by Holly McKenna
ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - Some are Catholics who see their church as stuck in the past. Others are believers who happen to be divorced, pregnant before marriage or gay. A few just can't find a priest when they need one.
Roman Catholics shunned by the official church are "renting" married priests in times of crisis and celebration.
They turn to http://www.rentapriest.com, a Web site with 2,500 Catholic priests in a national database known as "God's Yellow Pages."
Virtually all the priests in the database have left their official clerical ministries due to the Roman Catholic Church's mandatory celibacy rule, but they continue to conduct weddings, usually for a fee, while performing baptisms, last rites and funerals for free, in keeping with the practice of officially recognized priests.
"We are doing Jesus' work and apparently the church isn't," said Louise Haggett, director of Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI) ministries, which runs the site and helped arrange 3,000 weddings last year.
The group also is working to change the Catholic church's ban on married priests.
Haggett said the Internet is a popular source for rent-a-priests because there is a shortage. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. parishes lack a resident priest, according to a U.S. Conference of Bishops study.
Priests are aging, churches are closing and fewer priests are being ordained. The church knows there are fewer priests than decades ago but there are plenty to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, said Ron Menty of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
"Sometimes the reason why people go to this source concerns the rules, regulations and expectations of the church," Menty said. "Sometimes a priest outside the community feels freer in providing services."
The going rate for a wedding in New York is about $500, cheaper in other states.
FAITHFUL TO JESUS, NOT RULES
Haggett founded the site in 1992 when her mother was in a nursing home and unable to find a parish priest.
CITI locates, recruits, certifies and promotes married or gay Roman Catholic priests. Haggett said 21 canons in church law validate married priests.
But the church does not recognize these priests because they violated their vows, said Ken Goldfarb, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The church does recognize some married Protestants who became priests later in life.
"These rent-a-priests have already taken their vows, then married. That's the distinction," Goldfarb said.
Richard Hasselbach, who married after he was a priest for 13 years, defends the organization because many people are turned off by what he calls the inflexibility and rigidity of "the corporate Catholic Church."
He routinely marries people who are divorced, pregnant or gay and counsels people who were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests. He celebrates Mass in his home and performs marriages outside of church buildings. The Roman Catholic Church does not allow wedding ceremonies to be held outside.
Jim and Mary Ann Graves of Batavia, Illinois, were married in their backyard by Bob Scanlan, whom they found on the Web site. Both were raised Catholic, married for the first time in the church, and then divorced. Together they have eight children.
"We never considered an annulment because it's a real hassle," Mary Ann Graves said. "We were looking for something different than the first time, but we wanted a religious and spiritual ceremony."
Faith is a relationship with Christ and not about rules and dogma, Hasselbach said. "Once you're a priest, you're always a priest," he said. "If I fail to respond to the call to minister, I do so at my own peril."