Milwaukee, Sept. 4,-- (AP) Responding to priests who argued that married men should be allowed into the priesthood, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed his support for celibacy Thursday and questioned whether adding married clerics would increase the number of priests.

The conference released a letter sent from its president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in answer to a letter from about 160 local priests. The group, more than a quarter of the archdiocese's clerics, called last month for opening the priesthood to married men.

Gregory said he is convinced the church must continue to follow centuries-old dictates upheld by Pope John Paul II, including the requirement that candidates for priesthood remain celibate. "It is by no means clear that, as their letter states, a change in the discipline of clerical celibacy would necessarily bring about an increase in the numbers of candidates for priesthood," Gregory wrote.

While the number of American priests has dwindled, Gregory noted that several mainline Protestant denominations and branches of Judaism have suffered shortages of clergy even though their ministers and rabbis can marry. The bishop suggested the problem across faiths may be that the role of religion in U.S culture has declined and must be restored.

In a column published Thursday in the Catholic Herald newspaper, Dolan also said he fully supports the celibacy rule. "I enthusiastically and confidently embrace my own celibate commitment, and believe it a providential blessing for priests and for the church," Dolan wrote. "It is a gift cherished by the church since the time of Jesus, common among the ordained from apostolic times, expected of priests from early centuries, and required of them for close to 1,000 years.

"It is not some stodgy Vatican 'policy' that has been 'imposed,' but a gift savored for millennia," Dolan wrote.

Dolan met Tuesday with the three priests who initiated the letter campaign. They went through church channels first as they exercised their rights under canon law.

Roman Catholic priests must take a vow of celibacy. However, the pope in 1980 allowed married Episcopal clergy to become Catholic priests. Married priests are the norm among Eastern Rite Catholics in their homelands in eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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