Sunday, May 10, 2009

Florida priest's ouster renews celibacy debate

Father Brooks, one of the married priests who is quoted in this article, is a CITI member in Florida.

By Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post
Saturday, May 09, 2009

When Tom Brooks left the priesthood, he wrote the pope a simple letter.

"I got married. I'm willing to serve. Let me know when you're ready to use me."

He never heard back. And, in truth, the 64-year-old Tequesta resident said he didn't expect the Vatican to respond to a wayward priest who had traded his holy vows for the love of a woman.

"I had no intention of falling in love," he said of the surprise turn his life took nearly 20 years after his ordination. Although realizing there was little chance the church would welcome him back by lifting its centuries-old dictate that requires priests to be celibate, Brooks is among a growing number of Catholics who believe the edict just doesn't make sense.

Church leaders trace celibacy's origins to the portrayal of Jesus as celibate and in the conviction that a priest's role as spiritual teacher requires single-minded dedication.

"I think we'd have happier, more effective priests if there were married priests," said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a celibate priest, author and university professor who tried to spur debate about the issue by penning the 2006 book Freeing Celibacy.

The debate got a boost last week when an attractive Miami Beach priest was caught on camera rolling on the beach in the arms of a woman. In contrast with previous debates that came after priests were booked on charges of molesting boys, the Rev. Alberto Cutié's dalliance was with a consenting adult.

To some priests, who have made the difficult decision to leave the church or have watched others struggle to remain chaste, Cutié's situation is both regrettable and avoidable.

"I'm just sad that a man who is apparently a good, talented, committed priest is in the spot that he is," said Cozzens, who teaches religious studies at John Carroll University in Ohio. "I know a lot of good priests who are struggling with celibacy. It's more the loneliness than the absence of a full sexual life. The time is coming for us to openly discuss optional celibacy."

It's not just about making life easier for priests, he said.

Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that the church is suffering a shortage of priests worldwide. In the United States, from 1965 to 2008, the number of Catholics skyrocketed, but the number of priests fell 30 percent to 40,580, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In 2008, more than 3,000 parishes were without resident priests. The reason priesthood is no longer a top career choice is simple, Cozzens said.

"I teach at a Catholic university and I've asked dozens of men here that showed signs of deep faith if they had thought about going into the priesthood," Cozzens said. "They all said, 'I've thought of it, but I want to have a family.' "

Although not pretending to know the motivations of each man who enters the priesthood, the Rev. Alfredo Hernandez said he can't imagine that celibacy is a deal-breaker. It is one of the many sacrifices a priest makes.

"A priest is called to represent the church as the bride of Christ," said the pastor of St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach. "I can't pretend it has always been easy, but I see the gift of self as extremely important."

To abandon it would reduce the sanctity of the priesthood and compromise a priest's position as a man who operates without self-interest, he said.

He sees the debate as an illustration of a wider problem. "We're allergic to the idea of commitment in our society today," he said.

Palm Beach Diocese Bishop Gerald Barbarito said in a statement Friday that celibacy is a great gift and blessing for priests, the church and society.

"A particular priest's human failing in regard to living his fidelity to celibacy should not call into question the joyful gift of celibacy anymore than a particular person's infidelity to his or her spouse should call into question the joyful gift of marriage," the statement said.

Some see the policy as tracing back to the church's concern about priests bequeathing their homes to their wives and children. Celibacy ensured the property stayed with the church.

The Rev. Martin Zlatic said his wife of 17 years likes to tell people he left the church to marry her. It sounds romantic, but the reasons were far more complex, said Zlatic, pastor of St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach.

Assigned to a church in his hometown of St. Louis, he was in charge of writing annulments for couples who wanted to divorce. He began to question the practice and other Catholic teachings. Further, he said, his living situation was untenable. As a 26-year-old, he said he was forced to live in a rectory with priests in their 70s and 80s, one of whom was an alcoholic. The bishop refused his request to move.

"As a priest you have to do your job with a joyful heart and then you go home and face that. It's very difficult," he said.

He left the priesthood in 1985 and worked in the travel industry and as a corporate marketing executive before he became an ordained Episcopal priest in 1998.

Brooks also said that celibacy didn't push him from the church. He has a degree in psychology and was assigned to write a program to help priests who had been accused of child molestation and to keep others from following in their footsteps. Realizing how widespread it was and how long it had gone on unchecked tested his faith, he said.

He took a leave of absence from the Redemptorist order in Chicago. After moving to Tequesta, he intended to join the Diocese of Palm Beach. Instead, he fell in love and got married.

But he continues to serve as a priest through the group CITI Ministries. Once known as Celibacy Is The Issue, it is now known as Rent-A-Priest and has an 800 number. Louise Haggett, who now lives in Maine, founded it in 1992 after a shortage of priests made it impossible for her to find a cleric to visit her mother.

There are now about 250 priests who left the church after they married who visit the sick and perform the Eucharist, weddings, funerals, baptisms and first Communions. They are among an estimated 20,000 married priests in the United States who now have secular jobs.

She said it's a shame that such committed men have been forced to leave the church simply because they fell in love.

Steve Sabanos, a priest turned accountant, is among them.

Ordained in 1974, he left the church five years later when he married. Becoming an Episcopal priest wasn't an option for him, he said. "I'm Roman Catholic to the core."

Still, he said, there should be room in the church for priests who get married.

"I realized I didn't have the gift of celibacy, but that doesn't mean I don't have the gift of priesthood."

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