Celibacy questions plague Hispanic priest at heart of scandal

Polls show Latino Catholics OK with status quo

The Miami archdiocese removed Father Alberto Cutie from his parish post and as head of its international radio network. He said he has been involved with a woman for about two years. The Miami archdiocese removed Father Alberto Cutie from his parish post and as head of its international radio network. He said he has been involved with a woman for about two years. (Tony Gutierrez/ Associated Press/ File 1999)
By Eric Gorski
Associated Press / May 17, 2009
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He is the priest with the girlfriend, caught by paparazzi on a Miami beach and now caught, he says, between love for a woman and his church.

Only the Rev. Alberto Cutie (pronounced koo-tee-ay), a celebrity among Hispanic Catholics for his good looks, media savvy, and advice about relationships, can't have both. As Cutie decides between clerical collar and wedding ring, he is sure of one thing: He doesn't want to be "the anticelibacy priest."

The scandal enveloping Cutie since compromising photos of the couple hit the press May 5 has revived conversation about mandatory celibacy for priests.

But among Hispanic Catholics in the United States, there is little appetite to change the status quo, polls show. That's significant because it differs from the views of more liberal white Catholics - and because Hispanic Catholics are a fast-growing demographic reshaping the US church.

Hispanic Catholic opinions on celibacy and the Cutie scandal provide a glimpse at some of the community's values. Among them: a respect for authority but tolerance when someone falls short, and a machismo culture and love for family that colors attitudes toward the priesthood and dissuades many Hispanic men from taking the vow.

Karla Benitez, 58, a Catholic who attends Mass weekly at a church in Hialeah, Fla., said she admires Cutie's good works, but feels he has failed his church and his followers.

Asked whether Cutie's case could lead to change in the church's celibacy rules, Benitez said she couldn't understand the correlation.

"This should reinforce the rules of the church, not challenge it," she said. "Why should this incident force us to tolerate this kind of behavior by the clergy? It doesn't matter if the rule was from God or not. A priest must be faithful to a promise they made."

Photos of the Cuban-American Cutie embracing a woman on a Miami beach and in a bar were first published in a Spanish-language tabloid. The Miami archdiocese removed Cutie from his parish post and as head of its international radio network.

In an interview with CBS, Cutie, 40, said he has been romantically involved with the woman in the photos, a 35-year-old divorced mother, for about two years.

He lamented, "I don't want to be the anticelibacy priest . . . I believe celibacy is a good commitment to God. In my case it was something I struggled with for a long time."

Before the scandal, Cutie had said publicly that celibacy should be a choice for priests. He did not respond to interview requests.

The Cutie drama comes as the president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, is ensnared in a scandal about another broken vow. Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, has admitted fathering a child while he was ordained. Two other women have come forward with similar assertions.

With few exceptions, becoming a Catholic priest in the Western church requires a vow of celibacy, meaning no sexual relations or marriage. Although celibacy is a tradition dating to the church's earliest days, it was not made mandatory until the 11th century.

The celibate priesthood has been modified over the years. The Catholic church in the West has made room for married clergy from other denominations to become Catholic priests and stay married. Celibacy is optional for Eastern Rite priests.

In the United States, the celibate priesthood is a subject of perennial debate, but the gap between white and Hispanic Catholics on the issue has gotten less attention.

A survey in 2003 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 74 percent of non-Latino Catholics believed married men should be ordained as priests. Just 45 percent of US Latino Catholics held that position.

Two years ago, a Pew survey found a similar result - 44 percent of nonwhite Hispanic Catholics thought married men should be allowed to become priests.

The 2003 survey also found that male Latino Catholics were less likely than male non-Latino Catholics to have considered becoming a priest or brother - 13 percent compared to 24 percent.

Basically, Hispanic Catholics are believers in the current rules for the priesthood. The men just aren't rushing to sign up.

Hispanics tend to respect authority instead of question it like American culture encourages, so most back the church's priesthood rules, said the Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops's Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church.