Typical American Catholic priest married 20 years


By Terrence W. Halloran (National Catholic Reporter January 22, 1988)

We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary December 28, 1987. My wife, Connie, was a Benedictine nun from 1952 until 1967. I entered the Los Angeles junior seminary in 1948, was ordained a priest in 1960 and served in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles until 1967. We live in Garden Grove, Calif., a few miles from the church where I celebrated my first mass.

Connie is a high-school teacher and librarian, now a full-time homemaker. I'm a computer programmer. Our two sons, Dan and John, are 19 and 17. In many ways, we're a typical Catholic family. A priest introduced us. The church blessed our marriage, baptized our children, asks forgiveness for our sins and gives us the word of God and the bread of life. We pray at home and attend mass as often as most other Catholics we know. I've received all seven of the church's sacraments.

In many ways too, I'm a typical American Catholic priest. More than half the priests under 65 in the United States, about 15,000 of us, are married. Probably 5,000 are husbands of former nuns and religious sisters. Of the 19 in my seminary graduation class who were ordained, 10 are no longer active clergymen. Most of us received dispensations to marry before 1978, when the new pope decided such permissions would be given only rarely. If our families are the norm, then most children of married priests attend Catholic schools and know more than a few of their parents' ordained friends.

Married priests were common during the first 10 centuries of Christianity. Most Americans of European or Mediterranean ancestry have some devout early Christian clergy in their family tree. I didn't leave the priesthood to wed. When we decided we were in love and wanted to be husband and wife, the church simply required me to get a different job and initiated my request for a dispensation.

Cardinal James Francis McIntyre was one who strictly followed the rules of canon law, so I had no reason to be surprised. But I pray that our children and grandchildren will live in a better age, when popes and bishops will see no conflict between priesthood and marriage.

I agree with my wife's theory and practice of making a home and raising children. Connie says St. Benedict's rule for monasteries is based on the idea of family. The abbot is required to listen to the opinion of all the monks, even the youngest, when an important matter is under consideration. Then the abbot has to make his own decision, in the careful and firm way we parents should make decisions for our family.

Connie's teaching experience tells her that teenagers need good example, understanding and freedom more than they need advice, rule and reprimands. We both try to let God take control when we're tempted to be negative or repressive toward our children. Their friends' parents tell us we can be proud of the results so far.

I agree with my wife's criticisms of Catholic education here in the Orange Diocese. Connie points out that the new Catholic high school at Rancho Santa Margarita is 15 miles from the nearest poor neighborhood. She asks why the church doesn't give dropouts from inner-city schools an alternative way to earn their diplomas. She says our spiritual leader, Bishop Norman McFarland, should visit SELF High School in Irvine to see how it's done.

Connie also believes that parishes put too much energy into classrooms, golf tournaments and fashion shows. She quotes our friend Father John Varani of Detroit who says "Jesus taught adults and played with children, the modern church does just the opposite."

I don't like the way most priest preach. They don't apply the Gospel to practical questions outside the home or neighborhood. Albert Camus, a French dramatist and journalist, complained in 1948 that he survived World War II without ever knowing the pope had condemned Nazism. Most American Catholics got through the 1960s without listening to anything from the official statements of their bishops about segregation or the Vietnam war.

The pope and bishops make statements today about the arms race, capital punishment, immigration policy, anti-Semitism, hunger in Ethiopia, apartheid in South Africa and human rights in Central America. They base their teachings on the Bible, and sometimes they practice what they preach. But priests hardly ever mention these subjects in church or in public.

Other topics most priests avoid are the modern Catholic human reproduction sins. These have Latin-derived names of four and five syllables. Priests generally see nothing wrong with them and don't talk about them.

That's OK with most of us. But priests could still teach sexual morality and family values. They probably don't want to sound naive or one-sided, or they don't feel personally blessed when spouses are faithful and children are loved.

It's too bad the Catholic church has so few married priests and doesn't ordain any women. We can all imagine how this would change the tone of religious debates about abortion laws, divorce or the equal rights amendment.

Many sociologists say religion is losing its appeal in the age of space. I think the problem is image, not substance. Some progress comes easy. If the diocesan offices are on a valuable hillside above residential suburbs, the bishop can sell the property and move to humbler surroundings. If the diocesan director of communications is an elected party politician, the bishop can replace him. If millionaires donate money to a new Catholic high school, we don't need to keep seeing their names in the diocesan bulletin.

If the previous bishop always gave Christmas Eve mass in the county jail, the new bishop doesn't have to celebrate Christmas Eve in the cathedral. If priests travel free when they sponsor pilgrimages to Lourdes, Rome or Jerusalem, the diocesan bulletin can label news articles about such tours as advertisements. These issues aren't at the core of our faith, but they have a big influence on our image in the community.

People sometimes ask me if I miss preaching and counseling and giving the sacraments. I tell them I'm better at computer programming and enjoy it almost as much. I still do weddings and baptisms occasionally, for friends who don't mind that the official church says I can't or shouldn't.

One of my co-workers is the second-oldest daughter of a married priest. She and the others on my project team have heard me use phrases from the Bible to explain the technical challenges of our work. And my managers sometimes wince like timid bishops when I raise my hand in a meeting to question the theological wisdom of some department policy or decision.

I don't consider myself an ex-priest, and neither does the Catholic church. Priesthood is forever. I'm much happier as a husband, father and computer programmer then I was a celibate clergyman. But my family and I are glad I achieved my youthful goal of becoming a priest. We're grateful for the spiritual gifts we've absorbed from the Benedictine monastic tradition through my wife.

The phrase, "Catholic priest and former nun married twenty years" means nothing unusual to God. When I leave this life, my family will probably imagine me presiding joyfully at the heavenly eucharist.