By Jennifer Garza
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- One of the hardest things Ed Donaghy has ever done was leave his ministry as a Catholic priest. For months, he agonized over his conflicting desires to have a family and serve as a priest in the Sacramento Diocese.
In the end, Donaghy felt he had no choice. The priest, who served in Woodland, Calif., told his bishop he had to leave.
That was four decades ago.
"It would have been wonderful to be married and be a priest," said Donaghy, 73, now retired as an insurance agent. "I loved the work and would have continued."
Donaghy is one of more than 75 men in the Sacramento area who have left active ministry in the priesthood to marry. Many of them, say Donaghy and others, "would have returned in a minute if the rules changed."
That is not likely to happen soon.
But the possibility that someday Catholics may see married priests in the pulpit was raised last month. That's when Vatican officials announced an arrangement that welcomes Anglicans into the Catholic Church, including their married priests.
Vatican officials have said repeatedly over the years that celibacy will remain mandatory, but many observers say having married Anglican priests in the church is a "major move" toward the idea of married Catholic priests.
"It's significant," said Sister Chris Schenk, of FutureChurch, a Cleveland group studying the shortages of priests in the United States.
"It's time for the church to bring these married priests back into ministry and to address the issue of mandatory celibacy," Schenk said. "We have parishes closing and a number of priests retiring. Look at the demographics."
About 40,000 priests serve in U.S. dioceses, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Many of those are nearing retirement. In 2009, 472 men were ordained.
"We have to do something because we need priests," Schenk said. "It only makes sense to re-think celibacy."
The Catholic Church already has married priests. Priests in the Eastern rite - 21 churches that are in communion with Rome - may marry.
"In our church most of the priests are married," said the Rev. Ted Wroblicky, a married priest at the Holy Wisdom Eastern Catholic Parish in Sacramento. "It is not unusual at all. People are used to it."
In his church, if the men are priests first, they aren't permitted to marry and remain in the ministry. However, if a man is already married, he can become a priest.
For nearly a decade, the Roman Catholic Church also has had a special provision for married ministers of other faiths to become Catholic priests after converting. Currently, about 150 married men across the country are now training for the Catholic priesthood, according to Schenk.
In the Sacramento Diocese, a former Lutheran pastor is in the process of becoming a Catholic priest. The man, who did not want to be identified, is married and has children. He will have the same responsibilities as other Catholic priests once he is ordained, according to church officials.
Some have conflicting views on the subject of celibacy and the priesthood.
"I believe in celibacy, but most of the Apostles were married, so we have to figure out a way of having both," said David Leatherby, who has attended Mass every day for 45 years and who has a grandson who is a priest.
He believes practical issues should be addressed and celibacy ought to be optional.
For him, it's also a practical matter. "The church needs priests, why not bring in these men?"
Celibacy has been a church rule since the 12th century. The issue of a celibate priesthood has been debated by theologians, parishioners and priests.
In a 2004 survey of Sacramento diocesan priests, 73 percent of the priests who responded said they favored an open discussion on mandatory celibacy, according to Call to Action, a Catholic grass-roots organization that mailed the survey to every priest in Northern California. The results were similar to those in other dioceses.
Some who favored a discussion said many early church leaders were married while others cited the blessings of celibacy.
Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said celibacy is a gift.
"I think the celibate lifestyle is an important element of the priesthood," said Soto, the spiritual leader of the Sacramento Diocese and its 900,000 Catholics.
It is a lifestyle that some priests find difficult to follow. Dan Delany left the church in 1967, after he fell in love. He and his wife Chris, a former nun, later founded Sacramento's Loaves & Fishes.
"It was painful at the time because there were a lot of challenges," said Delany of leaving ministry. He said there were many men who left after Vatican II.
"After that there were more opportunities and a lot of us who left were do-gooders anyway - so we got involved in social service issues," Delany said.
He and Donaghy belong to a Sacramento group of priests who have left active ministry called NOVA (Now Serving in Other Vineyards Adjoining). They meet once a month for lunch.
Bishop Francis Quinn, now retired, served as chaplain to the men in NOVA. He believes the church should study the advantages and disadvantages of celibacy and the priesthood.
"I think there are great advantages to having optional celibacy because some men need that intimacy," Quinn said. "On the other hand, there is a beauty in celibacy, as Christ was celibate."
Quinn said that while optional celibacy may address some concerns, "there will probably be new ones as well if it becomes optional."
However, he said he believes the church will eventually have married priests. "But I thought that 30 years ago, and it didn't change, so I'm not a good predictor."
When Donaghy was an active priest, he saw so many wonderful families in the church that he believed his call was to have one of his own.
After he made his decision to leave, he met his wife-to-be Brigid. She had been a nun who left her order months earlier. They have been married 39 years, have three children, five grandchildren and a comfortable life in Lincoln.
Donaghy said he welcomes the Roman Catholic Church's invitation to married Anglican priests, saying it could get people used to the idea of having married priests and their families in church on Sundays.
"I think there's room in the church for married and unmarried priests," he said.