As many as 120 Catholic priests in the U.S. are married

Paths, although they are narrow, already exist for married men to enter priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church

Father Paul Sullins, a former Episcopal priest, converted to Roman Catholicism 1998 and was ordained in the Church in 2002. (photo by Ed Pfueller)

Pope Francis made headlines across the globe when he suggested he was open to the idea of ordaining married men as a way to alleviate priest shortages in remote areas.

Some raised their eyebrows and took note, whereas other Catholics shrugged, pointing out that paths, although they are narrow, already exist for married men to enter priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Experts say as many as 120 Catholic priests in the U.S. are married.

That’s largely because of a policy change made by Pope John Paul II in 1980, which offered a path for married Episcopal priests to continue their ministry after converting to Catholicism.

Under the pastoral provision, Father Paul Sullins, a former Episcopal priest, was ordained in the Catholic Church in 2002 after converting four years earlier.

As a married man with three grown children, Sullins said his parishioners at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Hyattsville, Md., feel more comfortable coming to him with marital problems. He and his wife sometimes co-counsel couples together.

“If I have some difficulties or struggles in my vocation, I can come home and have a sounding board that’s going to give me honest advice,” he said.

Almost a decade after Sullins converted to Catholicism, the Vatican revised the policy to apply to other denominations with Anglican roots, not only the 2 million-member Episcopal Church.

Many married Catholic priests in the U.S. are former Episcopalians, but there is another path for married men to work as priests in the Catholic Church.

Eastern Catholic Churches have allowed the ordination of married men as priests for centuries. In 2014, Francis quietly lifted a 114-year-old ban on married Eastern Catholic priests serving outside their rite’s home country, opening the door for them to serve in the U.S., according to Sullins’ book “Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests.”

The pope’s recent remarks came during an interview published Thursday with a German newspaper, Die Zeit, when Francis was asked about creating incentives to attract young men to the church.

“Optional celibacy is not a solution,” Francis said, ruling out a suggestion to allow ordained men to get married.

The interviewer then asked: “What about the viri probati, those ‘tried and tested men’ who are married but can be ordained to deacons because of their exemplary life according to Catholic standards?”

“We have to think about whether viri probati are a possibility,” Francis replied. “Then we must also determine what tasks they can take, for example, in remote communities.”

The Latin phrase “viri probati” refers to proven men of exemplary faith. Often middle-aged, they are usually married, but sometimes widowed or celibate, according Father Allan Deck, a Catholic priest and Loyola Marymount University professor.

“In the majority of cases, when you use the term viri probati, you’re referring to good married men, men that have families,” he said.

According to Vatican figures, between 1964 and 2004, 69,063 men left the priesthood worldwide, Sullins wrote. Thousands resigned because they wanted to marry.

But some came to regret their decisions, and 11,213 were allowed to return to priestly service. That included widows or men who had their marriages annulled, Sullins said.

The number of Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by more than 30% since 1965, when there were 58,632 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2016, there were 37,192.

But Latin America has the worst priest shortage. In Brazil, which has the world’s largest Catholic population, there were more than 10,000 Catholics per priest last year, Sullins said. In the U.S., there were more than 1,800 Catholics for every priest, he added.

Sullins has a different interpretation of the pope’s remarks to the German newspaper. He believes the pope was indicating that one solution to the priest shortage would lie in Canon 517 that allows deacons, who can get married, to oversee parishes when there is a lack of priests.

But others said Pope Francis signaled a willingness to consider ordaining married men in 2014, when he met with Erwin Krautler, the bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rain forest. Krautler complained that in his diocese, which counted 700,000 faithful, he had only 27 priests.

“He wouldn’t do it unilaterally,” Deck said of the pope’s consideration of ordaining married men. “But he wanted bishops to come together and discuss it.”

Full story at LA Times.

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  1. Steve Seitz says:

    I personally think there will be no change. But if there were a change, it will have the following effects:

    It will dramatically reduce the pool of priests who are eligible to be bishop. Those who are eligible will have a greater hunger for power.

    It will demoralize our current priests since they won’t be able to marry.

    It will immediately reduce our candidates for priesthood since those who wish to marry will postpone ordination until they get married.

  2. Linda Maria says:

    I think the Vatican has always refused to admit to the truth, regarding the crisis in the Church, since Vatican II– many Catholics (clergy, nuns, and laity!) are quite confused and disoriented, regarding their Church, many are not educated in their Faith, and the Mass– has been quite a “mess!” Plus– there is endless freedom allowed, and there are lots of ongoing problems, with immorality and disobedience to basic Church teachings! When I was growing up, in the pre-Vatican II era– almost every Catholic boy thought at one time or another, of becoming a Catholic priest! Celibacy was highly admired, and unquestionable!

