MILWAUKEE — Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who recently provoked the displeasure of Vatican officials with comments on abortion, has ventured into another controversial area by stating in the first draft of a pastoral letter that he would be willing to ask the Pope to ordain a married man under certain circumstances.
In the 6,000-word letter, Weakland makes it clear that he would not defy Pope John Paul II, who has been unswerving in his opposition to married clergy. The archbishop states, however, that he sees no other solution to the clergy shortage and that, "without raising false expectations" he would be willing, under certain conditions, to present a married man as a candidate for ordination.
The statement was hailed by church observers as a major development in the discussion of priestly life because it is the work of a respected U.S. archbishop on a topic that the Vatican has refused to discuss.
Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University of America in Washington who has written extensively on the growing priest shortage, called the statement "world news."
"This is a very important document . . . because nobody else who is in the business is saying it."
Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit political scientist who has written a book on the American hierarchy, said the statement is significant because it comes from "an influential and respected member of the American hierarchy. And that is very important, because no change is going to occur unless the hierarchy favors the change."
The first draft of the pastoral, titled "Facing the Future With Hope," which was published this week in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Herald, was written as part of a yearlong discussion about the future of parish life in an archdiocese that already is experiencing a clergy shortage and that faces a projected 26% decline in the number of priests by the year 2000.
In the letter, the archbishop said he would ask for ordination of a married man for a parish that met the following conditions:
* One that meets regularly even though no priest is available for a regular Sunday Mass. It would be one served by lay ministers or permanent deacons who preside at liturgies where Communion would be distributed only rarely.
* One that continues to be faithful to the theology and sacraments of the church when possible, even without a priest present, and where there is Catholic education for all and outreach to the needy.
* One that has an active program to encourage a celibate priesthood.
* One where it appears that no celibate vocations would be found for many years.
If those conditions were present, Weakland wrote, "I would be willing to help the community surface a qualified candidate for ordained priesthood--even if a married man--and, without raising false expectations or unfounded hopes for him or the community, present such a candidate to the pastor of the universal church (the Pope) for light and guidance."