Stephen Joseph Fichter
How common is Alberto Cutis journey to Protestant ministry?
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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.

Fifty or Five Thousand?

In his 1961 book Religion as an Occupation, Fichter noted that some “ex-priests” chose to continue their pastoral work in Protestant ministry, but cited only two examples. In Married Catholic Priests: Their History, Their Journey, Their Reflections (2004), Anthony Kowalski writes of “many” who have married and now serve in mainline churches but mentions only five Episcopalians and two Lutherans by name. Certainly there are more but no one seems to know exactly how many. Are there 50, 500, 5,000?

Thanks to information gathered from the research offices of the five mainline Protestant Churches (Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian), I was able to identify 414 such men in the United States. Following the advice of the late Dean Hoge, I did not contact the Baptist Church or any of the hundreds of small Protestant denominations, presuming that very few Catholic priests would be inclined to join them.

Nearly one-third of the 414 former Catholic priests now serving in Protestant ministry agreed to participate in my survey. Of the 131 respondents, 105 (80.2 percent) became Episcopalian, 15 (11.5 percent) Lutheran, eight (6.1 percent) Congregationalist, and three (2.3 percent) Methodist. I found a 40-year age range: the youngest was 42 and the eldest 82. Their mean age was 62.8 while the median was 64.

The “typical” participant in my study, therefore, was born around 1944. If we divide his life into seven 9-year periods, we find him immersed in Catholic devotions and rituals during the first two timeframes. His service as an altar boy and the encouragement he received from the nuns facilitated his entry into the seminary at the age of 18 in 1962. He dedicated the third period of his life, during the heyday of Vatican II, to preparing for ordination at the age of 27 in 1971. He spent the fourth phase in active Catholic ministry and struggled with his commitment to celibacy. At the age of 36 in 1980, at the beginning of the fifth period, he resigned from ministry, got married, worked for a few years in a non-ministerial job, and eventually began his journey to his new denomination. From 1989 to 2007, he served as a married Protestant minister, twice the amount of time he spent as a Catholic priest.

‘An Agonizing Decision’

Many respondents spoke at length about the critical decision-making juncture of their lives. Most described it, as did Alberto Cutié, as a heart-wrenching process. A former diocesan priest, who now serves as a Congregationalist minister, said:

I had such a nervous encounter with my bishop and with my parents. It was a period of constant headaches. It was a very difficult decision. I was so torn between Sally (pseudonym) and celibacy. When I finally resolved the dilemma, the headaches stopped… It truly was an agonizing decision. I still recall how poorly the bishop treated me. I felt that he really didn’t care about me. I remember my mother saying, “But you are one of the good ones!” I told her that I just couldn’t do it anymore. In the end, both of my parents were very supportive; I was blessed with two great parents. It was an agonizing decision especially after spending eight years in the seminary and nine years in ministry.

Once they began to doubt their commitment to celibacy, most participants began weighing the choices before them. One was to “bite the bullet” and remain a celibate Catholic priest. A second option was to seek a dispensation and thereby enter into a Catholic marriage, but in the process forfeit their beloved ministry. The third alternative, the one that Cutié and the survey respondents chose, was to renounce their Roman Catholic affiliation in order to enter ministry in another domination.

When asked why they made the transition, six out of ten respondents cited celibacy. “I joined the Episcopal Church because I wanted to have the option of being married,” one participant wrote. Some conveyed a deep attachment to the Catholic Church: “My only reason was so that I could get married. Otherwise, I would have stayed.” For the majority, becoming Protestant only occurred after they married. In general, the respondents did not resign because they disliked ministry or had failed at it. Had the pope allowed them to marry, many would have stayed. Three of the respondents stated that they would return to the Catholic priesthood today—if they could bring their wives along with them.
The Congregationalist minister above spoke about his time in Catholic seminary as “the best eight years of my entire life.” He described the monks in charge of his formation as men of great kindness, role models who provided him with a solid theological education and a positive spiritual foundation. His problems began during his first assignment:

I was doing really well in my ministry, but rectory life was killing me. The pastor, who was great with the parishioners, had this notion that you need to treat the young priests harshly. He was really hard on us. He made all the rules. There was no discussion. I began to lose weight. I asked the bishop for a transfer. My second pastor was an alcoholic. Besides that, he had his ‘boyfriend’ over at the rectory so often that it made me feel uncomfortable. I asked the bishop for another transfer and this time I was assigned to a truly great pastor. He was so kind to me, and he was someone that I deeply admired. I have often thought that had Father Michael (pseudonym) been my first pastor, I might still be a Catholic priest today. . . . My main issue was with celibacy, however. I always thought that it was unjust, especially when the Pastoral Provision (permission that Pope John Paul II granted in 1980 to Episcopalian ministers to serve as married Catholic priests after their conversion) came through. I thought that such a decision was a double standard. I was battling loneliness. . . . I think that I would have stayed as a Roman Catholic priest if celibacy had been optional.

