D. Paul SULLINS. Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 322. $29.95 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-19-986004-3. Reviewed by Patricia WITTBERG, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
This is an important and useful description of a group which most persons – even most Catholics – may not be aware of: married former clergy from the Episcopalian/Anglican tradition (and, to a lesser extent, from Lutheran and Methodist churches) who have become Catholic priests. Chapter 1 gives the demographics of this group: their age, geographic distribution, job satisfaction/morale, work load, and position on the ideological/theological spectrum. Chapter 2 gives the larger institutional background of the Pastoral Provision which led to the acceptance of these married men as Catholic priests, and outlines the bureaucratic process they have to traverse. Chapters 3 and 4 depict the “conversion” stories of these priests, including their belief that they didn’t “convert:” that they had simply come to their spiritual home. There is an interesting conversion typology in Chapter 4, which compares internal vs. external motivations, and push vs. pull factors, for their becoming Roman Catholics. Chapter 5 describes Dr. Sullins’ interviews with the priests’ wives. Chapter 6 explores some of the larger institutional reasons why there are not more married priests transferring in from other churches: the reluctance of local Catholic bishops to support them and practical difficulties in placing them in parishes. Chapters 7 and 8 investigate whether the belief, dating all the way back to St. Paul, that married priests are less able to devote time to the ministry is actually true. On the contrary, Dr. Sullins found that the married priests he surveyed reported working more hours, praying more, and having higher job satisfaction than celibate priests did. Finally, Chapter 9 concludes that these married priests are not a “foot in the door,” paving the way for the rest of Catholic priests to marry. If anything, he states, they and their wives cringe at the thought.
While the book is quite well done in the topics it covers, there are a few additional topics that I would have liked to see addressed. First of all, Dr. Sullins accurately points out that the married priests are more theologically conservative than other priests, particularly on issues of ordaining women, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality (and even on whether priests should be married!), and that many of them moved to the Catholic Church precisely because they did not feel they could preach true doctrine in their previous denomination. This raises the question of what happens when they preach strictly orthodox views in Catholic churches. It has been well documented that many lay Catholics do not agree with the Magisterium on these matters, and that many are also practicing “de facto congregationalism,” parish-shopping to find an ideologically compatible one. Have any of the married priests Dr. Sullins surveyed experienced ideological conflict with their parishioners? If not, why not? Might this be a side benefit of not placing the married priests as pastors of parishes – that they do not cause parishioner alienation or withdrawal? These would be interesting questions to pursue.
The other topic I would have liked to see further explored is the position of the priests’ wives, especially in the light of Dr. Sullins’ findings in Chapter 7 that their husbands are devoting more time to pastoral tasks than the celibate priests do. While Sullins makes a good point in chapter 5 that these women feel a vocation to helping their husbands in his vocation, this seems to put the marriage in second place, which may not be compatible with the Catholic valuation of marriage. Also, while Protestantism has a well-established role for the clergy wife (admittedly one which some critics consider oppressive), Catholicism does not have any role for a clergy wife. Sullins correctly points out the difficulty this poses for the wives in figuring out what their role is. However, he also notes that the Pastoral Provision for accepting converted married clergy stipulates that they not cause scandal by being too obvious in their married status (not holding hands in church, etc.). This seems to me to be an even more oppressive situation – unlike Protestant clergy wives’ subordinate status, these wives actually have to be invisible. Again, it would have been nice to explore this a bit more.On the other hand, perhaps these topics are too extensive to be covered in the present book. To do them justice might require additional volumes. Given the excellence of Dr. Sullins’ research in the current work, I would anticipate that he would do an equally good job on such a sequel, and I would look forward to reading one.