Sunday, March 01, 2009

Celibate priests: boon or bane?

By Amy Calder
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel

Leo Caron is a devout Catholic. He believes in the teachings of the church and the rules it sets forth.

So when people insist that priests ought to be able to marry, he says any such change would have to come from the Vatican and not be the result of public opinion.

"The principle must change from up above," he said.

Caron, 59, of Benton, is aware of the celibacy-rule debate. He knows some believe that requiring priests to be celibate contributes to a priest shortage, that it is unreasonable and leads to aberrant behavior.

For Caron, however, supporting the church's rule, instituted long ago, makes sense. If a priest has a family, he said, how can he dedicate himself wholly to God and his ministry?

"I think it's so important to be able to give to the church; and if you are a priest, I think you need to devote all of that time," he said.

Catholicism is a way of life for Caron. He says he was born in the church and it has been good to him.

"My strength comes from God," he said.

The Rev. Robert Vaillancourt, diocesan director of vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, agrees that celibacy allows priests to give their all to the ministry.

"By living lives totally for Christ," he said, "we bring about the life that awaits us in eternity, where all is for God and with God."

'A great model for ministry'

Others believe celibacy for priests should be a choice, not a mandate.

Tim Higgins is an ordained Roman Catholic priest who practiced in the church but ultimately left, married, and had children. He now is an Episcopal priest at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Windham.

"Celibacy needs to be an option," said Higgins, 49, of Gorham. "The better option for me was to be married and be a priest, and the Catholic Church doesn't give you that option."

The celibacy rule contributes to the priest shortage and heavy workloads, Higgins believes, and does not allow priests to counsel parishioners adequately in real-life situations.

"It's a lifestyle that is removed from the people in the congregation they serve," he said. "Children keep you humble. If you're up in the middle of the night and your 6-year-old is sick and you are rubbing his back -- that's pretty grounding, and no Catholic priest will ever have that experience."

Higgins said he has never been happier. He loves his work and puts in long, hard days; but at the end of the day, he is able to bounce things off his best friend -- his wife.

"You go home to your sanctuary. You go home to the love of a wonderful family life, so I'm blessed for that. It's a great model for ministry."

Celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church was made mandatory in Spain in the fourth century and then made universal in 1139, according to the CITI (Celibacy is the Issue) Web site. CITI is an organization of married Roman Catholic priests available to do baptisms, weddings, funerals and other services. CITI priests are not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the main reasons celibacy became mandatory was that the church wanted the homes that were being left to wives and families of priests that died, the site says.

The celibacy rule is based on Christ's celibate way of life. Before 1139, popes, bishops and priests married. The Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church is the only one that requires priest celibacy. The Polish National Church allows them to marry, as do Celtic and Eastern Rite traditions.

Edward Minderlein of Old Orchard Beach was ordained in the Catholic Church in 1969 and served as a priest for 17 years.

"I recognized that I needed companionship," he said. "I needed to be in a relationship. The clincher was especially at Christmastime. I was in Puerto Rico. I'd be the only one who didn't have a family, and they invited me to their celebrations, but I felt alone."

He left the church 18 years ago and married a former nun he met later in life. Now they both are 65 and work for the Social Security Administration in Boston. They travel there daily by train from their Old Orchard Beach home.

A member of CITI, Minderlein believes the church would not be stretched so thin if it removed the celibacy rule.

"There is not a lack of priests -- of vocations," he said. "There is a lack of vision or the lack of leadership."

He believes having relationships with God and others is a natural part of being human, and sexuality is part and parcel of who we are; when it is prohibited, problems occur.

"That need is going to surface its head in all kinds of bizarre ways, as we saw in the sexual abuse of children," he said. "This whole church-abuse thing ... the hierarchy really never got to the root of it. The root is mandated celibacy. Because if they ever got rid of it, they'd lose a lot of their power and a lot of their control."

People who seek CITI priest services often have Catholic roots but do not actively practice in the church, he said. They want to get married outdoors, at lighthouses or on the beach, which the church does not allow.

Minderlein believes women and gay people also should be allowed to be priests. Homosexuality, he said, is not something people choose.

