What Do You Think?: “Padre Oprah” Scandal Has Many Asking Whether Priests Should Be Allowed to Marry

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Father Alberto Cutie (pronounced Koo-tee-ay), a popular Miami priest and talk show host on the conservative Eternal World Television Network as well as Pax Catholic Communications is the latest cleric to get caught in a sex scandal. The priest, known as “Padre Oprah” for his relationship counseling on a TV show called “Hablando con padre Alberto,” was the victim of Mexican paparazzi for the celebrity magazine TVnotas. TVnotas published 25 photos of Cutie and a woman relaxing on the beach and kissing at a local bar. One photo shows Cutie with his hands in the woman’s bathing suit bottom. At least, some say, he wasn’t caught abusing a young boy.

Cutie has spoken out. On CBS’s Early Show [watch video below] he said, “I believe I have fallen in love and I believe I’ve struggled with that, between my love for God and my love for the Church and my love for service.” Cutie is obviously a very loving man and now he will need to choose, some say needlessly, between those loves.

The life of a Roman Catholic priest is no picnic. When I was growing up there were a fair share of what we called Father “What-a-wastes”…

outgoing, kind, good looking, mostly young men who made you wonder what they were doing in the priesthood. They’d make, we thought, great husbands and fathers. But alongside them were many profoundly unhappy and lonely men, poorly adjusted and quietly drinking themselves to death. These men got little help from the church who saw their problem as moral weakness, not a disease; the church made no connection between the solitary lives and emotional restrictions of priestly life and the wide spread resort to alcohol.

Times changed. The church discovered psychology and became more human. The restructuring of religious life for women that followed the second Vatican Council got a lot of attention, but quiet changes took place in the rules for men and women in religious life and priests were encouraged to lead more normal lives—to have women friends as well as men friends. To be more “normal.” But still, celibacy was mandatory. The spirit of personal freedom that was part of the reform of divorce laws, women’s liberation, and the advent of the birth control pill, influenced Vatican II and awakened desires in Catholic men and women in religious life.

Priests and nuns were restless.

This too contributed to efforts to amend “priestly formation” so that men could better tolerate a celibate life. But, as the priests developed friendships with women, love followed and we all remember the priests and nuns who “broke” their vows, got laicized or ignored the church and just got married. Like many Catholics they appear to have ignored the church prohibition on birth control and had small families.

Celibacy remained mandatory, but in the 80s some priests and theologians creatively redefined it. Celibacy, the promise that diocesan priests make to their bishop, means that the priest will abstain from marriage. These smart alecks agreed that they would not marry; they would not take on the burden of a family and wife that would distract them from the obligations of priesthood. Instead they would just have sex. Little was said about obligation to partners and the fact that sex outside marriage is considered a sin was ignored; possibly it was confessed. Order priests had little casuistry to fall back on as they did take a vow of chastity, which means they agreed to abstain from sex.

Celibacy remained mandatory. God went relatively silent and the number of men hearing the call to the priesthood declined. Only 480 new priests were ordained in 2008. The number of graduate level seminarians declined from 8,325 in 1965 to 3,286 in 2008. There is little cachet in the Catholic family these days in having a son become a priest. While no figures are available, anecdotal reports and expressed Vatican concern indicates that God is calling more homosexual men to the priesthood than heterosexuals.

Celibacy still remains mandatory. Even high profile disobedience of the rule has no effect. The man Pope John Paul defended and befriended in spite of highly credible accusations of pedophilia, Marcial Maciel the founder of the ultra conservative Legion of Christ was finally acknowledged, after his death, to have had an affair and fathered a daughter, “just as he and his thriving order were winning the acclaim of Pope John Paul II.”

Even the recent news that the current Paraguayan president, and former Bishop of the rural province of San Pedro, Fernando Lugo, impregnated a long time lover several weeks before he resigned the priesthood in 2006 hasn’t shaken things up in Rome. The boy’s mother who claimed to have begun an affair with the then bishop when she was 16 sued him for paternity and support. Lugo has acknowledged the claim and the boy can now use his father’s last name and receive support. Lugo has not commented on several other allegations of sexual liaisons including fathering at least one other child in 2002.

For every high profile case, there are hundreds of cases of priests in informal marriages of long duration, loving affairs, one night stands, gay and straight sexual relationships and love for better and for worse. And there are children, some who know their fathers and some who do not.

Father Cutie has been suspended from the parish, his radio program is over, he has been asked, like hundreds of others, to go away, enter a period of “prayer and reflection” and decide whether to stay a priest and leave the woman he loves, or to leave the priesthood and be with her. And he would be asked to make that decision even if they had a child. He would be asked to abandon the child and there would be no guarantee it would be supported. It is a stupid, cruel and unnecessary choice.

By now, everyone knows that the early Christian church had married priests, bishops and popes. We even had popes whose sons became pope (the last was John XI who was the son of Pope Sergius III and ruled 931 to 935.) The celibacy rule is manmade and it could be changed. High minded folks say it is a way for the priest to devote himself fully to God and God’s people.

I think it remains so because Popes like John Paul II and Benedict both understand where married priest lead: they lead to the end of the 2,000 year tradition of sex as something dirty. They lead to the belief that people who have and like sex are as holy as those who renounce it. And if priests could marry and have kids, birth control would be the eighth sacrament. The church would never tolerate having to support all the kids that priests and their wives would conceive using natural family planning.

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