By CLARKE CANFIELD, AP
BRUNSWICK, Maine (Nov. 26) - The Vatican this month reaffirmed its position that priests should be celibate. But Louise Haggett remains faithful to her belief that the Roman Catholic Church's celibacy rules need changing now more than ever. The church could grow its shrinking ranks of priests and touch many more lives by lifting its celibacy requirements, said Haggett, a lifelong Catholic who runs a nonprofit referral service for married priests.
In the decade since Haggett launched her Rent-a-Priest Web site, more than 100,000 people have been married, buried, baptized or otherwise attended to by married priests who are listed on the site.
Perhaps some day, Haggett said, church leaders will share her opinion.
"The whole issue of celibacy in the church is nothing but a farce," she said.
Haggett, 65, founded CITI Ministries - the CITI stands for Celibacy is the Issue - in 1992 after she couldn't find a priest in Maine to visit her mother in a nursing home in the weeks before her death.
Following her mother's death, Haggett discovered there were countless priests who had left the church to marry but still felt a calling. So she launched Rent-A-Priest, which bills itself as "God's Yellow Pages" and lists more than 300 ordained priests, who happen to be married, in the U.S. and abroad.
The priests perform marriages, baptisms, funerals, confessions, home Masses and other Catholic rituals for people who can't find a parish priest or don't meet church requirements to receive the sacraments. They pay Haggett a $285 annual membership fee and generally provide many services for free while charging the going rate for things like marriage ceremonies.
Because the priests are married, the church doesn't authorize them to perform any sacraments. Some people call them impostors, and Haggett's service was once called "Rent-A-Nut."
Numerous reasons have been put forth on why priests are required to be celibate, including the time and devotion required for the job. From a spiritual sense, it's so priests more closely imitate Jesus Christ, who was not married, said Monsignor Marc Caron of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
Married men who perform priestly rituals, and the people who use them, are acting in disobedience to the church, Caron said. While marriages performed by married priests may be legally recognized by the state, they are invalid from the church's point of view.
"I think it's important for people to be aware of that," he said.
Even so, there appears to be a need, said Bob Scanlan, a married priest who has presided over 23 weddings and nine funerals in the past year, and is an on-call chaplain at a hospital. Scanlan, who lives in Aurora, Ill., was ordained as a priest in 1969 and left his parish when he married in 1973.
Scanlan, 63, thinks the Vatican might lift the celibacy rules in his lifetime if the shortage of priests becomes so dire that nobody is available to deliver the Eucharist.
"It's almost embarrassing because every other religion on Earth has figured this out, how to have clergy that are married," he said. "The idea that celibacy frees priests for the people 24/7 is a myth."
The issue drew international attention earlier this month.
Pope Benedict XVI recently convened a summit of Vatican officials to discuss the celibacy requirement for clergy. The meeting was spurred by African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was excommunicated in September for ordaining four married men as bishops.
After the meeting, the Vatican released this statement: "The value of the choice of priestly celibacy in accordance with Catholic tradition was reaffirmed, and the need for solid human and Christian formation was underlined, both for seminaries and for ordained priests."
Milingo already had drawn the ire of the Vatican after he married a South Korean woman in a 2001 mass wedding ceremony conducted by Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Milingo later renounced his marriage but not his cause, and he continues to champion for married priests in the church.
Haggett wishes Milingo well, but she is appealing for change through the church laity, not the church officialdom.
"I feel the movement has to come from the bottom up. There has to be a groundswell," she said. "It'll never happen from the top down."
Haggett thinks the celibacy rules could go the way of one-time Vatican rules forbidding the use of female altar servers. Despite the rules, parishes did as they wished and used altar girls until the Vatican changed its rules in 1992.
Ed Minderlein of Marlborough, Mass., thinks the celibacy requirement hurts the church, hurts its priests and hurts parishioners. Minderlein was ordained as a priest in 1969 and was active in the ministry until 1986. He married in 1990, and continues to perform marriages.
"For as virtuous as they want to cast it, celibacy is the clay foot of the Catholic institution because you're denying people of the God-given right that is essential to human nature, the right to companionship and the right to procreate," he said.
Over the years, thousands of men have left their priest positions to marry. But many still consider themselves priests because church law says once a priest, always a priest.
There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 married priests in the United States, Haggett says. At the same time, there are fewer than 29,000 parish priests in the Roman Catholic church, down 17 percent from 1985, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Haggett works out of a small office in Brunswick where she runs Rent-A-Priest and CITI.
On a wall behind her desk hangs a painting that depicts the Last Supper. But instead of just Jesus and the 12 disciples, the painting also includes the wives and children of the disciples.
Haggett says there was a long history of the Roman Catholic Church allowing its priests to be married before the celibacy requirement was enacted in 1139. It's time, she said, for the church to return to the past.
"If the church ever comes to its senses, that would be wonderful," she said. "I'd love to go out of business."