Holy Polemics! It's the Catholic Church vs. Rentapriest.com

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Father Charlie Ara of Cerritos, CA announces a newlywed couple

It's said that every problem carries with it the seeds of its solution, and so it is with rentapriest.com, a free service that matches Catholics looking for spiritual succor the Church can't provide with former Catholic clerics who have left the Church but can still perform its ceremonies. It all begins with a shortage of priests. Throughout the United States, the Catholic Church is facing an epic paucity of clergy; currently, pulpits in more than 5,300 parishes stand empty, and declining numbers of new priests indicate the situation may get worse. Meanwhile, according to recent figures, more than 20,000 American priests, or one out of every three, left the church in the last 25 years; 9 out of 10 in order to be married.

No priest means no sacraments are performed, which means the heft of the service is eliminated. Fewer priests mean fewer masses. So whatís a spiritually hungry Catholic to do?

Enter rentapriest.com, started back in 1992 (and moved online a few years later) by Louise Haggett, a marketing specialist and practicing Catholic who encountered a very personal need for more priests — and decided to address that shortage with a very unorthodox response.

"My mom, a devout Catholic, was in an assisted living facility where they unfortunately didnít hold Catholic mass on the weekends," she says. "I tried for weeks, but I couldnít find a priest to come visit my mother. Finally, a priest was able to come, but by then she was in a coma. It was incredibly upsetting."

Her grief left Haggett, a cheerful woman of steely resolve, with a mission: Find priests to fill Americaís underserved parishes. And in 1992, armed with a new understanding of canon law, she founded Rentapriest to "assist thousands of Catholics with spiritual needs, especially those turned away by the church." Based in Framingham, Massachusetts, the not-for-profit service acts as a clearinghouse, providing names of married priests to congregations, couples, even cruise lines looking for religious leadership.

The fundamental question: Is a married priest really a Catholic priest? The Vatican says absolutely not, but Haggett disagrees, citing Canon law. "Catholic doctrine says once youíre a priest, youíre always a priest," she says. "Once youíre ordained, you never stop being a priest. Itís something no one ever tells priests once theyíve decided to get married." Her conviction is based on a reading of Canon 290: "Sacred ordination once validly received never becomes invalid. A cleric, however, loses the clerical state." In other words, Haggett believes a priest who marries may no longer be an officer of the church, but he is still ordained as a priest.

Opposition from within

Officially, the Church is very much opposed to rentapriest.com. "This is a mockery. Itís an absolute joke," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. "This is a group of people who are former priests who are not happy with their status as former priests, and so theyíve decided to form this organization that mocks the priesthood."

Walsh has particularly strong words for the originator of the term rentapriest.com. "The name itself doesnít inspire serious people to take them seriously." (Haggett says she thought the name would be a "good way to attract media attention.") But objections from many in the Catholic establishment to the site — and its mission — go well beyond semantics. The concept of laicized priests taking on the role of active priests is, Walsh insists, in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine. "Either youíre a priest in union with a diocese or youíre not. To suggest otherwise is wrong," she says.

According to Walsh, the Church is well aware of the priest shortage — and leaders are taking "appropriate" actions to reverse the trend. "Right now we have about 35,000 people studying to become lay ministers," she says. "Once theyíve completed their studies, they can take on many of the duties traditionally taken on by priests. They wonít be able to perform the sacraments, like marriages and funerals, but they can bring communion to the sick."

Not just for Catholics anymore

You donít have to be Catholic to use this referral service. Rentapriest.com clergymen have presided over events that include elements of Jewish, Hindu — even Protestant — ceremonies, says Haggett. These men, she says, are happy to provide ministry in whatever form itís needed.

And the needs run the gamut: Some visit rentapriest.com in hopes of escaping the strict confines of the Catholic Church. And in some cases, those confines are not theological or political, but physical. "A lot of people are Catholics and want the religious service, but want to get married outside, or at the beach, Haggett says. "In the Church, you canít get married outside the actual structure of the sanctuary."

In other cases, parishioners are trying to strike a balance between a modern life and the rules of the Church. For example, in order to remarry in the Catholic Church, you must have your first marriage annulled, or wiped away, as if it never happened. That can be personally wrenching, particularly if the first marriage resulted in children. With Rentapriest, you get the same familiar language, the same comforting ritual, minus the formal sanction of the Vatican. For some, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, says Haggett. "Weíve been told that for many people itís more important to be married by someone who has been anointed by God, rather than by a justice of the peace," she says. "This way, people can have the religious ceremony."

Jeremy and Tanya McKeen of Salem, Mass., provide one very recent example. Two weeks ago, they were married by Ron Ingalls, a priest turned English teacher. "The first time we met with him he talked about particle physics and the metaphysics of love much more than he talked about religion," says Jeremy. The wedding itself was also short on religion but long on warmth, which is what Jeremy and Tanya, who were both raised as Protestants, were looking for. "We had the ceremony at a rock quarry and Ron said a homily, but that was pretty much it," he says.

Quiet support from the Church

While Sister Walsh and the Vatican are not at all pleased with the goings on at rentapriest.com, not everyone in the Church shares their point of view. Louise Haggett remembers the time she shared a ride from the airport with a bishop. She couldnít resist posing an ostensibly rhetorical question. "What would you do," Haggett began, "if we put a married priest in your parish?" The bishop replied gravely, "Well, Iíd have to put an end to it, I suppose." Haggett pressed on. "But what if no one complained?" she asked. The bishop paused before answering sotto voce. "Then Iíd just look the other way."

Haggett believes she has reason to hope her organization will be part of a lasting trend: According to Catholic tradition, she says, practice becomes custom and custom becomes law. "You can see examples of that happening everywhere," she explains. "The mass used to be only in Latin, now itís in the vernacular. Once only boys could serve on the altar, now girls do as well. Before the changes actually happen, and theyíre just suggested, everyone says, oh, no, thatís terrible, you canít do that."

But eventually, says Haggett, the Church establishment will come around. "I feel the Vatican will eventually say, okay, youíre doing this, so thatís the way it is."