"It's the way they're born," he said. "God made them that way."

'It's so sad'

Judy Soucier of Fairfield is intimately aware of the debate about the celibacy rule, which she wishes would be removed from church law.

Soucier, 65, had a relationship with a Roman Catholic priest, Marcel Dumoulin, in the 1970s. Dumoulin fathered her child, Christian, now 36.

Soucier wrote and self-published a book about the relationship, titled "Perfect: A Love Story." The book details the couple's attempts to keep their relationship secret, Dumoulin's efforts to convince her to have an abortion, and church officials' efforts to convince her to go out of state, have the baby and give it up for adoption.

The Portland diocese acknowledges Dumoulin fathered the child, but says the church does not condone abortion and would not try to convince anyone to give up a child if she did not want to.

Soucier had the child and raised him on her own. Dumoulin never left the priesthood. He now has Alzheimer's disease and lives in a nursing care facility in Lewiston. Since her book was released a few months ago, Soucier has been asked to speak to small groups about her experience.

She believes if celibacy had not been an issue in the church, she and Dumoulin ultimately would have married and raised their child together, but he struggled with loyalty to the priesthood and his relationship with her.

"Priests cannot give their full potential if they're torn between having to make a decision like this," Soucier said. "How can they give their all to either? It's so sad."

She said people must urge the church to change the celibacy rule.

"We can't stop pushing. We just can't stop trying to make the powers that be aware of what an injustice this is."

'Stretched pretty thin'

William Schulz, director of pastoral, educational and parish planning and evangelization for the Portland Diocese, said the church is addressing the priest shortage and, as part of that effort, has consolidated parishes.

"You could say that the restructuring we've been going through has come about because of a priest shortage," Schulz said. "And certainly, in this time of transition, we are asking our priests to do a lot of work. They are stretched pretty thin, but easing that situation is what this transition is all about."

Catholic communities have been asked to look at resources, including priests, property, finances, programs and ministries with an eye toward making the most effective use of the same. Efforts have been made to ensure that parishes have qualified, well-educated staff, both on the business/administrative and pastoral side, Schulz said.

Business coordinators and pastoral life coordinators have been hired to free priests from time-consuming administrative duties. Also, a uniform diocesewide administrative system, as well as procedures and policies, are being used, Schulz said.

"Certainly we'd like to have more priests, and that is something that Bishop (Richard) Malone and his staff are focused on. To that end, we now have a remarkable vocations director who is meeting with great success in the short time that he's been on the job -- Father Bob Vaillancourt."

'The Holy Spirit leads the church'

Vaillancourt said he believes that if God wants the celibacy rule to be removed, it will happen -- in God's own time.

"We need to trust that the Holy Spirit leads the church, and sometimes humanity gets in his way; but if it is in God's cards, it will happen ... in his time," Vaillancourt said.

Celibacy is not the only reason for the priest shortage, he said.

"I truly believe there are many factors for why men choose not to go into the ordained ministry, including more interest in high-paying professions and also a failure by churches to recruit effectively, and a growing secular mindset in society," he said.

He said he doesn't know how celibacy is unreasonable and unnatural and leads to aberrant behavior such as pedophilia.

"Yes, relationships are indeed natural and God made humans to have relationships, but relationships are more than sexual," he said. "The church allows celibacy to be part of the priest, not only because it frees these men to work full-time ministry, but it is an opportunity to begin to live the life promised in eternal life where there will be no marriage but the marriage between God and humanity."

Vaillancourt also responds to those who say that allowing priests to marry better equips them to counsel married couples and having families helps make them more in touch with the real world.

"I have not had the gift of living a married life, and yes, I have not had the privilege of having children; but I have had the honor of listening to many, many couples struggling in their marriage and family life and attempting to bring healing and peace in their lives," he said.

He has worked with many wounded couples and families, and they have taught him what it takes to be married and helped him understand the important needs of married couples, and of family life, he said.

"They are the ones who have taught me how to counsel couples and their families. I may not be qualified to counsel in some eyes, but I humbly admit that many couples whom I have counseled have grown in healing and holiness. And for that, I am grateful."

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