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Conscience Magazine

Priestly Promises

By Linda Pinto August 22, 2016

It is a little-known secret that a married priesthood already exists in the Roman Catholic church.

That is why Paul Sullins’ book Keeping the Vow is such a valuable resource. This well-researched, statistically sound analysis examines the not-well-publicized “loophole” known as the Pastoral Provision for Former Episcopal Clergymen in the United States. Since 1981, this program has allowed Episcopalian ministers and their wives and families to be welcomed with open arms into full communion with the Catholic community. Since its inception, more than 100 priests have availed themselves of this privilege. Sullins, a married Pastoral Provision priest, draws material from personal interviews conducted with 72 of these men, as well as three written surveys, one of which focuses on the opinions of US bishops.

Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests D. Paul Sullins (Oxford University Books, 2015, 336 pp) 978-0199860043, $29.95
Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests
D. Paul Sullins
(Oxford University Books, 2015, 336 pp)
978-0199860043, $29.95

On the recommendation of St. Pope John Paul II, the architects of this accommodation were Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (prior to his becoming Pope Benedict XVI) and Cardinal Bernard Law (the former archbishop of Boston who attained Spotlight fame). It was initially touted as an ecumenical effort at dialogue and greater understanding. However, it soon became clear that the impetus for the provision stemmed from a growing dissatisfaction among some Episcopalian priests regarding changes in their own backyard—something they called “the failed authority.” Paramount among these issues was the possibility of women’s ordination, the approval of contraception, an unconditional acceptance of homosexuals, recognition of the value of stem cell research and allowance for divorce and remarriage. Statistically, Pastoral Provision priests are a montage of 1950s pre–Vatican II Catholic culture.

Sullins aptly describes this cohort’s desire to be “closer to the truth,” which some priest-converts described as “coming home” to the Catholic church. Pastoral Provision priests are more likely to view themselves as “mediators” between God and man. They pray the breviary (Liturgy of the Hours) and celebrate Mass. These married priests also pray the rosary more frequently than celibate priests and are more likely to be devoted to a particular saint. Like other priests, they recognize the unquestioned and ultimate authority of their bishop. Pastoral Provision priests must agree that they will not become pastors, instead serving in supportive roles such as educators and/or parish assistants.

I was especially intrigued by the chapter “What Are Married Priests’ Wives Like?” Sullins describes the challenges these women face. Accustomed to the Episcopal system, wherein the wife is expected to “quietly co-minister,” they move to the Catholic church and into what is characterized as a secondary vocation: i.e., a vocation to be involved in the vocation of their husbands. Many of these women choose to convert simply to support their husbands’ call to become Catholic. They are then challenged to find a comfortable place in a Catholic parish environment. The ultimate subjugation in this arrangement is the wife’s compliance with her husband’s promise not to remarry should she predecease him.

Sullins highlights the bishops’ cautious support for this initiative. While 80 percent of them claim to have “a good general understanding of the Pastoral Provision,” very few bishops have participated in the program. Some have noted that this policy was a Vatican decision in which the bishops’ conference had little or no input. Others pointed out that it is difficult to justify to the priests and people in their dioceses why more than 35,000 men who were born and raised Roman Catholic and called to priesthood were expelled once they decided to marry. Others were not willing to enter into an arrangement in which “the scandal of divorce” could be a potential challenge. Oddly enough, the author’s statistics verify the fact that a married priesthood requires only slightly more financial support than a celibate one—contrary to a long-held argument against allowing clergy to marry.

[T]he Sacrament of Holy Orders, as the priesthood is now known, did not become fact until the 4th century and does not account for why Jesus chose married men (and women!) to be his first disciples.

Later chapters of the book depart from sound statistical data and journey more into the realm of opinion. Centering on arguments for retaining the church’s current policy of mandatory celibacy, Sullins reports that most Pastoral Provision priests do not support optional celibacy and about twice as many as celibate priests are opposed to the ordination of married priests. In this, he says, they believe themselves to be “the exception that proves the rule.”

Unlike his earlier reliance on verifiable statistics, some of the author’s arguments in this section rest on highly questionable premises. Sullins notes that Jesus was not married and that he affirmed celibacy for priests. The former position cannot be ruled definitive since there is no mention of Jesus’ marital status in any of the Gospels. The latter point does not recognize that the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as the priesthood is now known, did not become fact until the 4th century and does not account for why Jesus chose married men (and women!) to be his first disciples.

Sullins’ work has value in that it provides a snapshot of how married priests function in the current hierarchical and clerical system known as the Roman Catholic church. However, rather than helping to transform the system, his portrayal of the status quo only strengthens the idea that at ordination an indelible mark sets a man above and apart from the community. The marriage is only a minor detail.

Linda Pinto
Linda Pinto

, a former Franciscan nun, has been married for 40 years to Ralph, a Catholic priest (Diocese of Newark, New Jersey) who was forced to resign active ministry in order to marry. They coedit CORPUS Reports.