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Priest Surveys: Discuss Optional Celibacy

In 2003 and 2004, some 14,000 priests in 57 U.S. diocese were asked the question: “Do you favor an open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule for diocesan priests?” A full 67 % of respondents said yes, the church should open the discussion. The project, a brainchild of Call To Action-Buffalo’s Jim and Sally Orgren, inspired FutureChurch and Call To Action leaders to organize surveys, in some cases, of whole states. Results of the surveys can be viewed here.

With survey response rates of 28% to 45%, Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that results could be considered representative of all priests with a margin of error of plus or minus 10%. Hoge referenced his 2001 survey showing 56% of all priests thought celibacy should be a matter of personal choice: “You can say that a majority of the priests already favor the idea and an even higher percentage favor discussion of the idea.”

A very interesting aspect of the survey is comments from the priests themselves:
“I can say that I value celibacy more today than ever before because early on God...captured my heart. ..I also believe that perhaps some of our church’s greatest potential shepherds are made ineligible because of mandatory celibacy.” (a 51-60 year old priest from Fresno)

“I support women’s ordination too because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no Roman or Greek, no women or men, all are one in Christ.” (A 25-40 year old priest from Oakland)

“In view of the present quagmire caused by the lack of leadership in the Catholic Church, it may be time to consider time limits for bishops. Perhaps a bishop could serve for 10 years as ordinary and then move on to be a pastor or an emeritus. Same with other offices in the hierarchy. Try a survey.” (A 51-60 year old priest from Sacramento).

The campaign has attracted a lot of media attention. A Philadelphia Inquirer article quoted National Federation of Priests’ Councils’ president, Fr. Robert Silva, who said the survey “is finding an affirmation of what our own studies show, that a goodly number of priests, over 50 percent, would like a discussion of celibacy.” The NFPC has a statement on its web site calling for such a discussion, “even though officially we are supportive of the Holy Father’s call for celibacy in the Latin Rite church,” Silva said. “We are loyal, committed disciples, and if that is what our superiors are asking of
us at this time, that’s what we’re going to embrace. But that doesn’t preclude voicing the concerns of priests.”

As in most dioceses, the Inquirer article noted that the Philadelphia archdiocese issued no directive to its priests regarding the new survey. Priests are “free to respond or not respond as they so wish,” said spokeswoman Catherine Rossi.

In the meantime FutureChurch and Call to Action wrote Cardinal Francis George, Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo Texas and retired Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo Tx thanking them for supporting discussion of optional celibacy, offering our support, and asking when and where the discussion will be held.

In Minneapolis St. Paul a huge diocesan wide letter writing campaign was conducted by lay Catholics hoping to encourage 120 priests who publicly signed their names last fall to a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the US Bishops' conference.. Similar parish wide campaigns were promoted by priests in the Belleville, IL and Milwaukee dioceses.

The surveys were an important part of FutureChurch's Corpus Christi Campaign for Optional Celibacy. It culminated in the delivery of 37,000 petitions to the International Synod on the Eucharist held in October 2005.

Results of the optional celibacy survey.


Winter 2004



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