My Husband, the Priest

Can the church afford to ignore these men?

In a way, ours is like any other marriage, a union of souls, raising children, paying the bills. In a way, too, it is like any other second marriage embarked on by two people in their early middle age. Both accustomed to being in charge, running our own and the lives of those in our care, unaccustomed, at first, to making joint decisions, to even asking the other what he or she thinks about it.

As is the case with any second marriage, both with histories we bring, histories living and dead, histories brought out and laid on the table and worked over and through, histories left alone because they are too painful or because there really is no point.

My history runs around the house or calls on the phone-three children ages twenty to eleven, plus an ex-husband. That marriage has been over and annulled for ten years, but the evidence still sits at the dinner table and checks come twice a month.

So yes, it’s like any other marriage, any other second marriage, any other marriage between two forty-somethings who find themselves in the ridiculous position of chasing after a nineteen-month-old, who is our own history in the making.

But there’s something different, too. I told you about my history. Then there’s his. He’s a Catholic priest. Yes, out for several years, formally laicized-"reduced"-as official church lingo puts it-to the "lay state."

Reduced, perhaps, but not (as the popular terminology puts it) really an "ex-priest" or even a "former priest," because, of course, as the old ordination rite put it, Tu es sacerdos in aeternam. You are a priest for eternity. That’s a long time to keep a history.

It lives with us in various ways, some concrete, like more children from another marriage, only quieter. When he left the church, he gave away all his vestments to a Brazilian seminarian, but he’s still got his first chalice and paten stored in a box in the back of a closet. He’s got his sick-call set, too, with little containers of oil, a purple stole, and an empty pyx. Just in case?

The history goes beyond the physical relics, though. Leaving the priesthood is, of course, difficult on every level. Unless you’ve obtained another professional degree in the process, you’re stuck with one of the most useless credentials known to humanity, even if you have three of them, as he does: degrees in religion. I should know-I have one too.

That means, of course, that your most logical future employer is your past employer: the church. But you really can’t work for the church in the diocese in which you were a priest, especially if it is a small diocese where everyone knows you, so you really have to move, and you probably want to, too. It’s all well and good to be open and honest and hope that the people who "knew you when" will accept you as they know you now, but it strikes me as more than a bit insensitive, even arrogant. Announcing your departure from the pulpit one weekend and sitting in the pew with your female friend the next-and yes, I’ve known someone who’s done it-strikes me as just a bit self-serving.

Even if you move, remember that canon law prohibits some professions (and all roles during Mass-like lector) to you, although bishops vary in their attention to that rule, so if you want-or have-to work in the church, you have to look hard for a bishop who will look at those rules for what they are. Which is nonsense.

You have to make other transitions, too. You have to go from a life in which old ladies called you "Father" and treated you like the good son they thought they never had, to one in which you are just one employee among many. You go from standing (however unwillingly) on a pedestal to being either necessarily anonymous or actually reviled as some sort of traitor, especially by your former colleagues in the priesthood, some of whom will support you, while others of whom will never write or call again. It’s just the way it is. So much for the brotherhood.

Yes, priests work hard, but priests are also given a great deal as well. They benefit from scads of professional privilege, from dry cleaners to dentists. Doctors write prescriptions for them in the sacristy after Mass. They are showered with gifts-mostly booze or checks-at Christmas. Most of them have housekeepers, cooks, and car allowances. They have the promise of being taken care of the rest of their lives.

So the priest who leaves, leaves all of that and faces, perhaps for the first time, or at least the first time in a long time, the pressures of real, practical responsibility with consequences, not only for himself, but for others as well.

It makes for an interesting marriage.

It also makes for interesting interactions with our fellow Catholics, of all stripes and varieties.

You see, despite the quick judgments of many who hear who he is and who we are, my husband and I are not exactly radical Catholics. We’re actually in a rather odd spot theologically. I guess you could call us "orthodox." Mostly. We’re both well schooled in modern interpreters of faith, and have found them wanting, to say the least. You can tell by what books are allowed to live upstairs and which are relegated to the basement. The literary progeny of past presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America and European priests in snappy suits are used to living in the dark.

But theology is not ecclesiology. Structures come and structures go and as students of history, we are well aware of the limitations, errors, and sins of the church. How could we not be? We’re living proof. So here we are, suspect, to tell the truth, on all sides, depending on who finds out what about us first.

