Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Married priests want to remain exceptions

Come on in, guys...but be sure to pull up the ladder behind you! I can't stand that attitude, whether we are talking about immigration or opening the Roman Catholic priesthood to married people.

Published: November 10, 2009

(RNS) Former Episcopalians who have found a traditional refuge in Catholicism, where the priesthood remains closed to women and openly gay clergy, are applauding the Vatican's plan to help additional dissatisfied conservatives convert.

But while the welcome extends to married priests — a narrow loophole in the Catholic Church's celibacy requirement — most of those who have already converted say they want to remain rare exceptions.

''We trust the church's wisdom regarding the discipline of celibacy," said the Rev. D. Paul Sullins, who left the Episcopal Church 10 years ago with his wife and recently surveyed his colleagues on this issue. "A man who is married has two somewhat conflicting sets of commitments. It's difficult to balance them, and having a family also makes it difficult to move at short notice to another assignment."

The Vatican announced Monday (Nov. 9) that new dioceses will enable Episcopal congregations in the United States and their Anglican counterparts around the globe to convert while retaining their many of their worship traditions. It's an attractive offer for those in the 77-million member Anglican Communion who want to return to a more traditional form of Christianity and bridge the 16th century schism between the Church of England and Rome.

A generation before the current rift over gay clergy, a wave of clergy fleeing the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women had prompted the Catholic Church to open its Pastoral Provision Office to help married pastors make the transition. About 100 of them have been ordained since 1980, while nearly 500 formerly celibate priests have gone the other way — to the Episcopal Church.

''We're happy for people to go where they need to go," said Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church's chief deputy for ecumenical and interreligious affairs. By allowing married priests to become Catholic, yet requiring homegrown clergy to remain celibate, and not granting a right of return to any of the priests who left in order to marry, the Vatican's outreach "will probably be more of a source of tension for them than for us," he added.

But Sullins, a professor at Catholic University in Washington who is working on a book about the Pastoral Provision, says the majority of clergy converts do not support an influx of married priests. While they may occasionally feel nostalgic for their old churches, which also offered roles for their wives, their steadfast conservatism and loyalties to their adopted spiritual home make them even more committed to a celibate clergy and other church teachings, including the prohibition on birth control, than the average priest.

The Pastoral Provision's bimonthly newsletter and its first retreat for clergy couples, going on this week (Nov. 9-13) at the Bethany Center in Lutz., Fla., also keeps them from feeling isolated, he added.

Even if hundreds more married Episcopal priests accept the Vatican's offer, they will still be a tiny fraction of the 40,000-plus Catholic priests in America, said Monsignor William H. Stetson, Pastoral Provision secretary. Under the new guidelines, converting as a married priest will still require a sponsoring bishop, at least a year of study and a papal dispensation. Men who have been divorced are ineligible; priests whose wives later die may not remarry.

''We have not had a flood of inquiries, and I don't expect that we will," he said. "The papal document is meant to address communities, not just priests, who wish to join the Catholic Church."

In the press release accompanying its declaration, the Vatican reiterated that "priestly celibacy is a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and radiantly proclaims the reign of God." To avoid confusing or offending worshipers, Sullins said he has always played down his unique status at church.

''My wife and I won't hold hands in the lobby of the church and we won't do things that might scandalize people," he said. "When my daughter was younger, coming out of Mass, she would stand next to me and help me shake hands, but that was a little risky."

Patti Sullins, who has found her own calling as a parish director of liturgy and music, said married priests like her husband bring valuable insights on family life to their ministries, but agrees celibacy should continue as the Catholic norm.

''The church is a demanding mistress," she said, noting that their jobs at Maryland parishes nearly an hour apart require she and her husband to schedule time on Mondays and Fridays for each other.

The married priests and their wives may find themselves with even more responsibilities in the future, as former Episcopalians who can serve as both clergy and lay guides to the converts responding to the Vatican's invitation. The Florida retreat gives the couples a timely opportunity to discuss this issue, she added.

''It will be nice to network with the other spouses and hear about how they're feeling and what we can do to set the groundwork for new people that are coming in," she said. "There wasn't much of a support system when we came in."

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