Jeff Jacoby

The call to have a family and serve God

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / May 24, 2009
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'I would like to have a family and at the same time serve God."

By all accounts, the man who recently spoke those words is more than capable of doing both. The Rev. Alberto Cutié, a 40-year-old Roman Catholic priest, built a devoted international following through his service as pastor of the St. Francis de Sales parish in Miami Beach, his immensely popular Spanish-language radio and television ministry, and his widely distributed advice column. "Father Oprah," he was nicknamed, both for his gifts as a broadcaster and his empathy for the struggles so many face when it comes to love, sex, and relationships.

Such struggles, it turns out, were of more than just academic interest to the telegenic priest. Cutié's career imploded this month after a magazine published photos showing him kissing and embracing a brunette on the beach. In the uproar that ensued, Cutié admitted that he and the woman were in love, and that for nearly a year he had been struggling to resolve his feelings for her with his commitment to the church. The Archdiocese of Miami had little choice but to suspend him from his parish and media duties, and Cutié is now faced with an agonizing decision. Does he leave the priestly vocation that means so much to him and for which he has shown such flair? Or does he break with the woman he loves and yearns to share his life with?

Inevitably, the scandal in Miami has reopened the longstanding debate over celibacy and the Catholic priesthood. Cutié himself has said that he does not want to become an anti-celibacy "poster boy" - "I believe that celibacy is good, and that it's a good commitment to God," he told CBS - but it is hard not to wonder whether the Catholic Church loses much more than it gains by continuing to deny its priests the blessings of marriage.

Certainly many Catholics have their doubts. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, US Catholics are almost evenly divided on the issue - 40 percent say priests should be allowed to marry, while 39 percent disagree. In 2002, the late William F. Buckley Jr., a devoted Roman Catholic and nobody's idea of a liberal, characterized the requirement of priestly celibacy as "in most cases inordinate, and unrealistic."

In March, Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, declared the subject of priestly celibacy "a perfectly legitimate discussion," and pointed out that among Eastern Rite Catholic churches, married men become priests "with no problem at all." A few weeks later, the Jesuit weekly America observed that even in the Western church there are more than 100 married priests - former Episcopal and Lutheran ministers who converted to Catholicism and were ordained in the Latin rite. Why not make that option available, the editors asked, to "some of the more than 16,000 permanent deacons in the United States, many of them married, who experience a call to priestly ministry?"

Celibacy was not always obligatory for Catholic priests. The Rev. Donald Cozzens, a scholar at John Carroll University in Cleveland, notes that during the church's first 1,000 years, "priests and bishops - and at least 39 popes - were married." Celibacy was honored among those who chose it, reflecting the New Testament's injunction that "he who marries . . . does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better." But for most of the church's history, priesthood and marriage were not deemed incompatible.

Even now, priestly celibacy is not Catholic dogma. It is a church discipline, subject to change and open to debate. No doubt there are many priests whose vocation is everything to them, and for whom celibacy has never been a bar to happiness. But how many others are like Father Cutié, who answered a powerful call to the priesthood, but feels just as powerfully drawn to the love and fulfillment of family life? And how many would willingly preach the gospel and minister to the faithful, if only it didn't mean forswearing the intimacy of a wife, the passion of physical love, and the experience of raising children?

"I would like to have a family and at the same time serve God," says Cutié with great poignancy.

If he were Protestant, or Jewish, or Muslim, or even an Eastern Rite Catholic, he could respond to both calls with all his heart and soul. As a Western Catholic, he must choose between them. How sad for him, and for the church he loves.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at

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