Other respondents spoke about their dislike for specific tenets of Catholic dogma. Many pointed to the publication of Humanae Vitae as a major turning point in their lives. One former diocesan priest, who is now 80 years old, said, “Humanae Vitae pushed me off the edge. I saw that act as the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to enter the modern world.”

One of the Episcopalians in the study clearly presented what I categorized as the two main motivating factors: the pull of the “heart” issue (falling in love) and the demands of the “head” (doctrinal dissent):

During my first three years of ordained ministry as a priest, I fell in love with a woman who was the youth minister at my parish. Even though I had questioned the discipline of celibacy before, I began to seriously question and struggle with it. I began to feel that God was calling me in a different direction, that celibacy might not be my calling. Coupled with the struggle over celibacy, I seriously questioned the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women, laypeople and homosexuals. The establishment in Rome was becoming more rigid and moving the church backwards. The reforms of Vatican II came under fire. It came to the point where I could not imagine being happy in 20 years if I remained in ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. I felt God was calling me to pursue something else. I dreamed of finding a denomination where I could continue to minister with my wife, a gifted youth and family minister.

New Church, Familiar Liturgy

When asked why they chose their current denomination, the majority of respondents spoke of the strong similarity between their present church and the Catholic Church in terms of liturgy, ministry and theology. This was especially true for the Episcopalians and seems to explain why so many of the survey respondents gravitated to the Anglican Communion. Most of those who joined the Episcopal Church said that with only minor adjustments they “felt at home” from the beginning and that they found comfort in the fact that they could hold onto their core beliefs in the Resurrection and the Eucharist. Over time they modified their views on other subjects, such as papal infallibility and women’s ordination, but many of them had already begun to question the validity of those doctrines.

Before I began the interviews, I hypothesized that diocesan priests would be overrepresented in my sample because they seem to be at greater risk for loneliness than religious order priests. (Most religious live in community, while diocesan priests often live alone in rectories because of the shortage of priests.) The survey results support this hypothesis. Based on the historical ratio of American diocesan clergy to religious, one would expect to find 61.5 percent diocesan priests in this sample; in fact, 72.3 percent of the respondents had served in diocesan ministry. (Recall that Cutié was a diocesan priest.)

Where Cutié differs from most of the men I surveyed is in the historical timing of his decision. The majority of respondents began their journey to a new church in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It seems unlikely that Cutié’s example will spark another wave of priestly resignations. According to research conducted by Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger in Evolving Visions of Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century (2003), young priests today are more theologically conservative than their immediate predecessors and are more likely therefore to embrace the church’s traditional teaching on celibacy. Questions remain, however, about how many young Catholic men have chosen lay or Protestant ministry over the Catholic priesthood because of the demands of celibacy—a fitting area of inquiry, perhaps, for another curious sociologist.

Rev. Stephen Joseph Fichter is the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Haworth, N.J., and a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Comments

STEPHEN FICHTER | 10/17/2009 - 1:06pm
+ Dear Deacon Scott: Unfortunately, I do not  have any numbers concerning Catholic priests who switched to Orthodox ministry. If you ever do research in that area, or come across some well-founded statistics, please share them with me. Thank you very much! God bless, FSF
Scott Dodge | 10/15/2009 - 11:47am
I am interested if you looked into and, hence, have statistics on Catholic priests who became Orthodox. Granted, celibacy would not be there issue, due to the fact that in the Orthodox church if a man is to marry, he must marry prior to being ordained to a major order (i.e., priest or deacon)
Stephen Joseph Fichter | 10/9/2009 - 8:02am

+ Dear Readers:

 

First of all, I am very grateful to all of you who read this article. While I would like to respond to all the postings, I only have time to respond to three: # 2, 10, and 26.

 

Concerning Fran Abbott’s question, as I pointed out in my dissertation, it is hard to know the exact number of priests who have resigned from active Roman Catholic ministry during the last 40 years. (I apologize for not having figures for deacons but that was not the focus of my research.) For priests, estimates range from 12,000 to 25,000 in the United States alone. Personally, I have found the 16,000 figure calculated by the late Dean Hoge to be the most reasonable number. If that number is used, then the 414 men whom I identified for my research project represent 2.6 percent of the total.

 

Michael’s posting (#10) asks the same question but in reverse. The answer, therefore, is that 97.4 percent of priests who resigned did not enter other denominational ministries. I hope that this is clear. Please contact me again if you desire further clarification.

 

Finally, I would like to thank C. Canton for letting me know what fond memories he has of my granduncle, Father Joseph Fichter, S.J. If anyone else has stories to tell about him, know that I would be delighted to receive them at fichter@earthlink.net.

 

God bless you all!

