Priestly celibacy is not dogma. It is simply a disciplinary practice, and could be changed literally with a flick of the papal pen. So, why wait?
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Another Catholic priest and media figure has become the latest victim of the "celibacy crisis" in the Catholic Church. Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, former president of Human Life International, left that post abruptly in August without public explanation. He recently broke his silence and admitted that he left for "violating the boundaries of chastity with an adult female" who was under his spiritual care. He apologized profusely to everyone concerned.

At one level: Yawn! There is nothing new about this basic story line. Literally, tens of thousands of Catholic priests have left the priesthood to marry since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Granted, Fr. Euteneuer's story has a special "twist" because he was a leader in the anti-abortion movement. One might expect him to have the added motivation of not wanting to father an unwanted pregnancy. But the basic story -- priest breaks vow of celibacy -- is nothing new.

As the host of Interfaith Voices, a public radio show heard on 76 stations nationwide, this recalled my recent interview with the now-famous Father Alberto Cutie. It airs this week. [] He was a Roman Catholic priest well known as a radio/TV host, broadcasting in both Spanish and English across North and South America. His career ended when paparazzi photographed him on a beach near Miami with Ruhama, the woman he loved. Privately, he had long struggled with his vow of celibacy. After the beach photos became public, he married Ruhama and became an Episcopal priest. He told his story in a new book: Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love.

In the course of the interview, he laid bare an open secret of the Catholic Church: a large percentage of Catholic priests, gay and straight, live as if celibacy were optional. Some have male partners; others have secret women friends and -- quite commonly in Africa and Latin America -- they have children. He noted that sometimes bishops even pay for the children to have a Catholic education. All this is tolerated if it does not become public and cause scandal.

Most likely, a good majority of Catholic priests keep their vow of celibacy, but there is no way to know for sure.

Cutie was careful to say that he did not have anything against celibacy, pointing to the tradition of religious life in both the Catholic and Episcopal churches. The problem, as he sees it -- and most Catholics see it -- is imposing celibacy where it is not integral to the vocation. A monk or nun chooses celibacy as part of their calling; a diocesan priest does not need celibacy to fulfill his calling. In fact, a priest who is a husband and a father (or someday: wife and mother!) might have decided advantages in understanding parishioners' problems.

For years, reform groups in the Catholic Church like CORPUS: the National Association for a Married Priesthood, and Call to Action have called upon the hierarchy to make celibacy optional for diocesan priests.

The case for change is compelling.

First of all, in a church that values tradition, optional celibacy is the tradition! For the first 12 centuries of Christianity, Catholic priests did, in fact, marry. Even today, Catholic priests of the Eastern rites can marry, and Episcopal and Lutheran priests who seek to transfer to the Catholic Church are welcomed with their wives and children.

Second, there is a severe and growing priest shortage. Bishops have dealt with it up to now by merging and closing parishes, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth among parishioners. Or they have imported clergy from other cultures. Despite good intentions, many of these priests have simply not embedded themselves in American culture and problems abound.

Finally, polls have shown for decades that the vast majority of Catholics favor letting priests have the option to marry. Catholics in the pews have been very accepting of married deacons for decades now; there is no reason to think that acceptance would not extend to married priests.

And, it's important to note: priestly celibacy is not dogma. It is simply a disciplinary practice, and could be changed literally with a flick of the papal pen.

So, why wait? I know the powers-that-be in the Vatican are comfortable with current arrangements, but it would seem that the needs of ministry and the availability of the Eucharist [only priests can consecrate the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition] should trump everything else.

For the life of me, I can't figure out what's taking them so long.

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