A long-simmering debate among Roman Catholics in the United States about whether to allow married men to serve in the priesthood is back on the front burner, pressed by priests concerned about the dwindling of their ranks.
While leading American bishops issued letters yesterday defending mandatory celibacy for priests as a vital church dictate that is not open to discussion, groups of priests in several dioceses were considering joining fellow priests in Milwaukee who recently petitioned for a change.
"There is an enormous amount of support for this among priests," said the Rev. Donald C. Fisher of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests, a liberal group of clerics and laypeople that plans to collect 5,000 signatures on a petition supporting optional celibacy. "It's the elephant in every clerical living room."
About a third of Milwaukee's priests signed a letter to bishops last month lamenting that a severe priest shortage was forcing many parishioners to go without the Eucharist and other sacraments that only priests can administer. As of this summer, 3,040 of the 19,081 parishes in the United States lacked resident pastors, and priests are often assigned to several parishes at once.
In his first formal response to the Milwaukee priests, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a letter dated yesterday that the church would need other strategies to renew itself and maintain access to the sacraments.
He called celibacy "a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ" that popes from Paul VI to John Paul II had reaffirmed.
His letter was issued the same day as one from Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, who wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper that he believed in celibacy wholeheartedly, "not just because I'm `supposed to,' or reluctantly `have to,' but because I want to."
Although his tone was compassionate and fraternal, Archbishop Dolan said this was the wrong time to raise the issue. "This is the time we priests need to be renewing our pledge to celibacy, not questioning it," he wrote. "The recent sad scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors, as the professionals have documented, has nothing to do with our celibate commitment."
But associations of priests in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Charleston and the state of Illinois may soon issue statements asking that married men be allowed in the priesthood, according to the National Federation of Priests' Councils.
"There is just no doubt that in a diocese like Brooklyn and Queens, the number of priests is so far down, while the number of parishes remains the same, that we can no longer handle it," said Msgr. John J. Powis, a priest with Voice of the Ordained, which has a membership of 151 active priests in the Dioceses of Brooklyn, New York and Rockville Centre as well as 50 men who have left the priesthood to marry.
"If what we say is true — that the Eucharist is the most important part of the Catholic religion — to have priests covering two, maybe three parishes, running from parish to parish celebrating Mass, doesn't make any sense," Monsignor Powis said.
He said Voice of the Ordained would take up celibacy at its meeting later this month.
Bishop Gregory and Archbishop Dolan both asserted that celibacy was not to blame for the priest shortage. Bishop Gregory said several other Christian denominations, as well as Reform and Conservative Judaism, faced clergy shortages although their clerics are allowed to marry.
But Dean R. Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America who has studied the Catholic and Protestant clergy for more than 30 years, disputed Bishop Gregory.
"What Bishop Gregory said is misleading, because the Catholic situation is much more grim than any of the other churches," Mr. Hoge said.
He said that for every 100 priests who die or leave ministry today, only 30 or 40 replace them. He said that in some Protestant denominations, small, rural or poorer congregations had problems attracting ministers, but that other congregations had an oversupply of candidates.
The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said that while many priests would embrace optional celibacy, many others would not. He said his board was divided on the Milwaukee petition.
"What we will do," Father Silva said, "is encourage the bishops to at least allow discussion, because these are difficult days, difficult times, difficult issues, and they should be talked about."