There are widened eyes, some confused looks and questions. 

Many knowledgeable, faithful Catholics are taken aback for the first time when they meet a Catholic priest — and his wife. 

“For some, it’s a surprise. For others, I think, there is a sense that this is something they have thought is a direction the Church should head in,” said Father John Lipscomb, a former Episcopalian bishop who entered the Catholic Church five years ago with his wife of 44 years. 

married priest
Father John Lipscomb and his wife, Marcie, joined the Catholic Church in December 2007. Courtesy of Marcie Lipscomb

“I think people see this as something very positive in the life of the Church,” said Father Lipscomb, 62, the spiritual director of the Bethany Retreat Center in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. 

Father Lipscomb is one of about 70 married Catholic priests in the United States. Most of them were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church, but eventually left that denomination and were allowed to become priests in the Catholic Church, thanks to a 1980 pastoral provision approved by Blessed Pope John Paul II. 

Earlier this year, the Vatican expanded the provision by creating ordinariates — similar to dioceses — where entire Anglican parishes can enter into communion with the Catholic Church. In the United States and Canada, the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter includes 18 parish communities. 

For the most part, with some exceptions, married priests who have entered the Church under the pastoral provision are not permitted to exercise the “primary care of souls” as pastors, though they carry out many of the same pastoral duties.  

Several married Catholic priests such as Father Paul Sullins, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., hold down regular jobs and earn a salary they use to pay a mortgage and support their families. 

“The laity has been very supportive. They seem to like the fact that I feel the same pressures they do, and some of the same marital challenges. It helps us to relate to one another better,” Father Sullins told Our Sunday Visitor. 

The fact that he is married with three children leads some parishioners to believe he is more approachable and down to earth. 

“That’s the perception anyway,” Father Sullins said. 

Though some would like to see them as advocates for rethinking the Church’s discipline on the celibate clergy, many married Catholic priests say they appreciate the celibate priesthood, and add that they are thankful for the pastoral provision that allows them to carry out their unique priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. 

“For those of us who are married, we understand that for a man to forgo marriage and sexual intimacy is extraordinary. It’s a choice that has to be anointed by God in a special way,” said Father Sullins, who has interviewed dozens of married priests for a book that he hopes to publish by next year.

Historical precedence

There have always been married priests, stretching back to the apostolic age. St. Peter, the first pope, was married, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus healed his mother-in-law. 

Even today, the Eastern-rite churches in communion with Rome, such as the Maronite Church, have a married clergy, though those priests are not allowed to marry after being ordained. The Eastern-rite clergy also vow not to remarry and to live a celibate life if their wives die before them. 

Deacons and the few married priests in the Latin-rite Church also vow not to remarry if they are widowed. 

“The Catholic Church has never permitted priests to marry. But the Church has always permitted at least a few married men to become priests,” said Father Sullins. “This is the common practice in the Eastern Church, and an occasional practice in the Western Church.”  

He added: “There are those who argue that the rule of celibacy has always been normative for clergy in the Catholic Church.  But there are also those who dispute this. All agree that the rule of celibacy is ancient and became widespread by the end of the apostolic era.  It did not become a formal requirement for ordination everywhere in the West until the 13th century.” 

“Theologically, there is a distinction between having married men become priests, and allowing priests to marry,” Father Sullins told OSV. “It has never happened that a man is ordained, and then he’s permitted to marry. Ordination has always been considered an impediment to marriage.” 

Father Sullins, 59, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1984. In 1985, he married his wife, Patti. They have three children — two of whom they adopted from Korea and China — and two grandchildren. 

“When I became an Episcopal priest, there was not so much difference between Episcopal teaching and Catholic teaching, particularly on moral issues,” Father Sullins said. 

However, the Episcopal Church, Father Sullins said, began heading down a path of relativism. The Episcopal Church’s leaders accommodated themselves to the modern culture, ordaining women priests and bishops, ordaining an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, and approving a same-sex blessing service earlier this year. 

Though they convert for a variety of reasons, Episcopal priests who cross the Tiber under the pastoral provision tend to be theologically orthodox, and defend traditional Christian teachings on faith and morals. 

Father Lipscomb, the son of a Baptist minister, said he struggled with the direction that his church had taken, and noted that one presiding bishop essentially denied the unique saving role of Jesus Christ. 

“I realized I could no longer stay in the Episcopal Church,” said Father Lipscomb, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. 

“I had to find a place where I could live out my Christian faith with a degree of integrity,” he said. He entered the Catholic Church with his wife, Marcie, in December 2007 and was ordained a Catholic priest two years later. 

For Father Sullins and his wife, they were also concerned about what their children would be exposed to given the Episcopal Church’s liberalizing direction. They wanted their children — now ages 15, 23 and 32 — to grow in the fullness of Christian truth, and to have the grace of the sacraments. 

He explained that deciding to become Catholic had to do with more than just concerns over his former church. In August 1997, while studying the Bread of Life discourses in the Gospel of St. John, Father Sullins said he realized the truth of the Eucharist. 

