So how did the Catholic Church end up with married priests? It’s the Episcopalians.
There is disagreement over exactly when priestly celibacy started in practice, but for nearly all Catholic clergy, marriage has been off the table for about half the Church’s 2,000-year existence.
But in 1980, Pope John Paul II created a special provision for Episcopalian priests and some other Protestant ministers who chose to become Catholic, but wanted to remain active in ministry. The Church kept them away from the spotlight, assigning them to be hospital chaplains or diocesan administrators. But even that is changing.
Five years ago, Pope Benedict XVI took it a step further: He created something called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. It’s the equivalent of a Catholic diocese, but it’s not bound by geography. The new structure enabled Episcopal priests, and even entire Episcopal congregations, to “swim the Tiber” and become Catholic. These faith communities worship with distinctly Anglo tinges, and many are led by married priests.
The Rev. David Ousley, pastor of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Philadelphia, and his congregation dived in. It was “increasingly hard to be small-c catholic as an Anglican,” he said, so he and some in his congregation “re-examined the things that separated us, and upon examination, we realized there was no good reason to continue outside the See of Peter.”
In 2012, Ousley was ordained a transitional deacon, the step before priestly ordination. But during that ceremony, deacons make a vow of celibacy – and Ousley was tongue-tied.
“It was, ‘I do. I do. I don’t. I do,’ ” he said. (He just skipped that vow.)
Why have some Episcopal priests traded in one collar for another?
Some say it’s the increasingly theological liberalism of modern-day Episcopalians. Others say they simply feel more comfortable in the Catholic Church.
The Episcopal Church, the 1.8 million member American branch of the Anglican Communion, began ordaining women to the priesthood in 1977, leading some theologically conservative Episcopal priests and laypeople to sever ties with their church.
The number of breakaway groups increased when the church chose a woman, Barbara Harris, to serve as a bishop in 1989, and then again with the election of a gay priest, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
If they had disagreements with one church, they now face questions in another.
The Rev. Jonathan Duncan, a married father of three who runs St. John Vianney parish in Cleburne, Texas, said some people are confused when they learn about what he calls his twin vocations as a spouse and a priest.
“There’s sort of a cognitive dissonance, like those two things don’t go together,” he said. “There’s always some explaining to do.”
Read Duncan’s essay on his experience
It’s not always a seamless transition.
A married priest in Arizona said that while he’s been extremely well-received by celibate priests and most lay Catholics, he’s encountered some resistance. One woman refused to take communion from him after learning he was married.
“A lot of these very devout Catholics are very narrow in their understanding of the church,” the Rev. Lowell Andrews, pastor of Church of the Holy Nativity in Payson, said. “I’m very pleased that Pope Francis is opening up the understanding of the church, that it’s a universal church.”
Some in the Anglican Communion don’t like it. Some leaders have denounced the Catholic Church’s accommodation of former Episcopalian communities. They say it could harm ecumenical relations, accusing the Vatican of taking advantage of another church’s internal struggles and poaching whole congregations.
The Catholic Church has said the provisions were simply a response to pastoral requests, not an attempt to increase membership.
Other married Catholic priests come from some Eastern Rite churches, whose worship is similar to Orthodox Churches, that are in full communion with Rome and that ordain married men in Africa, Asia, and Europe. While only celibate Eastern Rite men can be ordained in North America, some Eastern Rite communities are led by married priests who immigrate to the US.
And this summer, Pope Francis approved the first priestly ordination of a married Eastern Rite seminarian living in the US. A group of Catholic and Orthodox leaders recently asked the Vatican to loosen celibacy restrictions on Eastern Rite priests.
Will the increasing, though still relatively tiny, numbers of married priests in the Catholic Church have an effect on how the church approaches the issue? Nearly all the married priests interviewed said yes, although they also said they supported priestly celibacy, and pointed out that the process is more complicated than simply changing a rule.
“I believe strongly that there is room for, and a need for, celibate priests,” Andrews, the married priest in Arizona, said. Duncan said if the church ever did reconsider celibacy, it would have to dramatically change its expectation of priests.
“I can’t see how it could work with how the church is structured now,” he said. “It would require lots of adjustments in terms of expectations [of the priest’s time] and the structure of parish life.”
For his part, Pope Francis has signaled – as with many topics – that he is open to discussion. Yes, he called priestly celibacy “a gift for the church,” but he also noted that celibacy is a discipline, not doctrine, so “The door is always open.”