The Rev. Robert J. Fagan was a popular, successful and committed priest, recently assigned to a high-profile position as an associate pastor at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Washington when he began to confront an uneasiness gnawing inside of him.
"When I was ordained a priest, I was very committed to being a right-down-the-line, straight-arrow celibate," he said. "But I acutely felt the loneliness of rectory life."
Fagan prayed, consulted fellow priests, spent time in a monastery and finally left the celibate priesthood in 1987. He married two years later.
Fagan is but one example of how Catholic priests struggle with a life of celibacy. Some leave the priesthood. Others stay and agonize. And some are able to come to peace with the life of sacrifice.
Recent revelations of dozens of decades-old cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, which started in Boston and have spread to dioceses nationwide, have spurred an examination of conscience by the American church: Is it time to reconsider celibacy?
An editorial last week in Boston's diocesan newspaper prominently raised the question, and some Catholics see the scandal as a watershed moment for opening a discussion the Vatican has long forbidden.
"This is going to get people who don't think about church reform to think about making changes in the priesthood," said Rea Howarth, coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, a Hyattsville-based advocacy group for liberal church policies. "There's support for celibacy, but people just don't think it should be a condition for employment."
Polls show that there is increasing support in the American church for the ordination of married men. Gallup-sponsored surveys of Catholics showed support for married clergy growing from 63 percent in 1987 to just over 70 percent in 1999.
The Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, until recently the rector of a seminary in Cleveland, said he believes it is possible for priests who are celibate to be happy and healthy. "When you meet a healthy celibate, they just ring true - this is a genuine human being, authentic and real," said Cozzens, author of Changing Faces of the Priesthood, a controversial work that questions aspects of the priestly life.
"But I think the gift of celibacy is a gift that is given to a relatively few number of men and women," he said. "The Catholic Church talks about celibacy as a gift, but at the same time legislates that gift for Latin Rite priests. ... We need to feel free and to be free to talk about it, and up to this point there hasn't been this kind of openness."
Cozzens said the recent scandal, while tragic, might also spur that conversation about celibacy.
"I don't think I would have said this six months ago," he said. "But I think there's a different climate today, and I hope it will lead to a less defensive and less fearful church."
But defenders of priestly celibacy contend it has no relation to the current scandal.
"The current scandal is not about what's wrong with celibacy," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative journal First Things. "The current scandal is about what's wrong with priests who don't keep their vows of celibacy.
"If priests had been keeping their sacred vows and observing the teaching of the church, there wouldn't be a scandal."
And many Catholics, particularly those living the celibate lifestyle, reject the leap in logic that condemns celibacy because of pedophilia.
"A lot of people simply say, 'If we just let priests marry, we wouldn't have this problem,"' said the Rev. James J. Gill, a Jesuit priest and psychologist who has had years of experience treating priest pedophiles. "They don't understand the nature of [the] pathology so profound in pedophiles, and they don't understand that many people who are priests are able to live celibate lives in a healthy and mature way."
Celibacy has a long history in the church - both Jesus and St. Paul were believed to be celibate - but it wasn't the law of the church for its first 1,000 years. Many of Jesus' apostles were married, including St. Peter, the first pope. Although there was no law prohibiting clerical marriage during the first four centuries of the church, a tradition arose of ascetic hermits and then monastic communities that embodied the Christian ideal by embracing celibacy.
By the fourth century, bishops were by and large unmarried, but priests and deacons continued to have wives and families, as long as they were married before ordination and were only married once. By the end of the 4th century, marriage for all clergy was prohibited through papal decree and local church councils. Those who were already married had to live with their spouses chastely - and those who violated the decree were deemed guilty of heresy.
Over the centuries there was a gradual decline in the observance of celibacy. Spurred by scandals over that and fears that descendents of priests would claim church property, Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century restored celibacy and made it the law of the church.
The contemporary understanding of celibacy in the church is that it is not just an absence of sex. It is biblically based on a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples that "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."
"The classic spiritual and pastoral justification for celibacy is that it can lead - it doesn't always, but it can lead - to a life of sacrifice and dedication to other people," said the Rev. Robert Leavitt, rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park.
"It's sacrificial," he added, "but it is also premised on the fact that you can live a life without a wife and children and still be a person ... who is capable of love while maintaining sexual boundaries with men, women and children."
The Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, called celibacy "a powerful witness to the Gospel."
"But celibacy has to be motivated by love. It can't be seen as something the church requires," he said. "That's why what's going on with this scandal is the antithesis of what celibacy is meant to be. It's a terrible violation of the true meaning of celibacy, its true purpose, and certainly goes against the true nature of priesthood."
In the cases now being revealed, which mostly date back decades, the priests attended seminary at a time when "sex was not talked about much, except in terms of what we now call boundaries, situations you shouldn't get into, ways you shouldn't act," said Gill, the priest-psychologist. But they were never taught how to lead a fulfilling celibate life.
"There must be beauty, an intellectual aspect, relationships with close friends, there has to be a strong spiritual life going," he said. "There's a balance that must be achieved."
Fagan, the former priest in Washington, believes he has found that balance in his life now as a husband, a father and a grandfather. But he still considers himself to be a priest, feels committed to ministry and still performs baptisms, marriages and anointings for disaffected or alienated Catholics.
"Clergy live in an ivory tower. They're beautiful people. ... But they've never had to struggle to keep a job, to pay bills, to pay a mortgage, all the things that your parishioners sitting in the pews deal with," said Fagan, an ethics officer with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who pays his mortgage in Edgewater.
"Now when I deal with folks, I do have that real-world experience," he said. "When people talk about their problems, I can say, 'I'm there with you.'"