“I was preaching through that Gospel, and the realization came to me of what Jesus meant,” he said. “I didn’t have a belief in the Real Presence before, but that put me over the top. I realized I needed to be Catholic.”

Reactions from family

Deciding to become Catholic is one thing. Telling your wife, children, relatives and your faith community is another thing. 

“I wasn’t terribly surprised when he told me. But I was aware that it was going to call for a lot of changes, and I was going to have to give up a whole lot to do this,” said Patti Sullins, the wife of Father Sullins. 

“At first, I was like, ‘OK, I know God has called the two of us into service together. I guess I’m in on this, too,’” Patti said. “I had to take more of a leap of faith that God was going to teach me what I needed to know.” 

After undergoing what he described as a period of reflection and learning, Father Sullins said he decided to take his wife out to breakfast one morning to tell her what he had been going through in his spiritual discernment. 

“She had to decide what to do, but she explored it and went through RCIA,” said Father Sullins, who noted that Patti entered the Catholic Church with him and is now a director of liturgy and music at a suburban parish near Washington, D.C. 

“Today, she’s more Catholic than I am,” Father Sullins said. 

However, as Patti noted, the process was not exactly a neat, stress-free transition. 

Growing up in a family that accepted Catholics as friends but considered their religion to be idolatrous, Patti said she knew the decision to enter the Church would be hard for her relatives and friends to accept. It would also mean having to move out of the church rectory that she and her family had lived in. 

“It was going to mean a whole lot of changes for me and the kids,” Patti said. 

With their oldest child still in high school, Patti and her husband tried to delay their decision to enter the Catholic Church, but that plan went out the window when their son leaked their intentions publicly. Father Sullins decided to approach his parish’s vestry, similar to a Catholic parish council, to inform the members of his plans. 

“I understand they were not pleased,” said Patti, who recalled that several parishioners were angry and called for the family to leave the rectory immediately. Patti said the local Episcopal bishop stepped in, and allowed the family to stay in the rectory until her husband’s contract expired a few months later. The bishop’s decision allowed Father Sullins to have continued employment until he began teaching at Catholic University in 1998. 

“We were able to buy a house with the money we had saved up while living in the rectory,” Patti said. “That was a big question for me. Where are we going to live, and where are the kids going to go to school? I was more focused about all of that, and then it was me.” 

Patti immediately enrolled in a parish RCIA program. She said she had become convinced of the Real Presence through her studies. 

“I told the priest I know this is true. I want to keep my eyes on Jesus. I have to be received into the Church,” Patti said. “I just knew that if I had to go a year without that, I was going to totally wither on the vine and die.” 

Father Lipscomb’s wife had also known of her husband’s interior struggles, and also eventually made the same decision and entered the Catholic Church with her husband. 

“My decision was a personal decision I had to make, without any sense that she was going to make a similar decision,” Father Lipscomb said. “One day, she shared with me that she had prayerfully considered the same question, and that she felt she had to make the same decision, that the Lord was calling her to the Catholic Church as well. 

“In many ways, her decision was my confirmation regarding the rightness of the decision,” Father Lipscomb said.

Domestic obligations

As a married priest, Father Sullins said he has never felt the expectation or pressure to have a perfect marriage and family life. 

“I’ve sometimes gotten sympathy from people,” Father Sullins said in reference to experiencing the usual frustrations with raising children. 

“I never thought of it as pressure, but I do think we have an opportunity, to exemplify in our marriage what a happy marriage can be,” Father Sullins added. 

married priest
Father Paul Sullins, right, poses with his wife, Patti, his daughter, Ruthie, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where the Sullinses celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Courtesy of Father Paul Sullins

Having sustained a marriage across four decades and raised two children, Father Lipscomb said, are invaluable experiences he can bring when counseling people. 

“At the same time, I think many of the lessons we learn within the domestic church are also lessons we’ve learned within the larger Church,” he said. “Many of my brother clergy have had to care for aging parents. They’ve had to care for siblings within the life of their own family, so many of them have the same understanding of the dynamics of family life.” 

When debates arise over the advantages and disadvantages of a celibate clergy versus married priests, discussions often turn to whether married priests’ pastoral duties are compromised by their responsibilities to their wives and children. 

On the first point, Father Lipscomb saw firsthand the tensions between his father’s ministerial obligations and his duties to his family. 

“I knew there were times where there were tensions within the family unit because his work had to take precedence over things the family wanted to take part in,” Father Lipscomb said. “The same was true with my family, but I think that’s the reality for any vocation. I think I’ve always had the support of my family whenever I’ve had to do pastoral work.” 

Father Sullins noted the vocational understanding that many pastors’ wives possess, saying that they see their husbands’ ministry as a calling that they share in by supporting their pastoral duties. 

