By Paul Vitello
New York Times
March 22, 2009
His remarks amounted to just a few sentences near the tail end of a radio interview, and near the end of his nine-year tenure as the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York. But ever since Cardinal Edward M. Egan made some brief comments this month about the centuries-old requirement that priests be celibate, Catholic scholars, pundits and clerics have been parsing what he meant and what it could mean for the church.
In a March 10 interview on the Albany radio station Talk 1300, the cardinal suggested that the Catholic Church would sooner or later have to consider whether to allow priests to marry.
“I think that it’s going to be discussed; it’s a perfectly legitimate discussion,” Cardinal Egan said, replying to a question from the host, Fredric U. Dicker, about whether the church’s severe shortage of priests might spur such a change. “I think it has to be looked at. And I am not so sure it wouldn’t be a good idea to decide on the basis of geography and culture not to make an across-the-board determination.”
At another point, he said: “Is it a closed issue? No. That’s not a dogmatic stand.”
For a millennium, the Vatican has signaled that it is, indeed, a closed issue. Despite inklings of a discussion in the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council, each of the last three popes has quashed efforts to raise the matter at ecclesiastical synods.
In 2003, when 163 priests in the Milwaukee Archdiocese petitioned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to open discussions on celibacy in light of the shortage of priests, they were soundly rebuffed by their archbishop, Timothy M. Dolan — whom Pope Benedict XVI chose last month to succeed Cardinal Egan.
Cardinal Egan, through a spokesman, declined to elaborate on his radio remarks. Archbishop Dolan, through the same spokesman, also declined to comment.
But in the Catholic news media and among church scholars, the departing cardinal’s words have sparked a spirited debate over what he meant to say on an issue central to the identity of a dwindling priesthood: Were his words a parting gift to the reformers he had no truck with for nine years? A last-minute crack in the discipline of a leader who had remained determinedly under the radar for so long in the media capital of the world? Or just a matter-of-fact response by a canon lawyer — which the cardinal is — to a question about church law?
In interviews and blog comments, some conservatives dismissed what the cardinal said as the comments of a man speaking, as one said, “above his pay grade.” Many advocates of reform, who have long considered Cardinal Egan a conservative, said his remarks were surprisingly encouraging, albeit a little late in the day. The cardinal, 76, officially retires on April 15.
The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, which is affiliated with the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said such words from a top American prelate, whatever his intent, would “put an issue on the table that a lot of people thought was off the table.”
A spokesman for the bishops’ conference would not comment on the cardinal’s remarks. But Father Vega, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the bishops but as a priest, added, “I think he breathed new life into the hopes of a lot of people.”
One of those people is Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a group promoting the ordination of women and an end to the celibacy rule.
“It would have been nice if he had said this five years ago,” she said. “But coming from Egan, I think it is a sign that the conversation is ripening. He’s not the poster child for progressivism. I think it shows we are much closer to having this issue addressed by the Vatican than most people realize.”
Official church policy on celibacy has remained substantially unchanged since the 11th century, when the obligation became the rule for priests. Until then, it was optional, and many priests, bishops and popes were married.
Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said the mandatory celibacy rules were adopted for many reasons, both theological and practical. Among the latter, he said, was the need to avoid claims on church property by priests’ offspring.
The tradition of celibacy had its origins in the biblical portrayal of Jesus Christ as celibate and in the conviction among church leaders that a priest’s role as spiritual teacher required a single-minded dedication to the community.
In the Eastern Rite churches — the Ukrainian and Melkite denominations, for instance, which are autonomous yet recognized by the Vatican as fully Catholic — the requirement of celibacy was never applied as strictly. Married men can be ordained, although priests, once ordained, cannot marry.
Cardinal Egan cited the Eastern church experience in his radio interview, noting that many of the priests of those denominations were married, “with no problem at all.”
In 1980, Pope John Paul II made the one exception to the rule in the Western church, permitting the ordination of married former Episcopal priests who wished to convert to Catholicism. Since then, about 200 former Episcopal priests, most of them married with families, have become Catholic priests in the United States, according to the federation of priests’ councils.
As a result of another initiative begun in the 1970s, the church has also added about 15,000 deacons to its ranks of ordained men. Deacons, who can be married, are empowered to perform almost all the functions of priests except hearing confessions and consecrating the Eucharist.
The celibacy rule for priests has never been immutable church dogma. It is called a discipline rather than a doctrine or a dogma, and could theoretically be revised or reversed by the Vatican Curia, Professor Cunningham said.
But the Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of the conservative Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, doubted that church leaders had any interest in change.
“There is no inevitability about it,” Father Fessio said. “To suggest that it is something that has to be looked at now — I do not see that happening. From time to time, perhaps there should be a discussion, but only so that reasonable people can see why things are the way they are — and why they should stay that way.”
Many church experts said that Cardinal Egan’s comments were surprising not so much in their content, but in his willingness to say them publicly.
“In a sense, what he said was obvious,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit author and former editor of the moderately liberal Catholic magazine America. “But not many cardinals do that. It was kind of brave for him to say what everybody’s been thinking. It’s interesting that he said it as he’s leaving.”