(CNSNews.com) - Australia's Catholic Church is embroiled in a debate over whether the church should drop its insistence on celibacy for clergymen. A leading priests' association argues that doing away with the requirement could reverse a serious decline in numbers.
The National Council of Priests (NCP), an organization representing about half of Australia's 1,650 Catholic clergy, including more than 40 bishops, has written to the Vatican's Synod of Bishops, urging that marriage no longer prevent a priest from being ordained.
It also asked that the church reinstate ordained priests who had left the church to marry.
The group pointed to a severe decline in the number of priests in Australia. Only priests may hear confession and oversee Mass - both crucial, regular rites for Catholics.
NCP chairman Fr. Hal Ranger wrote in the letter to the Vatican that many priests who had converted to Catholicism in recent years, and who were married at the time, were permitted by the church to serve as ordained priests despite being married.
Noting that the church welcomed such men and their families, Ranger asked that the Vatican synod "earnestly and seriously consider extending this opportunity to other married men."
(Most priests in that situation moved to the Catholic Church because of unhappiness with what they saw as a liberalizing trend in other denominations. For instance, disagreements over the appointment of women bishops in the Anglican Church in the 1990s saw a number of conservative Anglican clergy joining the Catholic Church. Further defections have been predicted over the issue of the ordination of homosexuals.)
The NCP letter urged the synod to "examine honestly the appropriateness of insisting upon a priesthood that is, with very few exceptions, obliged to be celibate."
"Priesthood is a gift, celibacy is a gift," it said. "They are not the same gift."
The NCP appeal to Rome has drawn mixed responses.
In the U.S., a Cleveland, Ohio-based Catholic "reform" group called FutureChurch -- which is running a petition calling for an end to obligatory celibacy -- called the Australian move a "prophetic action" and predicted it would "certainly energize our base."
"God's people need both celibate and married vocations, both male and female deacons and priests if we are to minister well," said FutureChurch executive director Christine Schenk.
FutureChurch was supported in its stance by another U.S. group, Call to Action, which claims a membership of 25,000 laity and clergy. Call to Action says it advocates "the ordination of women, optional celibacy for priests, more focus on the church's social teaching, and consultation with the Catholic people on church decision-making."
In 2003, more than 120 Milwaukee priests signed a letter urging the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to allow married men to be ordained, also linking their request to the need for more candidates to the priesthood.
Back in Australia, not all Catholic clergy favor the NCP move.
The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (ACCC), representing 300 priests, said while it recognized the priest shortage crisis, it wanted mandatory celibacy to remain.
"In a world that struggles with commitment, chastity and discipline the witness of celibacy is powerful and godly," ACCC chairman Fr. John Walshe said in a statement.
Both sides in the debate have their views on the origins of priestly celibacy.
Those who want it scrapped note that the apostle Peter was married. Peter was the disciple of whom Jesus said "Upon this rock I will build my church," and Catholics recognize him as the first Pope.
Opponents of mandatory celibacy also say the practice only became standard in the 11th or 12th century, and was only affirmed by the Council of Trent in 1545.
But the ACCC's Walshe said that "scholarship has unearthed that priests of earlier ages [prior to the 10th century] who were married often were required to live \'b4Josephite marriages\'b4 once they were ordained. This often meant the separation of priest-husband and wife."
During recent research, Dr. Jane Power of the Australian Catholic University's school of psychology found that 71 percent of 383 priests surveyed across the country did not agree with the celibacy requirement.
Power said Friday that statistical analysis of the survey results had shown a significant association between holding a negative view of celibacy and frequently thinking of resigning.
Copies of a summary of her report were sent to every bishop in the country, although she said she had had no response from any of them.
Power said she could not claim a link between her report and the NCP's request to the
"However, as the research was the first indication of the level of discontent with celibacy within the priesthood, and as this had been communicated to the bishops, it would not be unreasonable to suppose it could have helped prompt the request."
Meanwhile the celibacy debate has been picked up by other Australian campaigners for "reforms" in the church.
Ann Nugent, an executive member of an organization called Ordination of Catholic Women wrote an op-ed piece published Thursday saying that if women were ordained that would help address the priest shortage problem.
"There are many women in Australia who feel the call to the priesthood and who have stated their cases publicly, yet they are told it is simply not possible to be a woman and a priest," Nugent said. "Needless to say many women have left the church."
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