“My research has shown that the idea of a married priest not being available pastorally is not true,” Father Sullins said. “In fact, the wives kind of keep their priest husbands honest in a way that a celibate priest doesn’t have the advantage of. In some ways, it’s easier for a celibate priest to wall himself off. A married priest will answer the phone at night. Even now, my loving wife will give me the elbow and tell me, ‘Hon, this is what God has called you to do.’” 

While her husband has, in many ways, a conventional professional job in teaching at a university, Patti Sullins said she supports her spouse when he is called to celebrate Mass, hear confessions or administer the anointing of the sick. 

“I’m very supportive of that,” she said. “I want him to exercise his priestly ministry.” 

There is also the question of whether a parish could financially support a married priest and his family. 

Father David Cooper, a single, celibate priest who is pastor of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee, said the reality today is that married priests’ wives work outside the home, and combined with their husbands’ priest salary, are able to support their families. 

“Besides, many families today live on a salary that a priest makes,” said Father Cooper, who supports having an open discussion about the Church’s discipline for the celibate priesthood. 

“A priest’s wife could get a job on their own, and, most likely, they would,” he said. “They would then be living on two salaries, and Church property would not be lost when the priest died.”

Gift of celibacy

Of course, there are also advantages to having a celibate priesthood. It is easier for a bishop to reassign celibate priests to different parishes within a diocese because those priests don’t have wives living with them or children in the local schools. 

Father Sullins added that celibate priests, in their sacrifice to forgo marriage as an anticipation of heaven, “adds an awful lot to the Church that married priests cannot do.” (See related story, Page 12.) 

celibate priest
Father David Cooper, pastor of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee.

“Celibacy confers a unique charism on priests,” said Father Sullins, who noted the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who sacrificed himself in a Nazi concentration camp by willingly taking the place of a married man who had children. 

“St. Maximilian Kolbe was conformed to the death of Christ in a practical way,” Father Sullins said. 

Father Lipscomb noted that Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, talks about those who become like eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. 

“The Lord does call and equip many for the celibate life so that they can pursue the priestly ministry,” Father Lipscomb noted. 

Father Cooper said he does not believe that only celibate men such as himself can have a vocation to the priesthood. He recalled a class discussion in seminary where all of his classmates said they felt called to become priests, but not all of them believed they were also meant to be celibate. 

“Some of the brightest and most gifted members of my class are now married, and they work in very rewarding, life-affirming jobs,” Father Cooper said. “They would have been marvelous priests. They just knew they couldn’t live a celibate life.” 

With the religious orders in the Church, Father Cooper said celibacy is in no danger of becoming extinct. Besides, he said Jesus did not demand celibacy of everybody, only those who can accept it, and noted the reality of married priests in the Eastern churches. With the priest shortage in the Catholic Church, Father Cooper said the Church will have to rethink its celibacy requirement in the future in order to assure that Catholics will have access to the sacraments and the Mass. 

“In my mind, that’s what is at stake,” Father Cooper said. 

When the pastoral provision was implemented, it was thought in some corners that the floodgates would be opened for more married priests entering the Catholic Church. Others thought the provision would make it possible for the celibacy discipline to be revisited. 

“There is no intent in the pastoral provision to question the rule of celibacy,” Father Sullins said. 

Rather than a flood, Father Sullins said there has been a “trickle” of married priests entering the Catholic Church. In order for a former Episcopal priest to be ordained in the Catholic Church, they have to go through a period of remedial training and formation before the pope decides to accept them for holy orders. 

There were early concerns that married priests would encounter jealousy and resentment from their celibate counterparts, but Father Sullins and Father Lipscomb said they have been treated generously by other priests. 

“The overwhelming experience I’ve had is one of generosity and welcoming,” Father Sullins said. “We share a deep commitment to Christ, his Church, the bishop. It’s a commitment that links us together.” 

“I feel, in fact, very grateful for the kindness and reception we’ve had both from the clergy and the laity in the diocese,” Father Lipscomb said. 

Many lay Catholics are at first surprised when they meet a married Catholic priest, but the overwhelming majority are supportive when they learn about the pastoral provision. 

“There’s that shock effect at first, but then after a short conversation, they learn I’m not a rebel, that I have permission from the pope to be married,” Father Sullins said. 

The people who have problems with married priests tend to be men who left the priesthood to marry. 

“They feel it’s hypocritical for the Church to allow married pastoral provision priests and not allow them to carry out some kind of priestly ministry,” Father Sullins said. “My heart goes out to them. I sympathize with them. Many of those ex-priests are good people.” 

Father Lipscomb — who also recently became the parochial vicar at St. Timothy Parish in Lutz, Fla. — said he understands that allowing married priests will raise questions in the Church, especially given the shortage of priestly vocations, but he believes the celibate priesthood will continue. 

“I don’t see [the provision] as making a radical change in the Holy See’s understanding of celibacy as a norm for the life of the Church and for the life of the priest,” Father Lipscomb said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Related article: Celibacy is a sign of total commitment to Church