ARLINGTON, Va. — The letter signed this summer by a number of Milwaukee priests urging the Church to admit married men to the priesthood has prompted other priests — and laity — to make their voices heard.

Some have begun to draft, sign, and send letters of their own in defense of the age-old Church practice of clerical celibacy.

In September, more than 600 Catholic priests, members of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, wrote a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, standing behind their promise of celibacy.

Earlier, 90 priests from the Diocese of Arlington, Va., wrote the bishops' conference president, affirming their commitment to celibacy.

“Common sense and historical experience indicate … that reducing the demands of the priesthood will not increase vocations because lessening sacrifice never inspires men to offer their lives to Christ,” the Arlington clergymen wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to Bishop Gregory. “In times of crisis, the wisdom and instinct of the Church have always been to respond with greater sacrifice, not less. What will inspire more vocations is celibacy lived well, not celibacy set aside.”

One of the authors of that letter, Father John De Celles, parochial vicar of St. Michael's in Annandale, Va., noted that Bishop Gregory responded to the Milwaukee priests with a good defense of the Church's position. But other priests around the country are responding favorably to the Milwaukee letter, he said.

“A group of us were talking about it, and it seems all this makes it sound like priests aren't happy with celibacy,” Father De Celles said. “So we decided to do the letter.”

The letter that started the controversy, signed by 128 priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and 35 religious order priests from the area, was sent to Bishop Gregory Aug. 19.

“The Catholic Church needs more candidates for the priesthood, so that the Church's sacramental life might continue to flourish,” Father Joseph Aufdermauer, parochial vicar of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee, one of the principal authors of the letter, told the Register. “So many people that are against us, or against our position, are extolling the beauty of celibacy. We agree on that. We're just saying, ‘Make it optional, for the sake of the sacraments.’”

Bishop Gregory, in a Sept. 3 letter addressed to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, said the Milwaukee letter ignores the fact that many Protestant Churches that allow a married clergy still have a shortage of ministers.

But Father Aufdermauer called that comparing apples to oranges.

“The shortage of Protestant ministers is far different than the shortage in the Catholic Church,” he argued. “As an example, a Protestant congregation with 1,000 members normally would have two or three ministers, pastors, and so if they can only get one or two, they call that a shortage. Secondly a lot of times in the Protestant Churches the smaller congregations in the country have difficulty attracting a pastor because most pastors would like to be in the city in the larger parishes and so therefore they say ‘we have a shortage.’”

Gift of Celibacy

But Father John Pecoraro, an associate pastor in the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., wants to remind his brother priests that celibacy is a gift.

“Just the other day I had a conversation with a parishioner who felt that it was unfair that priests are not allowed to marry. I sensed an attitude that regarded celibacy as something cruel or unusual,” Father Pecoraro said. “Much of the laity do not see celibacy as a cherished gift or a charism. If they did understand celibacy as a gift their views would change. I think that adding my voice to those who support continued celibacy acts as a witness to the fact that most priests value the gift of celibacy.”

Father Pecoraro is promoting a nationwide defense of priestly celibacy and has established a Web site, www.priestsforcelibacy.home stead.com, which allows priests to voice support for celibacy. He is encouraging priests to print the letter on official stationery and send it to him by Oct. 31. He will forward the letters to Bishop Gregory.

The Tennessee priest also took issue with the way the Milwaukee letter was made public.

“The Archbishop of Milwaukee was out of town and could not be reached for comment, and Bishop Gregory … did not have the opportunity to even see the letter before the letter and signatures were made public,” Father Pecoraro said. “In my opinion, I believe that the Milwaukee letter was an attempt to muddy the waters with the added effect of embarrassing the hierarchy of the Church.”

The pro-celibacy initiatives by priests have lay support, particularly from organizations such as Women for Faith and Family. Helen Hull Hitchcock, president of the St. Louis organization, feels the Milwaukee priests are “taking advantage of confusion in the Church to promote an agenda that they've had for a long time.”

“They have problems with the hierarchical structure of the Church and the role of the priest in general,” Hitchcock said. “Some of those who have joined the Milwaukee priests are former priests, some of whom are married who believe they should be allowed to exercise their priesthood within the Catholic Church. Those organizations have been around for years, and it seems to us like perhaps some of those groups have felt that the Church's leadership is in a vulnerable position at the moment because of the pederasty scandals involving Catholic clergy that has preoccupied everyone for the last two years. They are taking advantage of this situation.”

There's another reason Hitchcock supports priests faithful to Church teaching. The priesthood and motherhood share an important similarity, she says. Both vocations demand sacrifice.

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in New Durham, New Hampshire.