Can A Priest Be a Husband?

  • Share
  • Read Later
No one could accuse Pope John Paul II of being soft on celibacy. The Roman Pontiff frowns upon even hypothetical discussions about relaxing the church's centuries-old ban on married priests. Yet this is the same Pope who in 1980 approved an experiment in which 43 married men have become Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. The most recent was ordained in New York just last week. (Some 20 married converts have become priests elsewhere in the West since Pope Pius XII allowed the first such dispensation in 1951.) Although church officials have sought to avoid publicity about the unusual American program, it has been chronicled in a new book, The Pastoral Provisions: Married Catholic Priests (Sheed & Ward; 152 pages; $13.95), by priest-sociologist Joseph H. Fichter of Loyola University in New Orleans.

Not surprisingly, the influx of married priests has met resistance within the ranks of the Catholic clergy. Some of the loudest complaints have come not from traditionalists who think celibacy might be undermined but from liberal priests and nuns. One reason: the U.S. converts are mostly theological conservatives who left the clergy of the Episcopal Church because of that denomination's leftward drift on liturgy, doctrine and discipline -- particularly the Episcopalians' decision in 1976 to admit women priests. Also the wife of one priestly convert told Fichter she had run into resentment from nuns who wanted to become priests.

Many Catholic clergymen are especially hostile because they find it unfair for the church to cut a special deal for these 43 while it bars the return of thousands of men who left the priesthood to marry. San Antonio's Father Christopher G. Phillips, the first married priest to head a U.S. parish, rejects the double-standard complaint, noting that the ex-priests have broken vows taken voluntarily to observe lifelong celibacy. Phillips reports that reactions he has received from Catholic colleagues run the gamut from "great joy to utter disdain."

Fichter thinks that the number of married priests might have been greater had Catholic bishops proved to be more encouraging. As it is, a candidate for reordination as a Catholic priest must undergo an arduous process. Besides filing 13 documents, the prospective convert must take additional theology instruction and endure detailed inquiries into his psychological makeup and the health of his marriage. One requirement, controversial to Episcopalians, ; is that each clergyman convert must undergo ordination at the hands of a Catholic bishop, an unwanted reminder that Rome rejects the validity of Episcopal priestly orders.

"They sure don't make it easy," remarked one of the priests interviewed by Fichter, who quotes all of his sources anonymously. The various steps took one of the candidates 6 1/2 years. And the living is not easy either. Recalled a convert who had earned $50,000 a year in the Episcopal clergy: "I went into debt and lost my credit rating" while awaiting reordination. "For the first time in our lives," said one of the priests' wives, "we knew what it means to live on the edge of poverty."

Nor does the money flow in after reordination. The Phillipses support their family of five children on the standard priest's stipend of $500 a month plus the husband's pay as part-time chaplain of a Carmelite convent. Cash is not the only problem in making the adjustment. One wife told Fichter that parishioners, accustomed to celibate clergy, are very demanding and "don't really give much thought to the priest's family." One convert admitted he favors retaining the celibacy rule because "quite honestly, I think that the personal difficulties and family pressures outweigh the benefits" of the married priesthood.

Although most lay Catholics are accepting of married priests, Fichter writes, the Vatican skittishly restricts their contact with ordinary U.S. parishioners. Most of the 43 work in such careers as teaching or chaplaincies and perform regular parish work only on temporary weekend assignments. That means that a priest's wife and children do not live in a regular parish rectory and usually do not attend the church where he celebrates Mass. Nonetheless, when families do mingle with parishioners, said one wife, "people get used to you after a while."

Phillips is among the handful of married priests who work in far different circumstances. He is assigned full time to Our Lady of the Atonement Church, one of six special U.S. Catholic congregations originating with groups which, like the priests, left the Episcopal Church. In these so-called Anglican-Use parishes, ex-Episcopalians are permitted a Mass that is almost identical with one in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

Although the U.S. bishops appear to play down the Anglican-Use arrangement for fear of fraying ecumenical ties with the Episcopalians, this is, in Fichter's view, a "liberal" step that amounts to a Vatican "admission that + the beliefs and practices of traditional Anglicanism have been basically the beliefs and practices of the Roman Church." Fichter considers the Anglican- Use parishes a far more important innovation than married clergy. This development, he contends, "may be called the first significant ecumenical breakthrough in the relations between Anglicans and Romans."