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September 2, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 101




Tom Roberts Questions that won't go away

Tom Roberts NCR editor

What is the Catholic church if it is not a Eucharistic community?

That should be the question front and center in the minds of bishops and other church leaders as we continue to see the numbers of priests declining and the number of parishes without priests increasing.

That question, apparently, motivated the 163 Milwaukee priests who signed a letter urging an end to mandatory celibacy for candidate for the priesthood. (See NCR Aug. 29, Admit married men to priesthood, 163 Milwaukee priests urge.)

Actually, they didn't have to urge an end to celibacy. There are already married priests, quite a few of them, former Episcopal and Lutheran ministers, for instance, who decided to seek ordination into the Roman Catholic Church and were allowed to do so with families intact.

Not long ago I read an interview with a former Episcopal priest who was being ordained in the Catholic Church. He fairly gushed about the importance of his wife to his ministry, how he could not have done what he did without her support. But somewhere mid-interview, he also said he saw no reason for changing the celibacy rule in the Catholic church. Interesting institution.

The priests in Milwaukee, who are receiving considerable support from priests elsewhere, were correct to ground their request in the sacramental issue and to simply seek dialogue.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, greeted the request with a predictable response. In a recent interview with editors of The New York Times, Gregory said he saw little hope for the letter "fostering another review of a topic that has been fairly well discussed."

"Since the Second Vatican Council the question of celibacy has been raised by popes and a number of synods and bishops' conferences, and I think we have a fairly clear position on the importance of celibacy and its relationship to the Catholic priesthood," he said in the interview.

His response, though predictable, was disappointing. One can imagine that Gregory, who has had the unenviable job of trying to navigate the conference through the tangle of the sex abuse scandal, doesn't need another hot button issue on his plate.

Still, one is left wondering if he acknowledges the concern for a sacramental church beyond the rather tepid response of the bishops thus far.

And if the issue appears settled by the string of popes and conferences and synods, it is also a church reality that such gatherings usually are the farthest thing from true dialogue. We know how synods go: If the discussion doesn't go the way the Vatican wants, it hardly matters. The final report will throw out the challenging questions and life goes on as if nothing significant has happened.

But the questions don't go away. We know that, too.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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