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Leo T. is a Roman Catholic priest who, like Catholic priests around the world took a vow of celibacy when he was ordained. For the last 10 years, however, Leo T. has had a sexual relationship with a woman.

Three years ago he married her and legally adopted her three children. As a military chaplain, he continues to function as a priest, but neither his superiors nor most of the people to whom he ministers know he is married.``I'd be out tomorrow if my religious superiors found out,' he said, declining to give identifying details about where he works and what religious order he belongs to. ``It's not the job I'm worried about. I could find another job tomorrow. It's just that I love being a priest, and I think I am a better priest because I am a married man.'

While he keeps his dual life secret, Leo T. has joined a growing international effort to change the tradition of a celibate Catholic priesthood. He is a member of the National Association for a Married Priesthood, which says it has 10,000 members, half of them former priests who have married. The other half are active clergy and lay people.

Leo T. is one of a handful of active priests in the group who have surreptitious marriages; most who married left the active priesthood.

This group, which held a convention in late June in San Jose, Calif., and an international umbrella group, which is to gather in the Netherlands in August, maintain that the church's only hope for the future is with a married clergy.

They note that the number of priests has been declining for 25 years, while the number of Catholics is growing and fewer men are enrolling in seminaries.

Pope John Paul II has consistently opposed changing the tradition of a celibate priesthood, although the church recognizes the validity of a married priesthood in its affiliated Eastern rites.

The church's position is that celibacy, a church tradition rather than a church law, is a sign that commitment to Christ must sometimes go beyond all normal human ties. In practical terms, church leaders argue, celibacy eliminates the competing demands of family life, allowing priests to concentrate on their pastoral duties.

Although opinion polls have shown that the celibacy requirement is the greatest obstacle to recruiting priests, many church leaders have consistently attributed the decline in priests to broader changes in the church and society, including declining prestige for priests among Catholics, and the unwillingness of people in general to make personal sacrifices.

While in California, the American group, which also calls itself Corpus, met for the first time in a decade with representatives of the nation's bishops. No promises were made, but Corpus members expressed the hope that their request for a married priesthood would eventually be taken up at the Vatican, which has the sole power to change the status of priests.

As recently as May, the pope told a group of priests and nuns that ``the people always expect to see in you a model' who is ``consecrated to the Lord in a life of celibacy.'

The Rev. Frank Lynch, who was ordained 33 years ago, said celibacy, which dates to the third century, can have a ``very positive value if it is lived in imitation of Christ himself.'

``It frees you for total dedication,' said Lynch, who is pastor of St. Nicholas Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. ``You don't have the obligation of taking care of your own family, but an obligation to the larger family. That, after all, is why we are called 'Father.''

The relationship between a priest and his parish, the pastor said, is analogous to a marriage. ``Ideally, if it is a good marriage there is giving and taking, and the life of the priest is enriched,' he said.

As for celibacy, he added, ``I made my commitment and never had a problem with it.'

Priests who attended the Corpus convention, however, said celibacy was what drove them out of the active ministry. Most said they were not otherwise disillusioned.

Dr. Richard A. Schoenherr, a sociologist who has studied the American priesthood for more than 20 years, estimates that 13,200 priests have resigned since 1966, a vast majority to marry.

Schoenherr, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the ``big exodus' came in the eight years after the Second Vatican Council's close in 1965 and continued, although at a slower rate, in the 1980s. ``The council introduced a new approach to Christian marriage,' he said, ``and many began to rethink their commitment to celibacy on that basis.'

Schoenherr predicted that the Catholic Church would allow a married priesthood ``within a decade or two.' Without it, he said, ``the church stands to lose its most important traditions: the Eucharist, the other sacraments and the hierarchical governing structure.'

Only priests can consecrate the Eucharist, the bread and wine that symbolize the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament of holy communion.

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