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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Catholic Justice Fails Married Priests

By James E. Biechler

I'm sure I'm not the only Catholic who is bothered by all the fuss about ex-priests. They want be allowed to continue on as priests but they want to stay married as well. They broke their vows and the church's rules and now they whine about how the church treats them. How can they continue to complain when the church gave them what they wanted?
--W. W., Mankato, MN 

Yes, I'm sure you're right that some Catholics cannot understand what the "fuss" is all about. I hope these reflections may be of help in filling out your picture of the situation. 

In the first place, you must understand that there is no such thing as an "ex-priest." Once a person receives the sacrament of Holy Orders it remains as a permanent character and that person can never become "unordained." It is not possible, according to Catholic teaching, for an ordained person ever to become again a lay person in the strict sense. It is not, therefore, appropriate to refer to those priests who have married as "ex-priests." I know it is commonly done and done without any specific intent to deny their ordained status. When the New York Times wrote its account of the 1985 "Universal Synod of Married Catholic Priests and Their Wives" it carefully avoided referring to them as "ex-priests." 

Now, about the "whining." You may agree with the Reverend Andrew Greeley who believes that men who leave the priesthood are unhappy, lonely, frustrated, discouraged, oppressed. (Cf. The American Ecclesiastical Review, 161:4, 251-257). Their unhappiness was not ordinary unhappiness but it was "profound," "pervasive" and "chronic." Such men are also naive: "naive about the world, naive about sex, naive about theology, and naive about human society", and (worst of all) "naive about marriage." These men are also "bitter" and "defensive", "immature" and "superficial." Hardly any wonder that they also turn out to be what you call "whiners." Greeley's assessment is probably shared by many although it does not apply to a single one of the many married priests I know. They have been, on the contrary, dedicated and admirable Catholics who have overcome enormous difficulties in entering new professions, raising and educating children, and giving exceptionally dedicated service to their communities and to the church. 

Just what might be behind your question? Is it something like what a group of married priests wrote in an open letter to Cardinal Hume: "Many of us are unable to regularize our positions because of the vindictive legal process which demands that we prove that we should never have been ordained in the first place! Others, who have indults of laicization are forbidden to exercise in the church the teaching and pastoral roles available to, and incumbent upon, every baptized Christian....there are even some still alive who are in possession of older indults which have freed them from priestly obligations, but forbid them ever to marry and insist that they emigrate" (The Tablet, May 18, 1996, p. 669). 

Every married priest knows these statements are in no way exaggerated. Every married priest knows that as far as the hierarchy is concerned, he is persona non grata. He is officially barred from any public ministry, he is forbidden to teach religion in Catholic schools, he must reside in a place where it is not known that he is a priest. His name is often stricken from the list of his ordination class. It is practically unknown for any bishop ever to have uttered a single positive or pastorally understanding statement about the married priests who were once their colleagues and co-workers. 

That is why the public statements of Bishop Patrick Power of Canberra-Goulburn, Australia, to a group of married priests are so remarkable. The Australian of May 1996 quotes him as telling a group of married priests and their wives that their resignation from official church ministry was a change in direction, rather than an end in ministry. "You are all messengers of hope to people because you have trod the path of pain and suffering as you successfully work through the crisis of leaving official ministry and began a new life. This journey has equipped you to reach out to others as a beacon of hope and a helping hand to them in their time of trial and sorrow." 

What is even more interesting is that Bishop Power expressed the hope that bishops and priests would recognize the value of the ministry of married priests and would therefore give them significant roles in the parishes in which they live. 

You'll have to admit that you never heard a bishop talk like that before! If anything, bishops have referred to their former colleagues as traitors and Judases, they have rarely shown them any pastoral understanding, and almost no appreciation of the brave women who share their lives with these men. 

"You are all messengers of hope to people because you have trod the path of pain and suffering as you successfully worked through the crisis of leaving official ministry and began a new life." Bishop Patrick Power 

I don't think "whining" is the word we want here. ARCC is talking about justice, about the rights of all the baptized. Married priests do not enjoy these rights to the same degree as do other baptized persons. They have been and are still the victims of a dysfunctional ecclesiastical system. Thanks be to God for pastoral bishops like Patrick Power!


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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