Priest Photos
Tony Gutierrez  /  AP
In this 1999 file photo, Father Alberto Cutie speaks to his congregation during service at St. Patrick's Church in Miami Beach, Fla.
updated 5/16/2009 2:46:49 PM ET 2009-05-16T18:46:49

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, 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 anti-celibacy priest."

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

But among Hispanic Catholics in the U.S., 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 U.S. church.

Hispanic Catholic opinions on celibacy and the Cutie soap opera 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 both 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 Father Albert'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."

'Commitment to God'
Photos of the Cuban-American Cutie (pronounced koo-tee-ay) embracing a dark-haired 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.

Cutie lamented: "I don't want to be the anti-celibacy 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 from The Associated Press.

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 still ordained. Two other women have come forward with similar claims.

Celibate priesthood
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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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.

Those numbers don't tell the whole story about Hispanic Catholics and celibacy, however.

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.

Live-in girlfriends
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 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church.

Yet in Latin American countries, Catholic priests' live-in girlfriends are a poorly kept secret. Parishioners look the other way. While Americans expect consistency between what is taught and practiced, other cultures are more tolerant of ambiguity, Deck said.

Those dynamics might help explain findings of a poll by the Miami firm Bendixen & Associates: 57 percent of Hispanic Catholics in Miami-Dade County thought it was OK for Cutie to be romantically involved with a woman, and 56 percent thought the Miami archdiocese did the right thing by suspending him.

"If you ask (Hispanic Catholics), they will tell you what the church says, what it teaches," Deck said. "However, when the priest does not live to that ideal, there's a tendency to say 'Well, they're only human and that's a difficult standard to live up to.'"

The Most Rev. Jaime Soto, bishop of Sacramento, Calif., questioned the appropriateness of using Cutie's case to challenge the celibate priesthood.

"Infidelity in marriage is a rather frequent occurrence," said Soto, 53, who is Mexican-American. "Assuming that marriage will solve the problem of celibacy is a naive assumption. I don't necessarily think celibacy is the problem. Nor is marriage necessarily the solution. There is no doubt that celibacy is a very challenging lifestyle given the world we live in today. But then, so is marriage."

Soto said Hispanic Catholics' strong appreciation for sacrifice helps explain why most support the priesthood as it is. And because Hispanics put family first, a priest with a family is viewed as a priest with less time for parishioners, he said.

Soto said that when he interviews prospective priests who are Hispanic, they often discuss the man facing a future without a family of his own.

"In many ways, in the contemporary culture in the United States, the concept of the traditional family or the celibate priesthood are not that well understood or appreciated," Soto said. "As Latinos become more acculturated to American life, they will be increasingly challenged in those two very core values."

'Why can't I have that?'
Some Catholics do not think that is necessarily a bad thing — at least when it comes to the priesthood. The Rev. Eduardo Samaniego, a Jesuit priest and pastor of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in San Jose, Calif., said that in overwhelmingly Catholic countries such as Mexico, people get little exposure to married clergy.

"Here, people are regularly exposed to people of other faiths and denominations," said Samaniego, who supports allowing diocesan priests to marry. "When you see the possible, I think people say 'Why can't I have that?'"

But Samaniego said Cutie's escapades on the beach don't help the cause.

"He may be calling attention to something, but at what cost?" Samaniego said. "People point their fingers and say 'See, see, see ... You can't trust a priest.'"

In South Florida, the Cutie drama appears to have helped erase the gap between white and Hispanic Catholics on celibacy. The poll of 400 Miami-Dade Catholics last week found that 74 percent of Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike opposed the requirement.

Cutie's popularity might have a lot to do with it.

Over lunch at a busy Cuban restaurant in Miami, 42-year-old real estate agent Isabel Montenegro said she was impressed with how Cutie has handled his issue.

Celibacy is a rule created by church officials, not God, said Montenegro, a Catholic who described herself as religious but someone who doesn't go to church as much as she would like.

"I think it's really an important issue that Catholic church officials desperately need to reconsider," she said. "We have to remember that Padre Alberto and all the others in the church are just like us. They think like us, they have emotions like us and they can fall in love like us."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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