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.

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

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