Stephen Joseph FICHTER. From Celibate Catholic Priest to Married Protestant Minister: Shepherding in Greener Pastures. Lexington Books, 2015. Pp. vii+195. Hardcover $84.76. Reviewed by James CAVENDISH, University of South Florida.


            In this book, Catholic priest and sociologist Stephen Joseph Fichter investigates the phenomenon of Catholic priests who undergo two transitions – the transition away from the celibate lifestyle of a Catholic priest to a married lifestyle, and the transition from Catholic priesthood to ministry in Protestant denominations.  The investigation is pioneering on at least a couple different levels.  First, until now, no one has investigated this specific topic.  Secondly, the life transitions that Fichter studies involves people crossing boundaries that are often thought to be permanent or irreversible.  As a result, this book should be of interest not only to pastoral leaders and sociologists of religion, but also to anyone who studies or undergoes significant, seemingly irreversible life transitions.

            Although Fichter’s approach is mainly exploratory and inductive, he does employ a variety of research methodologies to investigate this topic, including both in-depth interviews with three men and their partners and a survey of 133 Protestant ministers who had at a previous time in their lives served as Catholic priests.  He is interested in capturing the stories of these men, what drew them to the Roman Catholic priesthood to begin with, why and how they transitioned away from it, and how they are currently living their lives.  He does this by focusing on the life stories of three men in particular – Bill, Mike, and Tom – whom he initially interviewed in 2007 and then again in 2013, and how they, and their current partners, have adapted and find meaning in their current situation. 

The book is organized into three parts.  Part I explores the motivations of these men to become Catholic priests. Part II examines the various factors that led these men to make the dramatic transition away from Catholic priesthood, and Part III examines their lives since the transition took place.  Each part has a chapter that focuses on the life stories of the three men, as well as a chapter that draws on the survey data to present descriptive information about the larger sample of respondents and to offer theoretical insights about each of the stages in the transition process.

            There is much to like about this book.  One of the chief contributions of Fichter’s book is theoretical.  Fichter draws on two prominent theories of human behavior – rational choice and symbolic interactionism – to argue that the subjects of his study are guided by both their rational calculations of the costs and benefits of their life choices and their emotional commitments that derive from their identities, values, and interpersonal relationships.  He found that emotional commitments  more likely to fuel their decision to leave Catholic priesthood, while rational calculations were more involved in deciding which denomination to join.  

            Another aspect of this book that readers will find fascinating is Fichter’s willingness to let his research subjects speak for themselves.  He states: “…throughout this book, I wish to allow these men – and their spouses/partner – to speak for themselves about their life experiences, which open a window into the mind and soul of a person confronted with such wrenching decisions” (p. 3).  It is not uncommon in this book, therefore, to find pages of long quotes taken directly from the interview transcripts. 

            Another contribution of Fichter’s book rests in its ability of shed light on the importance of an “often-overlooked structural difference” that exists in the Catholic priesthood between “diocesan priests” (i.e., those serving a diocese and pledge obedience to its bishop) and “religious priests” (i.e., those serving in one of the numerous religious orders and who often live in a community with other priests) (p.xviii).  Fichter finds that this structural difference is significant not only in terms of difference levels of work/life satisfaction, but also in terms of retention rates.

                 Finally, what I found to be personally beneficial in reading this book is reflecting on my own personal experience of having graduated from a seminary but choosing not to pursue ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.  Hearing the stories of men who made similar, but more dramatic, changes in their own lives, enabled me to understand my own experiences better, and to share the stories of these men with numerous men I know who have made the same dual transitions described in this book.  In fact, as I was reading this book, I reached out through Facebook to at least 6 men I know whose stories parallel the ones described in this book. 

            Although there is much to praise about this book, there are a few areas where I longed to learn more.  Readers learn a great deal of detail about the lives of the three men with whom Fichter conducted in-depth interviews.  Readers also learn key details about the 133 Protestant ministers who were surveyed through mail questionnaires and phone interviews.  However, I at times wondered whether it would have been possible to capture more information about the 133 survey respondents by conducting more in-depth interviews with a larger subsample of them.  For instance, the author points out that the average age at which the 133 survey respondents entered the seminary was approximately 18 years of age.  It would have been interesting to know whether those who had entered at such young ages attribute their departure from the priesthood later in life to their lack of maturity at the time they made their commitment to celibacy.

            Another piece of information that I would have been interested in learning is the number of former Catholic clergy who are now among the clergy in other liberal Protestant denominations, most particulary the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).  MCC was founded in 1968 to provide a positive ministry for those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  Given the high estimates of the proportion of Catholic clergy who are gay, it would not surprise me if at least some – and perhaps a  significant percentage – of the MCC clergy are former Catholic priests or seminarians.    

            Overall, this is a truly excellent book.  Given the novelty of this research topic, the quality of the data, and the depth of insight into the challenges of those who undergo major, seemingly irreversible life transitions, this book makes an important contribution to the literature.  I highly recommend it for pastoral leaders, those who study them, and those who themselves experience major life transitions, even if it is “just changing lanes.”