Stephen Joseph Fichter: How Common is the Move from Roman Catholic to Protestant Ordained Ministry?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

When asked why they chose their current denomination, the majority of respondents spoke of the strong similarity between their present church and the Catholic Church in terms of liturgy, ministry and theology. This was especially true for the Episcopalians and seems to explain why so many of the survey respondents gravitated to the Anglican Communion. Most of those who joined the Episcopal Church said that with only minor adjustments they “felt at home” from the beginning and that they found comfort in the fact that they could hold onto their core beliefs in the Resurrection and the Eucharist. Over time they modified their views on other subjects, such as papal infallibility and women’s ordination, but many of them had already begun to question the validity of those doctrines.

Before I began the interviews, I hypothesized that diocesan priests would be overrepresented in my sample because they seem to be at greater risk for loneliness than religious order priests. (Most religious live in community, while diocesan priests often live alone in rectories because of the shortage of priests.) The survey results support this hypothesis. Based on the historical ratio of American diocesan clergy to religious, one would expect to find 61.5 percent diocesan priests in this sample; in fact, 72.3 percent of the respondents had served in diocesan ministry. (Recall that Cutié was a diocesan priest.)

Where [Alberto] Cutié differs from most of the men I surveyed is in the historical timing of his decision. The majority of respondents began their journey to a new church in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. It seems unlikely that Cutié’s example will spark another wave of priestly resignations. According to research conducted by Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger in Evolving Visions of Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century (2003), young priests today are more theologically conservative than their immediate predecessors and are more likely therefore to embrace the church’s traditional teaching on celibacy. Questions remain, however, about how many young Catholic men have chosen lay or Protestant ministry over the Catholic priesthood because of the demands of celibacy—a fitting area of inquiry, perhaps, for another curious sociologist.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryMinistry of the Ordained* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesLutheranMethodistPresbyterianRoman CatholicUnited Church of Christ

11 Comments
Posted September 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Dan Crawford wrote:

Most priests who move to the Episcopal Church do not share the circumstances of Cutie’s “conversion”. They aren’t caught on the beach.

September 29, 6:15 pm | [comment link]
2. deaconjohn25 wrote:

With proper guidance and competent spiritual-psychological discernment of clerical candidates this celibacy problem should diminish in the Catholic Church because the Church now has a married clergy( i.e. deacons), which is growing by leaps and bounds (persistently below the MSM’s radar which is obssessed with the shrinking number of nuns and priests instead of the positive progress on the diaconal front). And, because our modern society militates against a celibate life, there will probably be fewer men who can accept a call to the celibate priesthood and more room for deacons to serve.
  However, more and more Catholic deacons (who are usually married) are already serving in full-time ministry and, even in part-time, taking a lot of pressure off overworked priests.
    This quiet, unobtrusive change in the Catholic Church is typical of how the Church adapts to new situations by refusing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  Consequently, in the future, it will be even more obvious that those who take a vow of priestly celibacy freely, but now stamp their feet and say they also want to be married as well as continue in ministry, are frequently men on an “ego quest” and not to be trusted with keeping any “word of honor” they give.

September 29, 7:20 pm | [comment link]
3. Words Matter wrote:

I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Episcopal ministers who become Catholic priests. Their expressed reasons were theological. The men cited in this article seemed to have one main reason: a desire to marry. Well, I suppose the one was upset with Humanae Vitae, so there you go. Of course, that’s not unrelated to marriage, anyway.

It’s worth noting that America has a distinctive point of view, pretty much in line with the National Catholic Reporter

September 29, 9:10 pm | [comment link]
4. rugbyplayingpriest wrote:

with you ~3
traffic moving into the RC church tends to be seeking discipline
traffic moving the other way tends to be seeking permissivness

What a very sorry church the Anglican one has become

September 30, 8:08 am | [comment link]
5. stjohnsrector wrote:

Many Episcopal priests and bishops I admire and looked up to as models of solid theological understanding have gone to Rome, and we get people like Matthew Fox (The Coming of the Cosmic Christ - defrocked by Rome and received in San Francisco).  God help us.

