Bishop Gregory's Letter to Milwaukee Archbishop on Celibacy

Response in the Wake of a Petition From Some Clergy

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 4, 2003 ( Here is the text of the letter Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, sent to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan in the wake of a letter from about 160 priests urging optional celibacy for candidates to the clergy.

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September 3, 2003

His Excellency
Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee

Dear Archbishop Dolan,

I have received a letter dated August 18 from Fathers Thomas Suriano, Joseph Aufdermauer and Steven Dunn of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This was accompanied by 163 other letters, most signed by priests of Milwaukee but a few signed by religious priests as well. As you can see, the cover letter says that the three principal authors raised the matter of optional celibacy for candidates to the diocesan priesthood in their deanery and that it was discussed in other deaneries and eventually by the archdiocesan presbyteral council. As I understand it, the advice of the Presbyteral Council was that if their fellow priests wished to circulate a letter in support of optional celibacy, the project had to be their personal initiative, not an action of the Council. It would seem that a form letter was circulated among the clergy and signed copies were addressed to me.

As you can well understand, it is essential that my actions as President of the USCCB always reflect the fact that the Conference in no way functions as an authority above or apart from the diocesan bishops who, along with their auxiliary bishops, have been entrusted with shepherding their local Churches. This is even more the case in matters relating to the local clergy who have a special bond to their bishop. For this reason, matters of concern to individual dioceses or common to many dioceses come to the Conference through its bishop members. Accordingly, I think it is appropriate for my response to be directed to you. In that context, I would like to take this opportunity to offer to you a few observations based in the work of the USCCB and my own personal experience.

In the letter which was circulated, I was pleased to read that our brother priests recognize and are «grateful for the blessing» of celibacy. I am also gratified by the expression of pastoral concern that has motivated the letter. Indeed, all of us, without exception, want the sacramental life of the Church to flourish and I am sure that there are numerous efforts already in place in the Archdiocese directed toward that goal. Throughout the Church, vocation recruitment, ongoing formation of and support for the clergy, faithful catechesis and spiritual formation, collaboration among parishes, and better utilization of the charisms of deacons and lay ecclesial ministers are just some of the means available to foster more vibrant parishes and a full, rich sacramental life.

It is of course true that the current vocation situation is a reminder of the constant need for renewal within the Church. In that regard, I personally am convinced that the vision for the Church on every level that Pope John Paul II enunciates in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (January 6, 2001) is challenging and exciting. A local Church re-vitalized by that vision will, I believe, encourage women and men to follow Christ in a radical commitment of their lives which welcomes the charism of celibacy for the sake of service to His people. From the ranks of men who will have accepted that charism the Church will continue to call candidates to the diocesan priesthood. I understand that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee itself has experienced a significant increase in seminarians this very year.

The reiteration of the perduring value of this long-standing tradition in the Western Church in recent times by Vatican II, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, several Synods of Bishops and numerous episcopal conferences, including our own, recognizes the fruitfulness of this charism for priesthood and the Church, today as much as ever. As we all know, service to Christ and His people through a celibate priesthood was not an arbitrary imposition by the Church of a particular moment in history, but rather the result of a growing consciousness, already from the earliest centuries of the Church’s history, that there was a powerful congruence between priesthood and the celibate example of Christ himself. Indeed, the vitality of the Church in the United States today owes much to the tens of thousands of priests who in previous generations were and today are faithful to their commitment to chaste celibacy and who have found it to be a powerful spiritual means to draw closer to Christ.

In their letter, the priests rightly note «the ever growing appreciation of marriage and its many blessings.» I share their conviction that many of the faithful we serve are eager for support and examples of fidelity that will encourage and assist those called to the vocation of marriage and family. As you well know, Archbishop Dolan, our Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life is constantly working to promote this value. Both marriage and celibacy are complementary in the witness to Christ that they offer the entire Church. Each is a grace that enriches the Church. Together with the marvelous witness of consecrated life, the requirement of celibacy for diocesan priesthood in the Western Church preserves that complementarity and grace for the universal Church.

Notwithstanding all of these areas of agreement, I must confess that it is by no means clear that, as their letter states, a change in the discipline of clerical celibacy would necessarily bring about an increase in the numbers of candidates for priesthood. The experience of Protestant Churches is instructive in this regard. A number of studies in recent years indicate that denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as well as other mainline churches with married clergy have also faced a shortage of ministers. Several years ago the Orthodox Church in America reported a clergy shortage, as did the Jewish Reform and Conservative traditions.

Perhaps this points out a fundamental issue of much greater urgency for us: the place of religion and the Church in our culture. Ultimately we as priests are challenged to demonstrate with greater creativity and persuasiveness the essential role that our Catholic faith and witness plays in human life and culture. Our own recent Conference document, The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests highlighted this challenge when it pointed out «the counterpoint of our cultural sexual mores and values and the standards and values of the Church, especially as these are embodied in priests’ celibate commitment» (p.21). For bishops and priests, the task of being a builder of a bridge between the Gospel and our culture can be all-consuming and perhaps needs to be highlighted even more in our vocation recruitment. This could certainly be an area of future conversation between priests and their bishops. What I hope is that the good will of the priests who sent me the letters, as evidenced by their appreciation of the great value that the charism of celibacy is and has been to the Church, will encourage them to reflect on the needs of the Church and their priesthood in a way that will foster the interior renewal of priestly life so longed for by Pope John Paul II and the bishops of our country.

I am grateful, Archbishop Dolan, to be able to share these few reflections based in the work and statements of our Bishops’ Conference as they relate to the question of priestly celibacy and its abiding value for the Church throughout the world. I hope that these thoughts might be helpful to you as you continue to address, along with Bishop Richard Sklba, the priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the religious priests, the many pastoral challenges, including that of vocations, which confront the Catholic Church in the
United States.

Fraternally yours in the Lord,

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
Bishop of Belleville

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