    • Linda Maria says:

      The Church was once very strong in Latin America! Lots and lots of priests and nuns, and lots of Saints, too! Kids growing up in strong Catholic families, rich or poor– with solid Catholic formation, and lots of Catholic schools and catechetical programs, everywhere! We all saw it die out, with the post-Vatican II era!!

    • Steve Seitz says:

      Linda Marie,
      I think you’re overly romanticizing the Church before the Council. Also, if you haven’t noticed, society has changed drastically since that time.

      Christ is not calling you to complain about the Council: he’s calling you to go out and make disciples of the nations.

      This is the work that we need to be attending to.

      • Linda Maria says:

        Steve Seitz, everyone can plainly see what is the matter, with the Vatican II Church!! How can you inspire and attract good, true Catholic priestly vocations– in this “mess?” With little Catholic instruction and guidance in Faith and Morals for the young, and destructiveness to Catholic teaching, everywhere— even by top Church leaders! — yes, why the surprise, that there is so little interest in priestly vocations?? Ad after Vatican II, many good, orthodox, Catholic young men were turned away from seminaries! Surprised?? Not me!!

        • Steve Seitz says:

          Linda Marie,
          Maybe I read too much into your words. But it sounded like you were attacking Vatican II rather than current issues.

          I would hold up AB Cordileone as an example. He doesn’t bemoan society and the mistakes of prior popes, bishops, and theologians. Instead, he’s hard at work building his diocese, in part, with the tools given him by Vatican II. This should be our work as well.

          Futile skirmishes about the past about good, valid councils is counter-productive and takes us off mission.

          • Linda Maria says:

            Steve Seitz– we must always publicly defend the Church– and do as best we can, with the Church’s tremendous modern-day problems! Best for the Church to admit to these problems, as it is not good, for vocations! And our current Pope, sadly– is at times, quite destructive to our Church! I am sorry for the constant struggles, of our good, sincere prelates!!

          • Steve Seitz says:

            Linda Maria,
            I agree with the statements in your latest post.

            For perspective, if you read a good book on church history, you’ll find that the Church has rarely ever had a period when it was at peace. And many of the problems of the past were much worse than the problems that we face today. But, because of Original Sin, the Church seems to be continually in need of reform. And this is our task,

  3. ‘Pope Francis made headlines across the globe when he suggested he was open to the idea of ordaining married men as a way to alleviate priest shortages in remote areas.” This Pope is so Jesuitical. Why do modern Jesuits so hate the Catholic Church?

  4. Why say married priests is some sort of ’emergency’ solution to a shortage of celebate priests? The 120 married priests [permitted under current Canon Law] is minisscule. While I believe the vast majority of priests fully obey their celabicy vow, perhaps the great unknown is the number of priests in a relationship that does NOT comply with the Canon Law rules.

  5. Bob Bugiada says:

    Eastern Rite priests marry. They seem to have no problem with it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Bob, you are mistaken here. Catholic priests (and bishops and deacons, for that matter), no matter which Catholic Church they belong to, cannot marry. Those Churches, however, WILL ordain married men. There is a vast and very important difference between the two.

  6. Did not Christ call married men to become His apostles? Celibacy is a Latin Rite discipline that has and can be changed. Married priests works well for the Eastern Rite Catholic Church and of course the Orthodox Church.

  7. Steve Seitz- THANK YOU for your post above! Regarding married priest- yes, the church should return to the practice of the first 400 years (some scholars state the first 11 centuries) of the Church and permit the option of married priests.

    • Steve Seitz says:

      Harold,
      Thank you for your comments. If the Latin Rite were to return to a married priesthood, I don’t think now is the right time. Also, if priests live their oaths/vows, their lives have sign value that points to the afterlife. But most importantly, a change to allow married priests will reduce the talent pool from which bishops are made. In this regard, I can’t think of any Eastern bishops (Catholic or Orthodox) that stand out as exemplary.

  8. anonymous Anselm says:

    P Francis needs to move fast to try to stanch the flow of what he himself has called (Jan. 25, 2017 address) a “hemorrhage ” of priestly vocations, largely induced by his catastrophic pontificate.

    PF continually flaggelates the shortcomings of priests for 4 years now: “unfruitful bachelors”, “little monsters”, his warnings against “unbalanced” candidates (Apr. 2015), as if this obvious requirement has not been the focus of vocations programs for 4 decades, yet to no real avail.

    Hmm. With his level of meanness and anger, PF would likely be excluded from admission by his own standards.

  9. ChaucerPB says:

    I just want to share that I have personally encountered two married priests, one of which staffed my parish. I must say both men were devout, pious, energetic, orthodox and holy men who were tremendous examples of love and charity. One was a part time college history professor, and a full time priest. He was constantly hearing confessions and his sermons were powerful.

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