Not enough Catholic priests? End celibacy, ordain women

Assuming that the number of Catholic priests in the Baltimore archdiocese continues to decline, and that Mel Gibson Catholicism prevails to preserve celibacy and keep women from ordination, then, by all means, leaders of the senior see of the United States should go after the disgruntled Anglicans.

Rather than taking Catholic priests from Latin America, Africa and Asia to serve here, Anglo recruitment could be the church's best hope for picking up a few new clergy whose primary language is English.

Sunday, members of Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, an "orthodox Anglo-Catholic" congregation near Maryland General Hospital, voted in the undercroft to break ties with the Episcopal Church and request permission to go Roman Catholic. It's doubtful they'll be turned away.

This might seem like a limited way for Rome to recruit converts, but the full force of the Vatican has been at work on this front, officially, for a year now, since the publication last October of the "Apostolic Constitution." That was the Vatican's widely publicized reach-out to conservative Episcopalians upset about the election of an openly gay bishop and about female priests. The document laid out the process to allow unhappy Anglicans "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony." Under the Apostolic Constitution, married Episcopal priests are allowed to convert.

Of course, ordained Catholic priests — or the small number of seminarians — don't and won't have that freedom. Catholic celibacy remains in place, even as the number of priests dwindles and the Archdiocese of Baltimore considers consolidating Mass schedules among parishes to adjust for the shortage.

If Mount Calvary becomes an Anglican parish within the Roman Catholic Church, there's a potential pickup of at least two priests: the Rev. Jason Catania and the Rev. David Reamsnyder. According to the church's website, Father Reamsnyder is married. Father Catania's marital status was not posted.

When they both convert, the priests might find themselves serving more than their small flock at Mount Calvary. The Archdiocese of Baltimore's priest-to-parish ratios have continued to fall.

As reported by The Sun this week, nearly half of the archdiocese's 153 active priests will reach the retirement age of 70 within the next 15 years. Seventeen of them are already eligible to retire. Without significant changes, there may be fewer than 100 priests to serve all the parishes in the city and all the counties from Harford to Garrett by 2025, when there will certainly be more than the half-million Catholics who reside in the archdiocese today. This is a common story across the country, widely acknowledged but reluctantly addressed.

And I was being wholly facetious in suggesting that the conversion of Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood provided the answer.

The answer to the priest shortage is the end to celibacy, the acknowledgement that it imposes an inhuman condition on those who are called to serve Catholic families as priests performing the sacraments. Celibacy once provided priests with what Garry Wills, author of "Why I Am a Catholic" and many other books, describes as a special aura — "the prestige of holiness" — grounded in the concept of sacrifice and abstinence. But celibacy eventually sent many good men out of the priesthood and constituted a barrier for others. It also left bishops with fewer priests and, among them, the misfits and deviants who moved from parish to parish, damaging thousands of children along the way.

I have acknowledged many times (each time I take up this subject) that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy. It's the ultimate top-down organization. The Mel Gibson Catholics, they of the Latin Mass and the repeal of Vatican II, always respond to calls for the end to celibacy and the opening of the priesthood to women with jerking knees — to kick the heretics out — followed by genuflection to the status quo. But the status quo is just drying up the church's lifeblood, its future leaders.

Their church is not a democracy, but Catholics who still care about this can do something about it. They can speak up. They can demand change. They can present their bishops with sensible solutions.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, has suggested that the church could welcome back the many priests who, over the last few decades, left to marry and might still be willing to serve as married priests. Celibacy needs to go, and so does the equally theologically dubious ban on the ordination of women.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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