What's the Deal About Legally Married Priests?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William P. Saunders

What's the deal about legally married priests?

Recently, I've heard of cases in Ohio and Texas where Anglican parishes have become Catholic parishes and Anglican priests, who are married, are allowed to become Catholic priests. I didn't know one could receive a dispensation from celibacy. So my question is, what's the deal? How can a married Anglican priest become a Roman Catholic priest and remain married? Is he required to obtain a special dispensation? From whom does he receive the dispensation?—A reader.

Since the mid-1970s, the Episcopalian Church in the United States has faced some serious internal turmoil. In 1976, women were ordained as priests, and more recently women have been ordained as bishops. In 1979, the Episcopalian Church revised the <Book of Common Prayer> using contemporary language as well as adding various liturgical options. Both of these incidents have caused heated debate and even schism. Now there is growing momentum for the celebration of homosexual marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Please note that I am simply citing events and neither being nosey about another Church's affairs nor relishing in their problems, especially when we Catholics have enough of our own.

These issues, and probably others as well, prompted some Episcopalian clergy and laity to consider entering the Roman Catholic Church. Most of these individuals would have viewed themselves as "Anglo-Catholic" or "High-Episcopalian," meaning that their beliefs and liturgical practices were very much "Roman" with the major contention being over the authority of the Holy Father. For example, when I was studying at St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, St. Clement's Episcopal Church advertised having Masses, Confessions, Benediction and Vespers; to attend one of their services was—I hate to say it—at least aesthetically more "Catholic" and reverential than some of the Catholic parishes I have visited.

Nevertheless, various requests about possible admission into the Catholic Church were made to Catholic bishops in the United States, who in turn contacted the Holy Father. In response, Pope John Paul II, through the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a clear although brief statement in June 1980.

First, the Holy See admitted allowing a "pastoral provision," which would provide "a common identity reflecting certain elements of their own heritage." Here an entire Episcopalian congregation could enter the Catholic Church and be allowed to remain a parish and use an Anglican-style Catholic Mass with either the traditional language of Archbishop Cranmer's <Book of Common Prayer> or the modern English version.

Second, individual members of the Episcopal Church could enter into the Catholic Church on their own initiative. As in accord with the "Decree on Ecumenism" of the Second Vatican Council, this action could be seen as a "reconciliation of those individuals who wish for full Catholic communion."

Finally, concerning married Episcopalian clergy becoming Catholic priests, "the Holy See has specified that this exception to the rule of celibacy is granted in favor of these individual persons, and should not be understood as implying any change in the Church's conviction of the value of priestly celibacy, which will remain the rule for future candidates for the priesthood from this group."

In other words, an ordained Episcopalian minister would make a profession of Faith and be received into the Catholic Church, and thereupon receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. He would then take appropriate courses which would enable him to minister as a Catholic priest.

After proper examination by his Catholic bishop and with the permission of the Holy Father, he would be then ordained first as a Catholic transitional deacon and then as a priest. If the former Episcopalian minister were single at the time of his ordination as a Catholic deacon and then priest, he would indeed take the vow of celibacy. If the married former Episcopalian minister were ordained as a Catholic deacon and then priest, he would be exempt by a special favor from the Holy Father of making the promise of celibacy; however, if he later became a widower, then he would be bound to a celibate lifestyle and could not remarry. In the future, if a lay member of one of these reunited parishes wanted to become a Catholic priest, he would be required to take the promise of celibacy.

The promise of celibacy is waived as a favor to those married clergy, given their particular circumstances and their desire to unite with the Catholic Church. However, the Holy Father has repeatedly affirmed the discipline of celibacy on Roman Catholic clergy of the Latin Rite. (Outside the United States, the Eastern Rites do not require the promise of celibacy except for bishops.)

Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" (1967) reflected that celibacy is an identification with Christ, who Himself was celibate; an act of sacrificial love whereby a priest gives of himself totally to the service of God and His Church; and a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, where Our Lord said, "In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mt 22:30).

Here is a good example of the Pastoral Provision in action: Recently, St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in Arlington, Texas, under the pastorship of Father Allan Hawkins became St. Mary the Virgin Catholic Church, with the entire congregation, and Father Hawkins himself, becoming full members of the Catholic Church.

After much agonizing, the entire parish voted to petition Catholic Bishop Joseph P. Delaney about such a possibility in June 1991. The congregation and Father Hawkins were received; now after three years, Father Hawkins has been ordained as a Catholic priest and serves his parish as he did for 14 years as an Episcopalian minister. Father Hawkins noted, "The common journey through trials and difficulties strengthened us. Like the people of Israel crossing the desert, we have at last arrived at our true home; and we have been allowed to bring with us the most valued elements of our common heritage."

This article appeared in the September 1, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.