The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected a plea from priests to allow married men to join the priesthood, questioning whether such a move would increase the number of priests.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the conference, affirmed his support for celibacy Thursday in a letter sent to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in answer to a request from about 160 local priests.
The group, more than a quarter of the archdiocese's clerics, called last month for opening the priesthood to married men.
Gregory said he is convinced the church must continue to follow centuries-old dictates upheld by Pope John Paul II, including the requirement that candidates for priesthood remain celibate.
"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," Gregory wrote.
While the number of American priests has dwindled, Gregory noted that several mainline Protestant denominations and branches of Judaism have suffered shortages of clergy even though their ministers and rabbis can marry. The bishop suggested the problem across faiths may be that the role of religion in U.S culture has declined and must be restored.
In a column published Thursday in the Catholic Herald newspaper, Dolan also said he fully supports the celibacy rule.
"I enthusiastically and confidently embrace my own celibate commitment, and believe it a providential blessing for priests and for the church," Dolan wrote.
Dolan met Tuesday with the three priests who initiated the letter campaign. They went through church channels first as they exercised their rights under canon law.
The Rev. Joe Aufdermauer, who helped craft the letter, said he wants the church to formally discuss the priest shortage.
"I just respectfully suggest that we have to keep talking about the fact that we have a shortage of priests, and the Catholic people are increasingly unable to receive the sacraments," he said. "Without priests, we would lose the heart of our faith."
Lay groups predicted the issue will not disappear.
Terry Ryan, founder of the Milwaukee-area chapter of Voice of the Faithful, said she wasn't surprised by the bishops' response.
"No doubt they're sincere in their belief in the value of mandatory celibacy. But the priest shortage is serious, and the bishops are not talking about long-term solutions to this problem," she said.
Roman Catholic priests must take a vow of celibacy. However, the pope in 1980 allowed married Episcopal clergy to become Catholic priests. And married priests are the norm among Eastern Rite Catholics in their homelands in Eastern Europe and the Mideast.
By Juliet Williams