2003 Aug 6, “Moving on: Frank Cordaro is on longer a Catholic priest” by Tim Schmitt, POINTBLANK, Des Moines, Iowa weekly mag.
Moving on: Frank Cordaro is no longer a Catholic priest. His reason for leaving may have been unexpected, but it’s a common one among former priests.
By Tim Schmitt
In his 18 years as a priest, Frank Cordaro has been in a lot of trouble. He’s been arrested countless times, spent a total of 44 months in prison and spent a year on leave — basically suspended from the church — for bumping heads with officials on policy issues. And he’s enjoyed every minute of it.
Cordaro, a graduate of Dowling, is well known throughout the country for his work in the peace and justice community, as an anti-nuclear activist and as co-founder of the Des Moines Catholic Worker community. For years, Cordaro was also an outspoken critic of church policies regarding women, human sexuality and the governing structure of the Catholic Church. This outspokenness, coupled with a tendency to get arrested that showed no signs of slowing down, earned Cordaro an ultimatum from Des Moines Bishop Joseph Charron in 1999: stop getting arrested and be quiet on issues of policy or leave the church.
The bishop placed Cordaro on a yearlong leave of absence to ponder his choices. In the end, Cordaro agreed to bite his tongue when it came to church issues and the bishop agreed to take Cordaro’s law-breaking activities on a case-by-case basis.
Since returning to active priestly service, Cordaro has been arrested several times, served a six month sentence for trespassing at Offutt Air force Base and is set to be sentenced on Aug. 13 for trespassing at an Iowa National Guard Base. He intends to tell the judge that he will pay no fines, and do no community service (“what we did was community service,” he says) and that he intends to come back to the base this fall and bring as many people with him as possible.
So more jail time is not out of the question.
Anyone who has met Cordaro will attest to the fact that he is not a quiet man and his willingness to head to prison shows that he is not one to stay silent about the things that matter to him. That he agreed to quiet his criticism proves his dedication to the priesthood and how much he was willing to sacrifice.
“I really feel I was called to be a priest,” says Cordaro. “And I was good at it.”
Was being the key word.
After 18 years of service, Frank Cordaro, Des Moines’ most famous — or infamous — rabble-rousing priest has turned in his collar. But his reason for doing so has nothing to do with his proclivity for law breaking.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me or the bishop or whether or not I should be doing resistance work,” says Cordaro. “My relationship with Bishop Charron is better than ever. He’s been very understanding and respectful. I just have to be free of the promise of celibacy.
“My need for intimacy and companionship is greater than I can sacrifice at this time,” he adds. “Right now in my life, this burden is too much to carry and it would be a disservice to my spirit, my heart and my health. It’s a very human issue here. It’s not a complicated theological issue. Most people I’ve spoken to are supportive and understanding.”
This has always been an issue for Cordaro, he admits now. Shortly before he was to be ordained in 1976, Cordaro fell in love with a woman and dropped out of the seminary. Still, he maintained a presence in the church, co-founded the Des Moines Catholic Worker community, launching a community in Central Iowa that continues to grow today.
Cordaro returned to his calling and was ordained in 1985. Even then, he argued that the celibacy rule was detrimental to the church.
“I was a critic of mandatory celibacy before I was ordained, while I was an active priest and now as an inactive priest,” says Cordaro. “It’s not serving the church well and it needs to be addressed.”
Priests leave the profession for this reason much more often than we might expect, says Cordaro. And though he has no hard numbers, he knows many men who’ve left for the same reason as he.
“In this diocese, there have been one or two a year over the last 20 years,” he says. “From my experience there would be a lot more good priests practicing (if the rule were not in place).”
Anne Marie Cox, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, says that in the last five years, four priests have left service in Des Moines and two besides Cordaro are now on leave of absence, the first step toward leaving the priesthood. The reasons for their departure are varied, she says, adding, “I’m not sure we keep statistics about that.”
Yet research in this area indicates that Cordaro’s assessment of the situation may be correct.
Dean R. Hoge, in his book, “The First five Years of Priesthood: A Study of Newly Ordained Catholic Priests,” states that as many as 9 percent of all priests leave within the first five years. Up to 30 percent leave after falling in love with a woman. Another 20 to 30 percent left because they could not abide by their celibacy vows.
“It’s a universal Catholic experience,” says Cordaro. “Very few Catholics I know have not been affected by a priest who left for this reason.
And in a time when the number of men becoming priests is declining, even as membership in the church grows, something has got to give. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the Catholic Church has grown by 47 percent since 1965 while the number of priests has declined by 30 percent in the same time.
Cordaro believes that changes in the celibacy requirement will come out of necessity, though maybe not anytime soon.
“It’ll never happen with the current pope,” he says. “I do believe that in my lifetime we will continue to see major shifts in this area. If they do nothing, the church will still change, but it won’t be for the positive. There will be so few priests left to administer to a growing number of Catholics, that the way the church operates will have to change.”
Cordaro admits that, though he’s tried, he’s not always been true to his vow of celibacy, and that his resignation is partly an effort to come clean with the church and those he’s served.
“In my 18 years as a priest I have not always been true to my promise of celibacy and to live in this contradiction has been harmful to myself and the church,” he says. “I thought as the years went on that it would get easier and it didn’t. I really tried and the only reason I stayed in is because I was called to this and I felt I did it well.
“From my own personal experience,” he adds, “when a priest is not true to his promise of celibacy, it hurts the priest and everyone else involved. I know this pain and no longer want to live under this obligation.”
The sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the church also played a role in Cordaro’s decision to admit his shortcomings and leave the church. Cordaro has insisted through the scandal that church officials should be honest and forthcoming, advice he is now taking to heart.
“If I’m going to ask the bishops to be honest, I have to be honest myself,” he says. “I’m not sure I was always in honestly, but I’m leaving honestly. It’s an issue of making right.”
Leaving the priesthood means giving up a privileged status in the church for Cordaro, one that allows him to administer the sacraments and affords him a certain level of respect. This will be gone, but little else will change. He will remain active in the peace movement and the Catholic Worker Community. Now, unencumbered by the church, Cordaro will once again be free to speak to the reform issues he agreed to keep quiet about in order to keep the collar.
“I can’t imagine myself being quiet about things I believe in,” he says. “How I do that remains to be seen. I hope it will always be done with the love and respect I feel for the church. “It’s very common that priests take a leave of absence and leave the priesthood and a vast majority of them get married,” he adds. “Most leave in silence and go about their private lives. I’m going to continue to be a public person. It is my intention to remain a player in the Catholic community.”