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.