Christopher Conant | 10/8/2009 - 12:31pm
This is an interesting article. It makes me wonder about whether or not Catholic priests are being affirmed in there vocations. I do not believe the problem of Catholic priests leaving the Catholic ministry is so much of a lack on there part, but rather an attitude that has more or less prevailed in the Church over the last 50 years or so. in my observation, there is a lack of true fraternity among Catholic priests.  I believe it to be most powerful when a Catholic priest refers to to a fellow clergyman as "Brother Priest".  I believe there needs to be more emphasis on the theological truth, goodness, and beauty of the Catholic priesthood. The priest is not a career, it service for the Jesus Chris, the Church and the People of God. I would love to write much.  Being in my early 20's, I write with minimal experience, but yet I believe this not to be my thought but rather the thought of the traditions of the Catholic Church.
JIM MCCREA | 10/6/2009 - 4:16pm
Gee, Katie - your doom and gloom stories remind me of pretty typical marriages, Catholic and otherwise.
So -???
JIM MCCREA | 10/6/2009 - 4:14pm
I worked with a man whose father was a Serbian Orthodox priest. This co-worker is thinking of becoming a deacon.  2 of his brothers are priests.  His uncle is a bishop.  His mother and wife are both actively involved in the church's activities.
Talk about a ready source of vocations!
And they are a close-knit, loving family who all minister to their fellow parishioners on a regular basis.
Episcochick | 10/5/2009 - 5:38pm
Just to let you know, Episcopalians consider themselves a part of the Anglican Rite of the Catholic church and they ordain men and women to the priesthood  and therefore call them priests not minister.  While Fr. Cutie is currently in the process to have his priestly faculties transfered to the Episcopal church, it takes about a year to a year and half.  My husband did the the same thing six  years ago. We wish them well and hope they are happy in their new church.
mariah | 10/4/2009 - 8:31pm
Very interesting ! Thank you
Carroll Canton | 10/3/2009 - 1:05am
Dear Fr. Stephen Fichter,  I knew your uncle, Fr. Joseph Fichter, S.J., when I attended Loyola University, New Orleans.  He was so kind to answer my questions for a paper I was writing at the time.  Fr. Fichter was a delightful person, esteemed teacher, dedicated priest.  It is great to see you following in his footsteps.
Katie | 10/2/2009 - 10:37pm
Very interesting comments.  What I find more interesting is the debate over celibacy seems to always focus on the needs of the man.  What if we allowed married clergy?   I would like to hear the womens stories.  I could not imagine being the wife of a priest or a minister.  I have deep and profound respect for priests, especially pastoral priests.  They have the demands of a few hundred parishoners to a few thousand.  It is long and grueling.  I know of several protestant ministers who are divorced because their wives could not compete with the love the ministers had for their congregation. Many an "ordinary", lay marriage falls apart because the couple becomes too busy for each other.  But with "regular" jobs, a spouse can choose to cut back to spend more time with the other spouse.  As a priest, who would you cut back on to spend more time with your wife?  The bereaved widow?  The teenager who wants to commit suicide?   Priests often talk of having children.  While the priest is counseling, attending meetings, visiting the sick, marriages, funerals, etc., the burden of raising the children would fall solely on the wife - where is the equity in that?  I work in children's social services, and I have encountered children  of protestant ministers who are acting out very negatively becuase their parents have little to no time with them.  I am currently working with a young man who is about to get expelled from school and he is the son of a prominent and successful minister.  My point is that when discerning marriage, people, including priests, often focus on the romantic and selfish aspects - I want someone to love me.  But marriage is a sacrifice - having children often requires a great deal of unselfishness.  There is a reason that in many parishes, the majority of lay people involved in ministry are either single, or they have children who are teens or grown - the rearing of small children is your primary ministry at that stage of life.  My love and admiration is to all the wonderful priests who realized that by giving up a personal family and focusing all their attention on their ministry, they have supported and blessed many, and unknowingly, have not contributed to the demise of a wife, child, or children, by having divided attention.  I think church in turn should provide better support for priests by encouraging friendships, and networks. 
Aloysia Moss | 10/2/2009 - 8:51pm
The Hound of Heaven was written by Francis Thompson .
Jim McCrea | 10/2/2009 - 6:10pm
It would be interesting if priests were held to their vows with the same degree of scrupulosity as are Catholics who seek Catholic divorce, i.e., annulment.
Oops, I forgot:  those marriages never existed.
CAESAR BELCHEZ | 10/2/2009 - 5:07pm
27th Sunday readings: 'Would that all people of the LORD were prophets!!...  "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.'
Rev. Paul Camp | 10/2/2009 - 4:47pm
I was ordained in 1966 for the Diocese of Toledo, OH, married in 1993, and received a call to St. James Lutheran Church in E. Cleveland, OH, in 1995.  I am now semi-retired from the ELCA, serving in interim pastorates.  I was pleased to read Fr. Fichter's article, and have been curious why there has not been more attention to this phenomenon.  As I see it, I have not "left the Church", but the Roman Church has isolated me from much ministry opportunity.  I know that my wife was fired from her position of Worship Director in the Diocese due to our friendship, and that I was probably not able to get a position in prison ministry for which I was well-qualified.  The irony is that I will get 27/40ths of a full pension (albeit frozen in 1993 dollars) from the Priests' Pension Plan of the Diocese of Toledo when I reach 70 years of age in 2010 (Sept.)!  So, I have served the Church for 43 1/2 years of ordained ministry.  And still I seek reconciliation, for we who serve are "ambassadors of reconciliation, God as it were, appealing through us to be reconciled."
Father Tom Coover | 10/2/2009 - 11:22am
I read with great interest this article on former Roman priests who have left that tradition and discovered priestly ministry in another denomination.  Among those left out of the discussion are the priests who have joined the Independent Catholic Movement, also known as Old Catholics (not Traditionalists).  After painfully enduring the sexual abuse scandal as it affected parishioners as well as my own family, I also joined the ICM as a priest of the Ecumenical Catholic Church+USA.  As a descendant of the Church of Utrecht, the ECC+USA offers itself as a valid Catholic tradition, although not in communion with the Roman Church.  Additional groups like the Polish National Catholic Church are in the same line of apostolic succession.  So there are many avenues available for former Roman priests other than what the author refers to as "Protestant" denominations.  Most of these are as Catholic as Rome, but have followed a different of living out their faith and their priestly ministry.  I think the numbers would surprise everyone.
Carroll Canton | 10/2/2009 - 3:42am
I am C. Canton and I did not write the comment referred to by "Lynn."  I believe the comments that Lynn wishes to speak to were written by "John."  I admit that placing the author's name after the article is confusing.   The name that appears before the article appears to be the author, but is not. 
C. Canton
bookguybaltmd | 10/1/2009 - 9:19pm
A small correction: ordained ministers in the Episcopal church and the entire Anglican Communion are priests, not just ministers.
Dale | 10/1/2009 - 8:09pm
Having had one brother leave the priesthood and another leave after four years in the seminary I think I have a closeup of this whole thing, two intelligent men who would be wonderful catholic priests left because of this issue two main issues of which you speak, in is so wrong that we lose these type of men to other faiths, both have done wonderful things with their lives, the priest is serving with his wife a fellow priest and the other is serviing our country and his episcoplian parish in outstanding ways, it just kills me how much pain they went through before finding peace outside of the catholic church..... the wasted years of pain that they should never have had to endure.....
Lynn | 10/1/2009 - 9:50am

