A few weeks ago, on retreat, I was introduced to a friendly middle-aged couple. "I'm a Catholic priest," he said. "And I'm his wife," she said. They prayed among the many priests, sisters and brother on retreat but with a difference: sometimes after meals you would see them holding hands, strolling around the retreat house grounds.
Don't miss this well-researched story, in our online edition, which carefully answers the following question: How many Catholic priests become Protestant ministers? And other, important, related questions, about this hidden phenomenon. The author, Father Stephen Fichter, is the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Haworth, N.J., perhaps more importantly for purposes of this article, a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Here's the beginning of his piece:
Earlier this year, Father Alberto Cutié, a popular radio and television personality in Miami, found himself the subject of tabloid headlines when he was photographed relaxing on the beach with a woman who turned out to be his longtime girlfriend. Shortly afterward, he announced that he was leaving the Catholic Church to become an Episcopal priest, and in June he and his girlfriend were married in a civil ceremony. The reasons Cutié gave for his conversion to the Anglican Communion were not theological in nature; his primary motivation seemed to be to free himself from the celibacy requirement that the Catholic Church demands of its Latin Rite priests.
How unique is Cutié’s story? How many other Catholic priests have left the church for another denomination in order to marry? Could Cutié’s conversion signal the beginning of another wave of men leaving the priesthood? Until November 2008, when I completed my dissertation on the transition of celibate Catholic priests into married Protestant ministry, it would have been impossible to address these questions. The data I collected over the course of a year allowed me to conduct the first-ever analysis in this field.
Though many social scientists (including my granduncle, sociologist Joseph Fichter, S.J.,) had studied the phenomenon of priests leaving ministry since the late 1960s, I could not find a single research project that dealt with this specific subset. Not even the most elementary demographic data were available. How many Catholic priests chose to become Protestant ministers? From which branch of the priesthood (diocesan or religious) did they originate? What Protestant churches did they choose to join? All of these questions were unanswered.