It's hard out there for a pope these days. On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI launched what he is calling "The Year of Priests," exhorting Roman Catholics to spend the coming year honoring the sacrifice of their local pastors and directing priests to encourage each other so that they might, among other things, "be able to live fully the gift of celibacy and build thriving Christian communities."
Overshadowing the Pope's declaration, however, was the news that earlier in the week Father Alberto Cutie the Miami-based priest and television personality who left the Catholic church last month amid soap opera-worthy scandal had married his girlfriend of two years. Also making waves was the publication of former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland's memoir detailing his life as a closeted gay man within the church and the loneliness that drove him to pursue a sexual relationship with another man. Weakland, who stepped down seven years ago when he turned 75, the age when priests typically submit letters of resignation that the Church may or may not accept, is the highest-ranking Catholic leader to publicly reveal his homosexuality.
Although both he and Cutie have insisted they do not want to be held up as poster boys for changing the Church's celibacy requirement, their stories have added new fuel to a long-simmering debate. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has a serious priest crisis the number of men entering the priesthood has dropped by 60% over the past four decades and the current average age of active priests is 60. Many dioceses have been forced to close parishes or import foreign priests to deal with shortages. But advocates of celibacy reform say there is a better solution: ditch the 900-year-old church law prohibiting priests from marrying or being sexually active.
For the first thousand years of the Christian church, priests, bishops, and even popes could and often did marry. At least 39 popes were married men, and two were the sons of previous popes. The ideal of celibacy existed, but as a teaching from the Apostle Paul, not a church doctrine. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul argued simply that single men had fewer distractions from their godly work: "He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided."
Over the centuries, the Church tried to split the difference, prohibiting marriage after ordination and encouraging married priests to abstain from sex with their wives after they had joined the priesthood. (The Eastern Orthodox CHurch continues to allow married men to be ordained as priests.) But it wasn't until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that a firm church law allowing ordination only of unmarried men was adopted. Journalist and former priest James Carroll contends in Practicing Catholic that the reasons for this celibacy requirement were not purely theological. "Celibacy had been imposed on priests mainly for the most worldly of reasons: to correct abuses tied to family inheritance of Church property," he writes. "Celibacy solved that material problem, but because of the extreme sacrifice it required, it could never be spoken of in material terms. So it was that sexual abstinence came to be justified spiritually, as a mode of drawing close to God."
Prospective priests understandably needed more convincing to embark on a life of chastity. Which is why, according to conventional wisdom among Catholic scholars, alongside the celibacy requirement grew a theological argument that God would bestow the "gift" of celibacy upon those whom He called to religious vocations. A document from the Council of Trent assured skeptical priests that "God refuses not that gift to those who ask for it rightly, neither does He suffer us to be tempted above that which we are able."
Donald Cozzens, professor at John Carroll University and author of Freeing Celibacy, has written that some priests do indeed feel freed from sexual longing and a desire for personal intimacy upon entering the Church. But "there remain other priests who believe deep down they are called to the priesthood but not to celibacy," he writes. "And for these men, the burden of mandated celibacy threatens their spiritual and emotional well-being." Weakland felt this challenge acutely, particularly once he rose to the rarified but also isolated position of archbishop. "I soon realized that a relationship with Jesus Christ, as intense as it might be on the spiritual level, could not fill the emptiness rising from the lack of the physical presence and reality of another human person," he writes in A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church.
Cozzens and others have argued that the Church should consider making celibacy a voluntary discipline for priests. Because it is a rule and not an unchangeable dogma, the celibacy requirement could be altered or rescinded by the Vatican if it chose to do so. Earlier this year, advocates of celibacy reform got a surprising boost from then-outgoing Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who told a Catholic radio host that the celibacy question was "a perfectly legitimate discussion." He suggested that celibacy might not be a reasonable expectation in every locale. "I am not so sure it wouldn't be a good idea to decide on the basis of geography and culture, not to make an across-the-board determination."
Egan was speaking with the candor of a man about to retire. His replacement, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, rebuffed a group of 163 priests in the Milwaukee Archdiocese back in 2003, when they asked to at least launch a discussion about celibacy in the context of priest shortages. Even Pope John Paul II, who quietly started allowing married Protestant ministers to convert and become Catholic priests, was firmly opposed to reconsidering the celibacy requirement. Weakland reports that he regularly found himself in hot water during John Paul's papacy because he socialized with and employed former priests who had resigned and married.
As for Benedict, it seems unlikely he will be more inclined to revisit the Church's celibacy policy. In 2006, he publicly reaffirmed the spiritual purpose of the requirement and made it clear that dissenters on the issue would not be tolerated, excommunicating an African bishop who had ordained several married men as priests. For now, at least, celibacy is not open for discussion. And that is why Father Cutie, Catholic priest, is now Alberto Cutie, Episcopal priest-in-training.