I find something missing in C.Canton's comments.  Is it not possible that at one time or another the Spirit will call a person to a different state?  God can do ANYTHING, that is, after all, the primary requirement of being God.  Who are we to tell someone, or even God, that the call to do this or that might not be superseded at some later time by a call to do or be something else?  Why should vows not be amended in that case?

Making the reasonable assumption that the person making the vow is sincere at the time, it would seem to be most uncharitable to conclude that they hadn't really discerned their vocation properly if at a later time they discover another calling.

Based on the stories presented in this article, these were not easy decisions for most these priests.  We shouldn't trivialize the matter or treat these men as moral failures.

Some are looking for an easy way out, sure, but any structure that has some room for compassion will see some abuse. It's the nature of the
human beast.  Let us judge not.  For the rest, I can't help but think we should be careful about telling God what to do.  Or not do....

Jim | 10/1/2009 - 9:47am
First of all, kudos to Fr. Ernie Davis for correctly highlighting the vacuousness of Episcopalian "belief" today. That denomination is in freefall - realizing a net loss of thousands of congregants every year.
Second, for all of you Protestant ministers who insist on being called "priests" by Catholics -get over it! We'll define that term as we wish. Feel free to call yourselves whatever you want. You all certainly have no qualms about putting Catholics and others into categories of your own choosing and naming. Respect our right to do the same.
Third, it was an interesting article. What would also be interesting to learn through a survey is how many Protestant ministers would become Catholic, were it not for celibacy, or the rigors of getting a waiver. I have met many who are totally discouraged by their own denominations; denominations who stand for nothing except for "radical hospitality" and "speaking truth to power."
Phil | 9/30/2009 - 8:56pm
This was a very intriguing article. I could identify with many of the feelings expressed by those who moved on to other churches. I am married with two children. I considered joining the Episcopal Church at one point, but I felt more at home in the Catholic Church and I stayed. Mind you, after leaving active ministry I attended Episcopal Church on Sundays mostly due to my anger at the Catholic Church and the very deep personal feelings of betrayal I felt and the pain of attending Catholic ceremonies. But as time moved on I became de-sensitized and I am very committed now and active in various forms of ministry. My pastor actually invited me to return to the parish I served in and that had a lot to do with my eventually settling in there. I am happy about the Pastoral Provision, but I do feel see a double standard here and especially feel that somehow the church is punishing those who left. There needs to be a real healing in this area.
 
