why does this present church hesitate to do the same?" The law of mandatory celibacy for priests of the Roman Rite was not even promulgated until the Second Lateran Council in 1139. Even after that time, priests and even popes continued to marry and have children for several hundred years.

The message of the married priests in Dallas is that the regulation of clerical celibacy is exactly that : a regulation or policy that can be changed at the discretion of the pope. One of the workshop presenters dismissed the rule of mandatory celibacy as nothing more than a "by-law" that can be changed tomorrow. It has no foundation in scripture and has become in fact a stumbling block for the church. Padovano adds, "If a woman and marriage dishonor the priesthood, then such a priesthood dishonors the church and the message of Christ."

Given the scandal of so many Catholic priests being charged with the sexual abuse of children, the relationship between celibacy and priest pedophilia was bound to emerge at the CORPUS conference. No one was saying that mandatory celibacy was the cause of pedophilia, but the consensus of the conference participants was that requiring celibacy creates an atmosphere that makes adult sexual development more difficult. Normal growth for most men occurs in a context of relationships with members of the opposite sex. Marriage and family is the way most of us develop as adults. Isolate seminarians and priests from women and discourage intimate friendships and you will almost assure yourself of producing a significant number of men who either learn to "stuff" their sexuality or let it play out in unsavory ways. Celibacy can always be an option; but to require it as a condition for ordination is to place a heavy burden on priests, one that is unnecessary and may be a contributing factor to the sexual abuse of children.

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