I'm a Married Man. I'm Also a Catholic Priest

The following is an excerpt from Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests by D. Paul Sullins (Oxford University Press, 2016):


“Wait—what?! How can that be? Priests can’t be married.” Carlos, a well-educated traditional Catholic Hispanic man, had just heard me, a Catholic priest, casually refer to my wife. The fact that I am married is common knowledge in the parish I’ve served for over a decade, but Carlos was new and had not heard. He was serving as lector (reading the Bible lessons) at the Mass I was about to celebrate. His eyes narrowed with suspicion and he took a step backward. “Normally they can’t,” I agreed, beginning an explanation I had given many times before, “but the Pope has made an exception for men, like me, who used to be Episcopalian priests and have converted. …”

“What is an Episcopalian priest?” he broke in, inadvertently lapsing into Spanish.

This explanation, I realized, would have to be more extensive than usual, and the organ prelude for the Mass had already started.

“I’m not the only one,” I said, casting about, trying to be reassuring. “There are two other married priests in this diocese.”

His eyes only got larger and more quizzical, with a touch of concern. Just then I saw Father Garcia, a canon lawyer from Argentina who was visiting the parish, and asked him to help.

“There are 21 different rites in the Catholic Church, and all of them have many priests that are married except this one, the Latin Rite,” I heard him begin, still in Spanish, taking Carlos aside as I turned to the proces­sion with a prayer of thankful relief. A minute later I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Is there a book I could recommend him,” whispered Father Garcia, “that would answer his questions about married priests?”

“No, not really,” I said.

Father Garcia looked at me intently. “Then,” he said, “you should write one.”

Carlos is not unusual; few Catholics, and certainly fewer non-Catholics, know that the rule of celi­bacy for Catholic priests is not absolute. To be sure, no Catholic priest, once ordained, is ever permitted to marry, but married men have some­times been permitted to receive ordination as Catholic priests. At some periods in the long history of the Catholic Church, the ordination of married men appears to have been relatively common, though how common and for how long is a matter of historical dispute. There is no question that the clergy of the Eastern Catholic Churches, continuing an ancient practice of the undivided Church, regularly marry today. In the Western, or “Latin Rite,” Catholic Church, the practice is to ordain only celibate men, but there have been rare exceptions. The exceptions are almost always granted to a married priest of another Christian church, almost always Anglican, who has converted to the Catholic faith. In the United States such priests, with their wives and families, have served in Catholic parishes and dioceses since 1981 under a little-known set of canon law norms known collectively as the Pastoral Provision (or Anglican Pastoral Provision). In 2012 more married priests began to be received under a new program established by Pope Benedict XVI. Today there are about 125 Roman Catholic priests in the United States who are married.

Like Carlos, many are curious to learn about married priests. Why did they leave the Episcopal Church? Did they have to go to seminary? What are their views on religious issues, particularly when compared to celibate priests? What do they do for a living? What are their wives like? Perceptive Catholics familiar with Church life wonder how well the married priests are received by other priests, and how a parish or diocese can afford to sup­port them. They also wonder how such tradition-minded leaders as Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, came to allow married priests. What role did Church politics play in that development? And, if the door is open, why aren’t there many more married priests? Most of all, this small group of married priests raises large and important questions about Catholic faith and policy for many, both Catholic and non-Catholic. If these married converts can be ordained priests, why not married Catholic men? Could the Catholic Church be about to change the requirement of priestly celibacy?

There are also a number of common stereotypes about married priests. It is commonly assumed, for example, that permitting Catholic married men to be ordained would help alleviate the shortage of Catholic priests by attracting many young men to the priesthood. Married men are often seen as better able to relate to what laypersons go through in life, such as the pressure to earn an income, the relationship adjustments and sexual expe­rience of marriage, mortgage payments, time pressures, school tuition, and in-laws. They are thought to be less prone to the scandalous child sex abuse that has been repeatedly discovered among celibate Catholic priests. Are these and similar perceptions true or imagined?

These questions and beliefs about married priests stem from a wide range of personal, historical, sociological, and theological concerns. Few people may be interested in all of them—for example, non-Catholics may not be interested in Catholic Church policy or theology—but all of them share one common feature: they have been necessarily considered in the abstract, as a matter of speculation, in the absence of any concrete infor­mation about married priests themselves. Furthermore, these questions and beliefs have never been examined together, but only in an occasional or piecemeal fashion, as part of a larger discussion about some other topic or interest. This volume attempts to make a unique contribution to our understanding of the issues raised by married priests by consid­ering them together in one volume, more or less systematically, and by bringing to bear evidence from the lives and views of married priests themselves.

I studied 72 married priests and their wives involving 115 interviews and three surveys over a period of four years (2007–2010). A full description of the research design and methods is presented in the Appendix of my new book, Keeping The Vow.

Each of the questions voiced above are examined, to the extent pos­sible, in light of the experience or perspective of these priests and of the relevant historical, sociological, or theological issues involved. The empiri­cal evidence from these priests is sometimes enough to yield a definitive answer to a particular question. More often, it will not provide an answer, but can help to inform the discussion, by fleshing out abstract ideals and convictions about priests and marriage with the actual experiences and lives of the married priests themselves. As befitting men who combined priesthood and marriage in a celibate clerical culture, moreover, their experiences are (as we shall see) often paradoxical, a thick and messy com­bination of contradictory roles and positions that do not easily fit into the usual categories. By telling their story, I hope to articulate a more fully human perspective on the issues related to the idea of married Catholic priests, and thus to contribute, in a small way, to the understanding of the larger story of the Catholic and American religious experience.

In many ways, the story of my research subjects is also my own story. I am a Pastoral Provision priest, ordained in 2002 for the Catholic priesthood, 18 years after becoming an Episcopal priest. Very happily married for 29 years, with three children, for the past decade I have taught sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., while also serving as associate pastor (parochial vicar) at the Catholic Church of St. Mark the Evangelist in nearby Maryland. I know what it is like to be a married priest from the inside, as it were, as well as from observation. At the same time, as a trained sociologist, with a background in theology and pastoral care, I am uniquely qualified and situated to engage the wide-ranging factors—sociological, historical, theological, and personal—necessary for a full consideration of the questions and issues raised by married priests.

I am well aware of the methodological difficulties that may be posed by a researcher who is sympathetic, or potentially reactive, to his research subjects. Yet, when Max Weber articulated his ideals for social science research, he called not only for objective or “value-free” inquiry but also “verstehen,” that is, insight into the underlying thoughts and motiva­tions of human action.1 As difficult as it may be for a married priest to try to maintain an objective distance, it would also be difficult for some­one who is not a member of this unique group to attain the same level of insight and comprehension into their lives and behavior. Frequently, in the interviews and surveys that form the core of my new book, as well as discussions and research initiatives with priests and bishops, I have been able to empathize with and understand the respondent more fully as a result of my own experiences and outlook, even when my perspective was very different from that of the person I was interviewing.

It is my hope that, as a whole, my research on married Catholic priests will add up to an enlightening portrait of this unusual species and tell us something important about the Catholic Church and its future.

Reprinted from Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests by D. Paul Sullins with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © Oxford University Press, 2016.

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