I would love to see future studies in this regard and I appaud those who joined other churches knowing the pain they must have endured.
Jim McCrea | 9/30/2009 - 4:56pm
I suspect that there may indeed be some former priest who are now ministering in evangelical/fundamentalist denomination.  From time to time I run across screeds written by men purporting to be former priests. 
See:  http://messianicgentiles.blogspot.com/2009/05/black-pope-did-you-know.html
Tim Reidy | 9/30/2009 - 4:28pm
Just a note to acknwowledge the error in the title as noted by a few commenters. The title "From Priest to Minister" was given by the editorial staff, not the author, so it is our error not  Father Fichter's. We will change it to something more appropriate.
ed gleason | 9/30/2009 - 3:17pm
We all know about the 100 married Protestant ministers that became married Catholic priests in the USA. Is it about a thousand priests that that went the other way? Interesting that we havent counted all  so we don't know! We know that under the present disipline that these now married Catholic priests' male children will not be ollowed to be ordained Catholic priests if they marry. A dead end DNA line. What % of  Orthodox priests' sons are ordained and serve their Church? 10-20% ???
I say Voluntary celibacy is a great gift to the Church and always will be. As I stand among my five sons I marvel at what a great sacrifice it is. However, is  mandatory celibacy going to continue down its crooked path until the Vatican walls crumble? In sports, politics, business .crafts, music . arts. etc.  fathers have passed down the DNA charisms to their sons and we have all been blessed by this aspect of God's design . Yet this manatory celibacy is yoked around our collective heads and this mandate is celibrated as a blessing. Some of the 17000 married deacons await their full ordination or 1000 more inner city/rural parishes will close.  Basta Basta    
John | 9/30/2009 - 2:45pm
Should the Church allow for a married clergy option? Perhaps. But that's a different question that whether it's sound policy to allow for CURRENT clergy who have freely made a commitment to be 'allowed' to back out of it.
One's theological argument...to be 'kosher' ought to at least reflect 4 'angles of attack'. One, scriptural precedent. Two, the witness of Church history across centuries and cultures. Three, the witness of 2,000 years worth of mystics, saints, and doctors on the question or any theme related (to see what the Spirit has been saying across centuries, cultures, etc.) and finally, four, whether the argument in favor of the change can be made to analogous situations.
I find nothing in Old or New Testaments that points to Our Lord looking kindly on men freely making vows to do something...but then unilaterally deciding it's too hard. Parting the Red Sea or walking on the sea of Galilee were "hard". Monogamy for the sake of the Kingdom and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom are surely difficult, but hardly heroic. Do we doubt the sacramental grace of state's ability to supernaturalize our free commitments?  
How many Church councils, mystics and saints can be marshalled to this cause? Few, I believe. But then perhaps those enamoured with "progress" don't care about the past. Fine. How about the future applicability of this proposed change (allowing currently vowed celibates to 'opt out') to other commitments freely entered into? Like government, business, and marriage oaths, contracts, and covenants? It would seem logically necessary to allow the gander to have as many 'rights' as the clerical goose.... but, like the famously irony-impared 'dissenters' who brook no dissent from THEIR teachings, I doubt those in favor of unilateral change will be open to others taking similar liberties with THEIR commitments!   
It would seem then that the common thread is a lack of vocational discernment prior to ordination.... how many of these men were hastily ordained before having experienced human affection? How many had female friends, romantic experience prior to seminary life?
In addition to lack of discernment, it also seems that many were ordained without full knowledge/consent for a life time commitment of service.... much like a man will "marry" a woman out of momentary infatuation for the sake of sex and not because he understands or accepts the concept of monogamy for life. If the latter is grounds for many an anulment, it seems likely many of the former are grounds not so much for laicization as much as questioning whether they were really ordained or not!
So the 'solution' is not necessarily to make celibacy optional (inasmuch as the clerical state itself is entered into voluntarily!) but to help men make their life-time choice with greater knowledge and freedom, and then, once having made the choice and received the sacraments to support their choices with proper peer support, community life, and spiritual guidance.
Carroll Canton | 9/30/2009 - 3:42am
I would like to question the wording in the title of the article, "From Priest to Minister."  It should read, "From Catholic Priest to Episcopal Priest."  Episcopal Priests in the US and Anglican Priests around the globe are ordained first Deacon, then Priest.   Further, many Episcopal and Anglican Priests would cringe at the thought of being referred to as "Protestant Ministers."  The Anglican Church was the Catholic Church of England, so a significant number of priests value their Catholic heritage.  How do I know this?  I am an Anglican Priest.
Fr. Ernie Davis | 9/29/2009 - 9:33pm
I am grateful that I never had to choose between marriage and priesthood.  Married before going to seminary, I was ordained an Episcopal priest and served fifteen years.  The choice I had to make was the choice of being Catholic or not. The Episcopal Church is very welcoming to Catholics, lay and ordained, who often feel at home in the Anglican liturgy.  Some of the best Episcopalians I knew, lay and ordained, were former Catholics.  Many Episcopal parishes would literally close if it were not for the former Catholics.  It may even be possible for converts to maintain almost the entire Catholic faith while being Episcopalian.  But one will not be taught much, if any, of the Catholic faith in the Episcopal Church. What one discovers is that agnostics, Buddhists, Unitarians and others are just as much at home, and one is just as likely to be taught those faiths or a mishmash of them all.  One can believe almost anything, except in inhospitality, and be a good Episcopalian.
Is there an anomaly in being a married Catholic priest? Yes, indeed. One way to understand is by noting that at every Mass in the Eucharistic prayer, we pray for the unity of the church.  We proclaim it in the Creed. We offer it in the unity of the bishops and faithful with the See of Peter. The Pastoral Provision which is a step toward reconciling the third largest group of Christians after the Catholics and the Orthodox, is a gracious gift for which many Anglicans are deeply grateful.  Celibacy is discipline of great value to the ordained ministry, but it is not of the essence of the church.  But the unity of the church is the heart of the matter.  Celibacy is not easy.  Marriage is not, either, and protestant ministry is littered with failed marriages at the same or higher rates than among the laity.  I am told that younger priests are deeply committed to the discipline of celibacy and are much less likely to be in favor of ordaining married men.
A married priest is an anomaly in the Latin rite, and in this anomalous place, it is certain there will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  To all of those who may be offended by my presence in the Catholic Church, I say that I am deeply sorry, deeply grateful for the opportunity to be of service as a Catholic priest, and even more deeply grateful for the privilege of being Catholic.
When I converted, I put my priesthood on the altar.  If it seemed good to God that I leave it behind, I would have been sad, but it is a sacrifice I would have made for the privilege of being Catholic, in unity with the Catholic Church's witness to life and justice, and the depth of faith which makes that witness possible.  If ever this anomalous position becomes a scandal to my brother priests and to the lay faithful, then my offer to God still stands.  Priesthood must remain on the altar, because it is not mine, but God's.  
Perhaps those laicized priests who married and remain Catholic did something similar by making their priesthood an offering to God as I did mine.  If so, they are offering the very best they have.  Sometimes an offering is returned for a time, as in my case.  Sometimes God accepts the offering and does not return it.
