So you surf your way to "God's Yellow Pages," double-click – and what do you get? A referral program named Rent-a-Priest.
Next, you open up a Web page showing a map of the U.S., Canada, France, Germany or South Africa. You double-click on any given state or province and find the names, addresses, telephone numbers and sometimes even pictures of former Roman Catholic priests who are now married.
You can hire them to preside over your marriage, baptize your child, hear your confession, say Mass, or administer extreme unction to your dying aunt.
You can do all that, but in the eyes of the church these priestly acts "would be as illicit as driving a car after your license has been revoked," Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a communications officer of the National Bishops Conference in Washington, told United Press International on Tuesday.
There are 110,000 married ex-priests in the world, according to Louise Haggett, founder of the rental service. In the United States, "20,000 left in only 20 years, 9 out of 10 to marry."
In the last nine years, Haggett has enrolled hundreds of them in her rental program, men such as George F. Spellman, 68, of Williamsburg, Va.
"I was one of those who were kicked out of the priesthood in 1968 because we opposed Pope Paul VI's encyclical, humanae vitae," Spellman relates. This Vatican document barred Catholics from using the birth control pill.
Spellman, now married, acts as if nothing had ever happened back then. He works as a chaplain at Eastern State Hospital for mental patients, a job for which no ordination is required.
"But upon request I say Mass, preach, baptize and bury. I belong to two interdenominational local clergy associations, in one of which I am even the coordinator," he said. Has his bishop, whose see is Richmond, ever told him off?
"No. A reporter once asked the bishop's office about me and was told they had never heard of me. I guess their policy is just hands-off.
"At any rate, since I have been dismissed from the ministry I have not presided at a Eucharist in a Catholic church. But in another church or private homes, yes."
Under canon (church) law a Catholic priest's consecration never ceases to be valid, even if he drops out of the ministry. "Tu es sacerdos in aeternum," he is told at his ordination – you are a priest for eternity.
This gave Louise Haggett the idea to start Celibacy Is the Issue (CITI), the parent organization of Rent-a-Priest. She told the ReligionToday news service that the idea came to her as her mother was dying in a nursing home and no priest was available to administer the sacraments.
Now her rental program supplies priests even to lapsed or divorced Catholics who wish to be married in a Catholic ceremony.
"There is of course a difference between the terms 'invalid' and 'illicit,' " the Rev. John Beal, who teaches Canon Law at Washington's Catholic University, said in an interview.
"It is illicit for a former priest to administer the sacraments, except in danger of death," he explained. "True, if he baptizes or consecrates the Eucharist, these sacraments remain valid, even though the celebrant would have acted illicitly. As far as the recipient is concerned, they are legal."
On the other hand, marriages performed by such priests are invalid, according to Beal. He added that the same applied to the sacraments of penance, confirmation and anointing.
"In theory, penalties could be imposed on such men. They could even be threatened with excommunication," Beal continued. But does one commit a sin when one receives valid sacraments from a priest acting illicitly?
"If someone confessed this to me, I would probably play it safe and suggest to such a person to do penance."
Louise Haggett pointed out that when married ministers from Protestant denominations convert to the Roman Catholic Church, it will ordain them. By this logic, why not tap into the substantial resource of already consecrated priests who happen to have wives? What's the difference?
To Beale, this is a false analogy. "First of all, these former Protestants have never made a promise of celibacy and therefore never broken it; the ex-priests have.
"Secondly, even before celibacy became the rule, the church has had a long tradition of never allowing ordained priests to marry. In the early church, a man had to be married before ordination. This rule still applies to Eastern Catholic and Orthodox clergy."
Where the Western church is concerned, Pope John Paul II has called the celibate priesthood one of its great treasures and is not expected to change his mind.
Does the Rent-a-Priest program foreshadow a schism in the Catholic Church? "It sometimes seems to be heading that way," said Beal.
Spellman in Williamsburg does not see himself as schismatic. "I am Catholic to the core," he insisted. But then he was asked where he registered baptisms he performed.
"With the Federation of Christian Ministries," he replied.
This organization, headquartered in Ionia, Mich., was founded in 1968. According to the National Catholic Reporter, "it "enrolls a bewildering mix of Christians (and a few non-Christians) who offer a potpourri of services that meet the needs of the institutional church's throwaways."
The newspaper put it in a league with other "rump groups" that "have been multiplying like portabella mushrooms" since Vatican II. Among them are the far-left Catholic Worker group and Friends of Creation Spirituality, a Christian "new age" faction.
Other "rumps" are Dignity USA (homosexuals), Catholics for a Free Choice (pro-abortion), and Louise Haggett's Celibacy Is the Issue.
Perhaps schismatic seems a harsh word. But the National Catholic Reporter has an appropriate label for them: fringe.
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