September 30, 8:16 am | [comment link]
6. teatime wrote:

At the very first Episcopal parish I attended when I was contemplating leaving the RCC, we were blessed with a former RC priest as our rector. He wasn’t the least bit reticent about sharing his journey and experiences. The sheer loneliness of being an RC priest led to his becoming an alcoholic but it took great courage for him to leave the RCC. He later met and married the love of his life and this couple glowed with love and admiration for each other. Moreover, they brought a great devotion to the Holy Eucharist to our parish. It was a blessing to be served by them.

It’s sad to see such glib statements about “permissiveness” made about priests who find they simply cannot continue to espouse celibacy. Our Lord did not make it a requirement of His followers and the RCC’s counterpart in the East doesn’t require it, either. As an RC through adulthood, I’ve known RC priests from our parish who have left the priesthood to marry and it was an agonizing decision for them. They weren’t seeking “permissiveness” but only how they might best serve God. Celibacy is a charism that can be quite independent of the call to ordained ministry but I do believe that the young men accepted the call to priesthood with the best of intentions, in that regard. But you don’t know what a particular life is all about until you live it.

I’ve also known of RC priests who paid lip service to celibacy but had relationships on the side. The priest who married my parents was one such fellow—he spent nearly all of his ordained ministry serving a small, ethnic parish where everyone knew of his relationship and sympathized. He had the same female companion for several decades until his death.

Others, as one described in the article, have discreet, serial liaisons. And it was precisely this secrecy and lip service to celibacy that led to the sexual abuse crisis in the RCC. Is that somehow BETTER than priests recognizing that they can no longer live a celibate life and looking elsewhere to serve in ordained ministry, which they still believe they were called to do?

September 30, 4:18 pm | [comment link]
7. Words Matter wrote:

A few years back, a survey found that about 70% of Catholics priests expressed satisfaction with their lives. Being a middle-aged lay man, my first thought was to wonder what percentage of middle-aged men in general would be so pleased. I wonder what percentage of priests violate their ordination vows versus married men who commit adultery? 

teatime, I’m glad you are happy with your religion,  but really, connecting celibacy with the sex scandals is profoundly dishonest. Priests are no more likely to offend than protestant ministers, teachers, or any other man with access to kids. Dragging out individual horror stories doesn’t help either, since we hear more than a few from all religious traditions, without respect to the question of married clergy.  I know a very prominent Baptist minister who ran off with the church secretary. Come to think of it, I know of more than one.  I know an Episcopal minister who is now a registered sex offender (molested an 8 year old boy).  Shall we mention the Bennison brothers?  Shall I continue?

Actually, the Eastern traditions do require celibacy of their bishops and a priest or deacon who loses his wife cannot remarry.  You really do make my point that Catholic to protestant movement is, generally, based on a desire to marry, rather than specific doctrinal matters.

September 30, 7:38 pm | [comment link]
8. teatime wrote:

#7—Sorry, but it was indeed the SECRECY and the false lip service to celibacy that caused the scandals. These were not isolated cases, as you try to suggest. It’s been an international problem for the RCC and the form and the substance of the abuse was the same in all of the countries. Because of this secrecy and the unwillingness to acknowledge that these “professed celibates” had problems, the institutional church turned a blind eye to it. The perpetrators were permitted to continue their abuse, going from parish to parish and amassing dozens of victims in many cases.

It is the most dramatic example of what happens when an institution rigidly imposes celibacy on the formation of young men, many of whom started their priestly preparation in high school, before they had even experienced romantic love and reached the stage of psycho-social development at which they could make a valid choice. The beauty of youth is their idealism. But reality comes crashing down upon finding themselves either living alone or with a difficult pastor and without the support of a community to support them in their decision.

October 1, 3:49 pm | [comment link]
9. Didymus wrote:

#7 And if I remember correctly, Orthodox priests and deacons must be married prior to ordination or its celibacy the whole way.

October 1, 5:16 pm | [comment link]
10. Words Matter wrote:

teatime, the facts are well-documented. Believe what you like.

October 1, 5:23 pm | [comment link]
11. Timothy wrote:

>...Orthodox priests and deacons must be married prior to ordination or its celibacy the whole way.

Ditto for Catholic priests.

That’s been the requirement from the earliest days of the Church. Even the Apostles were married first, ordained second.

October 3, 3:13 pm | [comment link]
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