michael | 9/29/2009 - 4:44pm
It would be interesting to know how many ordained priests and deacons have left the service of the church without going into other denominational ministries.
leonard Nugent | 9/29/2009 - 10:30am
How can you blame him, his new wife has been a cutie all her life. She just needed to make it official. Have we really lost anything?
Bernard Campbell | 9/26/2009 - 9:43pm
A very interesting research article.  In the individual stories about their decisions, it was my impression that many seemed to have never considered marriage before beginning studies for the priesthood.  In other words, did these men, before they began studies enter into a relationship with a woman, with the thoughts of the possibility of marriage.  As a adolescent did they have social relationships with girls and guys.  Did they date, etc?
I raise these questions because of my own experience prior to my calling and during the early stages of preparation to enter the seminary (novitiate) at the age of 25.  The year before I entered the novitiate, I spent at St. Philip Neri Preparatory Seminary, which was located in Haverhill, MA.  There were twenty-five of us devoting serious thought and educational time to beginning studies for the priesthood.  During that year, we often shared, amongst ourselves, the reasons for and experiences, which led to "trying out" the possible invitation by God to enter into the priesthood.
Several of my confreres, who were older, experienced their call for a long period of time.  One could compare their experience to Gerard Manley Hopkins pome "The Hound of Heaven."  Others like myself were more of a sudden revelation, followed by a year of discernment with the help of a parish priest counseling me during this time.
Then there others who made the decision, almost upon completion of high school studies.
What is important is the remote and proximate experience and circumstances surrounding the person at the time of their decision.  There were five of us ordained forty+ years ago.  In less than ten years the other four confreres left and married?  We were all in a religious community?  All of them were graduates and very bright of the junior seminary?  There are times I wondered about their decision.  My decision to stay is even a greater mystery than their departure?
In no way do I intend to question or doubt the sincerity of their motives.  As we all know only God can fully explain motives for human action on all levels.  All motives are a mixture of the Holy Spirit and the person.
Finally, a word about my own attitude towards celibacy and the religious life/priesthood.  During my years at the seminary college level (1962-1965 - Vatican II era), I said repeatedly to others and myself, when the subject of a married priest arose in our informal discussions, that I would either be a priest or a married man.  I would not try to do the two at the same time.  All of us in studies, during the years of Vatican II were talking about the possibility of a married clergy and other items discussed at or a result of Vatican II discussions.
Celibacy is not a law, it is a gift.  We can accept it or reject it.  Celibacy opens your life to all of creation in a very unique way, just as a married or single life - but differently.  No matter what choice we make, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit it is difficult to bring the Kingdom of God into that existence.  Each of us in our own way must struggle with fantasies and sinful dangers presented by our culture.  This temptation is no different than the experience of our "first parents" in the Garden of Eden.
Celibacy is a wonderful gift, but only meant for those to whom it is offered - not all.   It is a painful decision to reject the intimate companionship offered by married life.  Yet, as we all know marriage is it's own cross.
Several days ago, I con-celebrated at the funeral Mass of a good friend.  He was ninety when he died.  His spouse of 60 years, sat in a wheel chair next to the coffin during that Mass.  It pained me to be aware of the grief his wife was experiencing at this holy moment.  Sixty years is not just a long time, it is a time of profound deepening love and relationship. It is an eternity!  Also, their lives were a great witness to the presence of God in the lives of two people.
As a celibate person, you experience many times a loving relationship, with all of God's creation, especially the ultimate divine creation the human person. But, this is not the same loving relationship as married life.  Some are called to it. Many others are not called to that relationship.  Should these two very unique relationships be entered upon by one person?  I am not sure?
NANCY DUNKERLEY | 9/26/2009 - 1:59am
Have wondered myself if a vocation to priesthood and vocation to celibacy might be two different calls from the Holy Spirit.  Maybe not all who are called to priesthood feel a call to celibacy.  I know of a few priests - who remained priests and shared this with me - who have said their only regret about the priesthood was that they had never been free to marry, for they only remained celibate because it was required by Rome, while others have shared how much celibacy meant to them.  Why can't we go back to the beginning of the church - before they enforced celibacy (and that took a couple of centuries) and have married as well as celibate clergy - that it be a choice rather than an inforced commitment.  The above study seems to bear out that these former priests felt called to pastor, yet called equally to the married state and the only way they could find total freedom to embrace both options was to leave the Catholic Church and embrace another denomination as a way to serve God.  I have also known priests who have elected to leave the priesthood in order to marry - and remain Catholics - and with our shortage of priests, have thought what a shame to waste their education and experience.  Then too, it seemed a double shame when they admitted Episcopal married priests to become Catholic priests with their marriages left intact, while not permitting Catholic priests to have the same privilege.  When many of the Episcopal priests who left their denomination - was because of their not wanting to permit women to become priests - what a reason to embrace Catholicism and for Rome to approve of that option.  The winds of the Holy Spirit are alive and well in the world - wonder when the self-appointed authorities of the Catholic Church are going to wake up and smell the roses?  And when are more priests going to wake up and be true to their own selves - and voice their opinions openly that they want to march to a different drummer and not in step with all of what Rome decrees.  That takes courage - to be one's authentic self.  Maybe it is time to walk the walk - and not just talk the walk.
Carolyn Disco | 9/26/2009 - 1:06am
Fr. Richard McBrien said something interesting at a VOTF conference in 2005. The greatest difficulty with celibacy really comes in later decades of life when loneliness and the absence of children and grandchildren weigh most heavily. Surveys at that point might be interesting.
In our small state, two young priests left to become very effective married Episcopalian priests. They were great losses. The ordinary treated one shamefully. I firmly believe celibacy will be gone when availability of the Eucharist is seriously compromised by a priest shortage.
I have heard complaints about Episcopalian priests who become Catholic priests - too authoritarian, and not at all inclined to welcome lay initiative.
My daughter became Episcopalian, and both her pastor and his wife are priests. It's a wonderful partnership.
Thomas Walsh | 9/25/2009 - 8:45pm
   I agree with Mr. Barker.  More than once Jesus reminds His followers of the cost of discipleship.  How much more so is this expected for those called to the priesthood.  After all the years of seminary training, now they're faced with these existentialist crises regarding celibacy, birth control? 
   Frankly, I've tired of these "Vatican II priests".  Give me the witness of men like John Paul II, Walter Ciszek SJ, St. John Neumann CSsR, and Peter Maurin rather than priests who will not fulfill their vocation or who have 'boyfriends'.  I am hopeful as these "60s priests" are replaced by theologically conservative, service driven priests. 
   Mr. Barker rightly states that "God alone will judge". However, as these "John Paul II priests" begin to run the church, we will hopefully never again suffer the disgrace of  pedophile priests, priests-in-crisis, and moral cowards for bishops/cardinals.
  
