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Former Priest Seeks to Change Celibacy Rule : Catholicism: Outspoken ex-cleric says prohibition on marriage is unnatural and is driving men from the ministry.

August 28, 1993|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Seven years after he was suspended from the Jesuits for refusing to destroy his research on how Roman Catholic bishops felt about married priests--and 5 1/2 years after his marriage--Terrance A. Sweeney is still fighting for optional celibacy in the priesthood.

Outspoken as ever that celibacy is "an unnatural law wreaking havoc" within the Roman Catholic priesthood, Sweeney and his wife, actress Pamela Shoop Sweeney, have become increasingly active in counseling priests and women who love them.

Pamela Sweeney heads the California section of "Good Tidings," a nonprofit support group for priests and women who are in love. It serves more than 700 women, 300 priests and three bishops. It is one of several such groups in the United States. (See accompanying story.)

Now, the couple have written "What God Hath Joined" (Ballantine Books), a personal and often moving account of their love and Terrance Sweeney's inner turmoil in having to choose between the ordained ministry and the woman he loves.

Sweeney, 48, was suspended from the Jesuits in 1986 for refusing to destroy research that among other things found that 32% of U.S. Catholic bishops believe the church would benefit from married clergy.

After he was released from his priestly vows, he and Shoop, a television and film actress, were married in November, 1987, in an Episcopal church in Pacific Palisades.

"When I went through it, I thought I was the only one," Pamela Sweeney said. "I never knew anyone else who would fall in love with a priest. And now I realize there are just so many."

Her husband said Pamela was, at times, compared by critics and others who did not understand the historical origins of celibacy to a temptress who lures a priest from his calling.

"It's like this: (Pamela) is Eve and a priest falling in love is falling in love with Eve the seductress, the temptress, the agent of the Devil," Sweeney said.

Father Gregory Coiro, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said celibacy dates to the 11th Century in the Roman Catholic Church and is based on Jesus' celibate example and, in part, on Matthew 19:12, which says: "There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."

Although priests in the Orthodox churches can be married, Coiro said, the Roman Catholic Church sees celibacy as a gift to the priest and a priest's gift to God and the church that allows him to be single-minded in his devotion and in carrying out his priestly role to the people. As recently as last April in a message to the world's priests, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the practice.

But Sweeney said: "It was clear from Jesus' own selections that most of the 12 Apostles were married and he, in his wisdom, saw no incompatibility between being married and preaching the Gospel."

"This issue is much bigger than just our love," Pamela Sweeney said.

Sweeney estimates that of the 400,000 priests in the world, 110,000 have either left the church to marry or are secretly living in relationships while continuing to function as priests. More than 20,000 former priests in the United States have married, he said.

Sweeney rejects arguments that he is bringing scandal to the church by marrying and persisting in his call for optional celibacy.

In 1989, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, directed all priests to withhold Communion from Sweeney because of his "canonically irregular marital union." Mahony said through a spokesman at the time, "When one creates a position of public scandal, I don't have the freedom to permit him to receive Communion." The prohibition remains in effect.

Speaking in his Sherman Oaks home and wearing his clerical collar, Sweeney said he feels he must speak out against a rule he calls "unchristian and unethical." He use the title "Father" in his book but the church does not recognize the title and says he is not authorized to wear his clerical collar or exercise priestly functions.

"What this means is that we have a serious structural disorder that has lasted in the Catholic Church for 1,600 years," Sweeney said. Sweeney said that throughout the church's history, celibacy has been, at times, cruelly enforced.

"Punishments included fines, dismissal from the clerical state, imprisonment, public humiliation, and beatings. There were several times when papal troops were sent out to arrest the wives and children of priests. There were at least two Popes that made the wives and children of priests slaves of the church," Sweeney said.

He added that the human tension between the celibacy rule and falling in love has resulted in suicides, not just in the distant past, but in the 20th Century.

"Suicides are taking place now," Pamela Sweeney said. "People can fall in love, and when you have a discipline that causes people to commit suicide, there's something very wrong," said Pamela Sweeney, an Episcopalian.

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