Priests express marital interests

A group of Milwaukee area priests have been getting national attention as a result of their decision to send an open letter to the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advocating the possibility of a married clergy. The letter was drafted by the Revs. Tom Suriano of St. Patrick Church, Joe Aufdermauer of Saint Matthias and Steve Dunn of Saint Gregory the Great Church.

The letter said: "We urge that from now on celibacy be optional, not mandatory, for candidates for the diocesan Roman Catholic priesthood." It went on to explain that the priests believe this change would increase the number of candidates to the priesthood.

"We believe that married priests would enhance the priesthood with their gifts and increase the availability of the sacraments," said Dunn, who is also a doctoral student at Marquette.

After the letter was drafted in June, it was sent to all the active and retired priests in the archdiocese of Milwaukee, including those in religious orders. On August 16, 163 individually signed copies of the letter were sent to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB.

"The signatures ranged across the gamut," Dunn said. "Everyone from the recently ordained to the retired."

Of the 442 diocesan priests contacted, 29 percent signed and returned the letter. Also, 35 of the 340 priests in religious orders signed the letter, even though it requested optional celibacy only for diocesan priests, and would therefore not apply to them. A source with ties to the Jesuit community indicated that some members of the Wisconsin province of Jesuits signed and returned the letter.

The Rev. Kenneth Mich of Good Shepard Church was among those who signed the letter.

"I doubt I'll see anything happen in my lifetime, but it is important that the church start seeing more and more that marriage and the sacraments aren't contradictory," Mich said.

Dunn indicated that the idea for this letter came last winter at a district meeting for local priests.

"The subject of optional celibacy came up and we started talking about the possibility of us, as priests, taking a public stance," Dunn said. "We wanted to send a simple petition, not some long theological dissertation because all of that has been researched and covered. Just a simple, non-judgmental, non-combative letter expressing our feelings."

Dunn said he and his comrades went through as many official channels as possible before being told by the Archdiocesan Council of Priests to draft the letter themselves, separate from the council.

"Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan knew about everything from the first step," Dunn said. "There was absolutely no malice in this or any sneaking around. We always wanted to be open and honest."

Dolan is currently on vacation and could not be reached for comment on the issue, but Archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski said he has been aware of the drafting and sending of the letter.

Dolan "understands that this is an emotional issue for many priests," Topczewski said. "He knows that priests, like anyone else, need to discuss their profession. I'm sure priests have been talking about the issue of celibacy since shortly after the Last Supper."

David Early, spokesman for the USCCB, said that Gregory had not received the letters yet and is waiting to receive them all before making any comment.

Although the story has received national press, the archdiocese has heard little reaction to the issue.

"I've gotten about 15 e-mails and a few phone calls over the past few days," Topczewski said. "They are about evenly split in support and in opposition to the letter."

Dunn said he has received no negative feedback and many members of his parish have expressed their support.

Many members of the Catholic community have come out with various opinions on the issue. One more unique perspective is that of Frank Baiocchi, a native of Hartford and retired high school teacher. Baiocchi is a former Archdiocese of Chicago priest who left after 11 years of parish ministry and ultimately married and had children.

Baiocchi is a member of an organization called Celibacy Is The Issue, a group made up of men who were at one time ordained celibate priests and who ultimately left to marry. They advocate for optional celibacy in the priesthood.

"We are not 'ex-priests,' CITI's Web site said. "According to church law and Roman Catholic tradition, 'Once a priest, always a priest.' We love our wives and children and our Roman Catholic tradition."

"It's past time for the rank and file clergy to let their voices be heard," Baiocchi said. "Bishops have been dictating things while living in their big isolated houses, isolated and removed from their parish priests."

Baiocchi also said he firmly believed that celibacy was an important part of and gift to the priesthood, but that it should be optional.

"You can be an excellent priest and an excellent celibate, but a horrible celibate priest," Baiocchi said. "These issues are much too important in and of themselves to be a packaged deal."

Baiocchi is currently co-pastor of a nonaffiliated church called Jesus the Shepard in Allenton. He shares his duties with fellow CITI member Jim Ryan. The church ministers primarily to Catholics who have become uncomfortable with the Catholic Church.

Walt Stump, financial secretary for the metro Milwaukee chapter of Knights of Columbus, a fraternal order of Catholic men, was also in support of the letter.

"I have no problem with the letter because they did not go behind the archbishop's back," Stump said. "Celibate priesthood was not something that was instituted by Christ and optional celibacy might be a solution to the problems the Church is having with vocations."

However, not everyone in the Catholic community is in favor of it.

"We'd be losing so much witnessing power if celibacy was made optional," said the Rev. Will Prospero, assistant director of University Ministry.

As a Jesuit, celibacy is mandatory for Prospero, as it is for all religious orders.

"The sacramental value of celibacy is crucial because priests are examples of Christ who is the bridegroom of the Church," Prospero said. "That spousal relationship with the church is so important and to lose that would be a shame."

Prospero also said that superiors of the Jesuit order did not come out with any statements about the letter.

The Rev. Tome Hughson, also a Jesuit, said he did not sign the letter because he did not want the importance of celibacy to be devalued in any way.

"This is not an issue of incompatability because the church has shown historically that marriage and the priesthood are very compatible," Hughson said. "However, celibacy is such a strong gift of self surrender to God, it is important that it not get lost in the shuffle."

Hughson, who described himself as moderate on the issue, said many of his colleagues sympathized with the struggles of the diocesan priest on this issue.

"They do not live with a community to support them in their ministry and that has to be a real struggle at times," Hughson said.

Christopher Wolfe, professor of political science and an active Catholic layperson, has written about the issue of religion and politics and expressed his disagreement with the letter.

"The Journal Sentinel article said 'Local clergy urge optional celibacy,'" Wolfe said. "That is like saying, 'Local clergy urge optional total commitment to Church.' Celibacy is a wonderful charism and it would be very sad to see that compromised in any way."

Wolfe also believed optional celibacy was not a legitimate answer to the clergy shortage.

"Our problem is we need more vitality in the Church to stimulate vocations, not a watered-down clergy," he said.

Dunn maintained his belief in the sanctity of celibacy.

"We do not want this to be seen as trashing celibacy in any way," Dunn said. "And also this would only affect future vocations — nothing would change for us. I am not saying this will not have its own set of problems, but we cannot keep our heads in the sand."

As national attention on the story continues to grow, Dunn and his fellow drafters Suriano and Aufdermauer have been bombarded with media questions.

"Prayer and study are my great joy and are so key to what keeps me going," Dunn said. "I didn't realize how taxing all of this was until it hit me yesterday (Wednesday) and I just unplugged the phone and took that time for silent prayer."

Dunn said he looked forward to more discussion and debate on the issue.

"I often tell people this is similar to the Nicene Creed Catholics say every week at Mass," Dunn said. "It is a crucial part of faith, but that creed came out of a lot of debate and a lot of dialogue."