 
Franklyn J. Bergen | 9/25/2009 - 7:11pm
I recognize myself in several of the observations of other former Roman clergy cited by Fichter.  A New England Jesuit from 1955 to 1972, I think in retrospect that I began to leave Rome the day Humanae Vitae was promulgated, though I remained in the Society until May 1972.  When I left it was solely because of my desire to be married, and had I been truly gifted with the charism of celibacy, I might have continued a Jesuit to this day, though doubtless far more Anglican than Roman in my theology.  
As I told a fellow Episcopal priest just yesterday, I consider myself almost defined by the reality of being priest.  I resigned and accepted the fiction of laicization only in order to be in the good graces of the church when married clergy were invited back into service in ordained ministry.  Until it became apparent that John Paul II wasn't about to recognize the church's need for married clergy, I never seriously considered ministry in any other communion and I began to think of that other branch of Catholic Christianity, the Anglican Communion.  But before considering that it might become a home to me and accept my priestly ministry, I recognized the prophetic role of the Episcopal Church in its decision to ordain women to the priesthood in 1976.
In 1989, desiring to be married to my second and present wife [in consecutive, not simultaneous bigamy], with her I approached the Episcopal Church, we received pre-marital instructions, I was received into the Episcopal Church, we were married and I entered into the process which ended with my being received as a priest nearly 15 years ago.  Called  back into 'official' ordained ministry at 59, I've mostly assisted in parishes as a volunteer but have served as interim pastor in three dioceses while also making the church present in the civic life of my community.
I have no statistics but I think there are a lot more of us serving in the Episcopal Church than Fichter discovered, with two former diocesans, a Benedictine and myself right here in Tucson.
Pat Murtha | 9/25/2009 - 6:30pm
If priests are leaving the Catholic faith because of marriage, then they truly do not believe that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Christ.  If they truly believed in their Faith, how could they abandon God for a woman?  Judas had denied Christ for thirty pieces of silver; these men are denying Christ for sex?  
Perhaps the problem is not so much with celibacy but the clergy seeing themselves as merely community leaders.  If that is the case, then why not marry?  All community leaders and psychiatrists are married. 
Once the sacrificial character of the priesthood has vanished - and it did in the sixties.  The celibacy and purity of the clergy was lost.  It is true with all things once their purpose has been destroyed in the minds of men.
God help Catholic priests remain celibate.  It is part of their noble calling.  Remember what St. Paul says, that those who dedicate themselves to virginity have chosen the better path and, unlike the married man, can offer a better sacrifice to God.
"He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided."  (Cor 7: 32-33)  Such is the man married, and the man unmarried.  If I need a priest, I would go to one who's heart is not divided between pleasing his wife and pleasing his God.
Fr. Francis O'Travers | 9/25/2009 - 6:04pm

