Last week, a letter calling for an end to obligatory celibacy in the Catholic priesthood, and signed by 163 priests of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, was mailed to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter expressed their "pastoral concern that the Catholic Church needs more candidates for the priesthood, so that the Church's sacramental life might continue to flourish."
In light of this week's Scripture readings, I thought it apropos to address this issue once again and express my own solidarity with those 163 priests who have taken such a risk in requesting an open and honest dialog to begin to address such an important need. Those of you who have visited my website regularly know that I am not one to "jump on the bandwagon" nor is this is the first time that I have written about the issue of celibacy.
In today's Gospel, the point of Jesus' response to the Pharisees was to expose their concern for minute, man-made, details of religious observances and traditions - while ignoring the "spirit" of the Law. Jesus answered their challenge with the words of Isaiah about paying lip service to the Law but being far away from God in their hearts. The Scriptures tell us that God does not look on outward appearances, but rather looks on the heart. In another Scripture passage, Jesus tells the Pharisees that "man was not made for the Law, but the Law was made for man." God is not so much concerned by outward shows of religiosity and blind obedience - although people sometimes are.
It was only some eight-hundred fifty-nine years ago (1139) when Pope Innocent II decreed mandatory celibacy for all priests in response to concerns about ownership of Church property and a negative perception of sexuality. To date, almost 23,000 priests have left active ministry in the United States; close to 100,000 worldwide. By the year 2000, there will be more "married-priests" in the U.S. than institutionally active priests. More than 10% of our parishes are now without a resident pastor; the numbers are closer to 50% worldwide. In 1965, there were over 48,000 seminarians; today, 6,500+. As the Church enters the new millennium, there are approximately 24,000 priests to cover 19,000 parishes. Statistics show that four out of ten newly ordained priests are needed just to replace resigned priests; and the other six won't even begin to fill the vacancies created by retirements and deaths.
Much of this is attributed to the church law on mandatory celibacy for priests.
But the real issue, I think, is the way priestly ministry seems to be viewed by Church authorities.
There are many organizations and groups which are actively working to persuade our bishops and the Holy Father to look at how the priesthood is actually lived out the Roman Catholic Church, worldwide. This recent development is one of the first times that a group of priests have expressed their common concern. Bishop Gregory's response to the Milwaukee letter is an expected one: "I don't see this fostering another review of a topic that has been fairly well discussed."
But one wonders where these discussions have taken place and by whom? The Holy Spirit certainly lives, breathes and works within the "institution" of what we call "church," but is also currently at work, "outside the established norms" as well.
The Church needs to take a new look at the ministries within it, with the needs of the People of God and the universal mission of the Church as the starting point for discussion. To the extent that each person attempts to live out the spirit of the Gospels, is the extent to which his or her life-style enriches the church's basic mission in the world.
And I believe that this enrichment knows no barriers: neither marriage nor celibacy, neither male nor female.