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The Wife of a Former Protestant Pastor Speaks Out

Patricia Dixon

Patricia Dixon is a freelance writer and the mother of four. Her husband was a Protestant pastor before the family entered the Catholic Church.

Why A Married Priesthood Won't Remedy the Priest Shortage

Would the Church be better served if priests were married? Those who propose lifting the celibacy requirement claim that this change would bring about a great increase in vocations, would provide parishes with priests who better understand the problems of family life, would make the priests themselves happier, and would generally improve the Church all around. It sounds lovely. But the advocates of a married clergy need to give a little more thought to the real consequences of their blithe slogans. Perhaps they will listen to a wife who has been there.

Let us consider a typical, moderately large parish in an affluent American community, in which three priests live in a rectory that also houses the parish office. What changes would have to be made if the priests of this parish were married?

First, there would have to be many more priests at the parish. A celibate man can give all his time to the parish; a married man must give priority to his family. So these three priests must become five or six, leaving the "priest shortage" right where it was, even if the removal of the celibacy rule doubles the number of priests in America.

But that's only the beginning. The stipend of a priest is nowhere near enough to support a family; it's not even half enough. The salary of a married priest would have to be about three times the current stipend in order to keep a priest's family

above the federal poverty line. (Would young men flock to the priesthood so they can support their families in near-poverty?) If the parish does not want the priest and his family to be the poorest family in the neighborhood, probably unable to afford even to send their children to the parish school, the salary would have to be higher still. Now figure in health insurance premiums for a wife and several children per priest.

And, of course, those six families can't all live in that rectory, and the parish offices can't be in the home of just one of them. So we now need six houses, and extra space somewhere else, to replace the one rectory. If the priests are expected to furnish their own housing, their salary will have to be increased even more.

Thus, supporting married priests will cost that three-priest parish more than six times what it now spends to support its priests. Does any parish consider itself that affluent? Is the average parishioner willing to multiply his offering by six? In all likelihood, the priests will have to work outside the priesthood to bring in income. Of course, their time for the parish and parishioners will decrease. So the parishioners, even if they could somehow support their six priests, would still find themselves short of priestly attention.

The financial burden is one thing, but there is also a very heavy emotional burden to be borne by priests - and their families. One hears the argument that "Protestant ministers can marry, and it works well for them," but the fact is that it doesn't work well. How many of the advocates of a married priesthood are truly aware of the struggles of a Protestant clergyman's family?

Every married pastor faces, throughout his career, the tension between the needs of the church and the needs of his family. Some find ways to resolve it to their satisfaction; most do not. Both church and family require more than half of a man's time and energy. Both can be demanding; and churches, which generally have no interest in a pastor's emotional health, are particularly demanding. The effects of this tension show up in families in various ways. Some wives - and many children - of pastors blame the church for depriving them of husband or father and leave the church, and even Christianity, altogether. One pastor said he expected his tombstone to read "Daddy's Gone to Another Meeting. " Another came home from a trip to find that his young son didn't even know he had been away - he was home so rarely anyway. Many a pastor's wife considers herself the next thing to a single parent.

On top of this, a pastor's wife and children are themselves without pastoral care. No man, however talented or dedicated, can be pastor and husband or father to the same people. The objectivity required of the pastoral role is missing. But the minister's family cannot seek spiritual direction and sustenance elsewhere; loyalty and the need to avoid the appearance of a split in the family require that they remain at his church. When the father's career and the family's spiritual life are one and the same, the spiritual life suffers badly.

A priest or minister is seldom off duty. Any family activity is likely to be interrupted, often for the most trivial of reasons. A vacation at home is impossible for a clergyman's family; if he's around, he's assumed to be available to his flock. The bum-out rate among Protestant pastors is very high. If relaxing the celibacy rule increases the number of priests, it will have to increase it enough to make up for the large number who will leave the priesthood when they, like so many of their Protestant colleagues, find the toll it takes on the families impossible to accept.

Or if a priest's wife leaves him, and the priest wants to continue functioning as a priest, what is the bishop supposed to do? Pretend everything is fine? What sort of message would that send? Would many parishioners be scandalized? Would others feel they now have permission to dump their spouses? And how well would any of them be pastored by the priest going through this private anguish? Or should the bishop quietly and quickly ship the priest (and his children?) off to a remote outpost in the diocese, hoping no one will be the wiser? This tactic has not won the hearts of Catholics where the problem has been pedophilia or some other violation of the vow of celibacy.

Or should the priest be laicized? Many would see this as the only solution that fully honors the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Could the institution of marriage, already stretched to the breaking point and denigrated to the point of virtual irrelevance, survive the spectacle of separating and divorcing priests who are allowed to continue functioning as priests? But others would feel that automatic laicization would punish the priest for transgressions that were, in most cases, not entirely his own or for a tragedy that was not entirely his fault. And is any of us ready to hear this announcement from the pulpit: The special third collection today will be for our Alimony Fund?

It is a fact that most Christians see their clergy as men set apart, not quite "real people," regardless of the steps the minister or priest takes to counteract that view. This impression, strong in Protestant churches, is even stronger among Catholics, because Catholic priests are set apart by their ordination in a way Protestant ministers are not. This sense of separateness extends to the pastor's family. A minister's wife who is pregnant may find that church members are uncomfortable with her as a living symbol of the pastor's active sexuality; a minister's children often find the expectation that they will be models of good behavior, piety, and academic achievement a crushing burden. Close friendships within the church can prove impossible to establish, depriving the pastor's family of the bonds with other Christians so important to spiritual growth. The difference between the Protestant and Catholic understandings of ordination means that a priest's family would suffer this isolation to an even greater degree than a Protestant minister's family does.

In discussing the need for more vocations, it is easy to offer facile solutions, to say that many more young men would become priests if priests could be married. There is little evidence to support this contention; but even if it were true, the cure would be worse than the disease

The unmarried man cares for the Lord's business; his aim is to please the Lord. But the married man cares for worldly things; his aim is to please his wife; and he has a divided mind. 1 Corinthians 7-32-33, NEB

Original articles on Catholic faith, spirituality, prayer, apologetics and theology are welcomed.


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