As a retired  Scottish presbyter spending some time  each year  in the USA I am astounded at the too common alienation between US presbyters and their bishops who seem to have adopted the lifestyle and attitude of the worst of the First World which the US democratic egalitarian culture has largely abandoned ( except for the new Lords  of the milti-million dollar Manors who sank the world economy in recent years).   An overhaul of the clericalization of the structure is called for and then you could see what new model could be exported as you gave the world the separation of powers that the Church badly needs from My  Lords, Excellencies and Eminences who seem to forget they are Shepherd Fathers not Kings with Swords choppong heads. WWJD_ probably  head to the loo and throw up. My sugested change which calls for conversion can  offer more support for lone-ranger clergy and build a support system for celibacy  which would help somewhat if not solve the ancient struggle every age faces for every man and woman  whether vowed to celibacy or married and feeling called to change status  or stay in minitry or marriage.

LYNN ENLOE | 9/25/2009 - 2:08pm
Dear Rev. Fichter; 
Your article is interesting, and as Lutheran clergy I have a few comments about your term minister as applied to Protestant clergy.  As a Lutheran Pastor, I am also a priest.  All the baptized in my tradition are ministers.  It is not a term reserved for the ordained. As an unmarried Lutheran Pastor I am also required to be celibate. 
It is my understanding that Episcopalian clergy are also referred to as priests not ministers.  The person pictured in your article, Rev. Bill Lowe is a married Episcopal priest who became a Catholic priest under the pastoral provision and is not mentioned by name in your article nor are the circumstances by which you chose to use his picture mentioned.
The Roman Catholic church seems to want exclusive use of the word priest to refer to its ordained and that is inaccurate.
Thank you for your interesting article.  The Rev. Lynn Enloe
FRAN ABBOTT | 9/25/2009 - 12:49pm
Very interesting analysis.  What proportion of the total of those who left the priesthood during the timeframe studied does the 414 in Fichter's population represent?
Colin Donovan | 9/25/2009 - 12:39pm
This article confirms regarding ex-priests who left the Church what Fulton Sheen once said about "ex-Catholic" laity. It is not at all about doctrine (Trinity, Resurrection etc.). First comes the moral struggle, then the surrender, then the justification. It is not a matter of indifference that rather than remaining in the Church as laity the ultimate result is the rejection of solemnly taught truths in favor of a personal lifestyle choice. This is not a struggle unique to celibate clergy. On the contrary, its part and parcel of the Gospel and the living of the Gospel. God alone will judge, but how much better to have had a different witness than theirs.