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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

Priests responding to survey favor celibacy discussion


A national survey of Catholic priests conducted by two church reform groups found that two-thirds of priests favor “an open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule for diocesan priests.”

Call to Action and FutureChurch sent questionnaires to 14,043 priests in 53 dioceses throughout the United States. Twenty-seven percent, or 3,846 priests, responded. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they supported an open discussion of celibacy.

Support was strongest among priests ages 41 to 70 (74 percent in favor) and weakest among priests under the age of 40 (42 percent in favor).

According to FutureChurch director St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk, the survey is part of a larger campaign, the Corpus Christi Campaign for Optional Celibacy, to get a discussion of mandatory celibacy on the agenda for the international synod on the Eucharist, scheduled or Rome in October 2005.

“Part of our work,” Schenk told NCR, “is to both call for the structural changes that need to happen in the institution but also to meet the ministerial needs of Catholics right now.”

“We have parishes closing all over the place,” she added, citing announced parish reorganizations in Boston and Toledo (NCR, Oct. 1). The Corpus Christi Campaign also endorses allowing married priests to return to active ministry and ordaining women deacons.

Schenk said that she was moved by many of the written comments on the returned surveys. “One other thing that touched me greatly every time I read it was the number of priests who said, ‘You know this has been a very good life for me. I really value celibacy. I love being a priest. But what is more important is the Eucharist and being able to give sacraments to the people.’

“It was very touching to me, that these men who -- a lot of times these were late 50s, 60-year-old priests -- who have given their whole lives to [the church] in every sense of the word, but it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t about ‘nobody values what my celibacy has been.’ They didn’t have any negative kind of agenda at all. Their concern was for the good of the people and that they worry about the [availability of the] Eucharist.”

In August 2003, 163 Milwaukee priests signed letters sent to their archbishop, Timothy Dolan, and Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, urging them to initiate an open discussion of clerical celibacy. Over the next 10 months, similar letters were signed by associations of priests from Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York state and by priests from Albany, N.Y.; Belleville, Ill.; Toledo, Ohio, and the Minnesota dioceses of St. Paul-Minneapolis, New Ulm and St. Cloud.

After hearing of the Milwaukee priests’ letter, Jim and Sally Orgern, leaders of the Buffalo, N.Y., Call to Action chapter, decided to survey priests in their diocese to learn what they thought of celibacy. The idea caught on and Call to Action and FutureChurch groups soon surveyed priests in 53 dioceses.

Mandatory celibacy has been the rule in the Western church since the 11th century. Earlier this year, priests from the Arlington, Va., diocese and 556 priest candidates from 13 U.S. seminaries signed letters supporting mandatory priestly celibacy.

“The Catholic church’s decline of active priests is stark,” said Schenk. Between 1975 and 2003, she said, the number of Catholics in the United States increased by 32 percent, while the number of priests declined by 22 percent.

Typical comments returned with the surveys include:

  • “I believe celibacy is of great value to the church and a great gift. But I also think the availability of the Eucharist is an even greater gift.” -- an Oklahoma priest.
  • “Mandatory celibacy contravenes psychological development of individuals, our own tradition (the Eastern church) and stifles the Holy Spirit. … What are we afraid of?” -- A California priest.
  • “I am busy enough as a priest and have deep admiration for marriage and families. I could not imagine having enough time to dedicate to wife and children as a priest.” -- a Pennsylvania priest.
  • “Are Catholic people ready to support a pastor and his wife/children? … A married clergy may solve some problems but it would create others. Divorces can be nasty.” -- an Arizona priest.

Responses came from the states of Washington, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

Related Web site

Complete survey results and respondents’ comments are available at

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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