We belong to an ordinary parish, and my children have gone to Catholic schools. My husband prays the Office every day and has a shadow box of relics underneath the big crucifix that hangs in his study, which is now also functioning as the baby’s room. Or at least he had it there until last week, when the baby figured out how to open it.

We love shrines and relics and bizarre saints’ stories. We both write, and in our work, we tend to be focused on unpacking the truth of tradition and exposing the follies of modern arrogance. So, of course, those who know us first in relation to our writing are surprised at our attitudes toward things like canon law, clericalism, and a married priesthood.

Those who know the history first-the laicized priest married to the previously married woman-are surprised by our comfort in tradition, our prolife convictions, and our lack of interest in being anything but Catholic.

If you insist on using political labels to identify Catholics, here’s the way it works: the "liberals" aren’t interested in us because we make fun of them. The "conservatives" like us until they find out our histories, because there’s no worse epithet-not "pagan," not "Protestant," not even "heretic"-in a conservative Catholic’s vocabulary than "ex-priest," a word which comes with a "p" conveniently built in so it can be virtually spit out of contemptuous lips.

he history of my husband’s vocation, naturally enough, has also shaped our reaction to the clerical scandals of the past year. The ghosts and this history have come alive for us in a new way. The hypocrisies and injustices that my husband dealt with and buried when he first left have come to life again, fueling, on his part, a renewed sense of cynicism, and on my part (because I’m that way) rage.

My husband committed no crime. He did nothing wrong. He left with the good recommendations of his bishop. He is a fine man-brilliant, deeply spiritual, and full of compassion.

But. While my husband received some support from his diocese, it had a definite endpoint, clearly indicated by his bishop. He lost his pension. No one offered to pay for any degrees to make him more employable after he left. So you can imagine that as we read story after story of pedophile and other sexually abusive priests, we seethe. We seethe at the protracted support given these guys-years of financial support, money for treatment, participation in pension plans-even after they’ve admitted their crimes and supposedly been stripped of their faculties.

And the bishops cry in protest, "But we have to! He’s a priest! No matter what, we’re obliged to support him!"

Uh, no. Ask any laicized priest, any man who left for the simple reason that he wanted to legitimize a heterosexual relationship in the sacrament of marriage. Some dioceses-Chicago and Seattle, for example-allow a married priest who has served a minimum number of years to keep his pension, but this is rare. The supposedly inviolable obligation to support a priest-in aeternam-can, in reality, be applied at the bishop’s will. There’s hardly a bishop in this country who protests about his undying obligation to support these guys, no matter what. Not surprisingly, one of the most stubborn prelates in this regard was Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, under whose watch even admitted sexual abusers were kept on the payroll-pensions included-but who only responded to the requests of long-serving but now married priests on a case-by-case, "charitable" basis.

Over the past twenty years, some American bishops have tried to do two things at once: they’ve tried to express sympathy for victims of sexual abuse, and they’ve tried to protect clerical privilege. They have obviously worked especially hard at the latter, giving sexual predators and abusers chance after chance to "reform," continuing to support them with financial help and with kind letters. At the same time they were intimidating victims so that an accused priest would not be revealed and would, therefore, not have to leave the priesthood, and not leave one more parish to merge or close.

I can only wonder about that as I sit here in the living room with my husband. Our baby Joseph-so named because of my husband’s devotion to Saint Joseph-runs around in his nineteen-month-old flurry of activity. My older kids drift in and out. The dishwasher runs. Football is on the television inside, and snowflakes-which the baby calls "bubbles"-fall from the sky outside. It is a lovely life, and I am so grateful for it-the present, even the history.

It is a shame, I think, that the bishops have spent so much time guarding their numbers and their clerical class by protecting sexual miscreants. It is a shame, not just because of the injustice to the victims and the harm to us all, but because it is just so ridiculous and unnecessary. For thousands of priests are sitting in their living rooms with their wives tonight. Some wouldn’t give two cents to get back into it, and have left it all behind, gladly.

But there are others. Others who left and harbor no real bitterness. They who still embrace the Catholic faith. Others who may not yearn for their old life, exactly, but are still haunted by it.

They don’t want the clericalism and the pedestals. They are grateful that their new lives let them see the falsehood in all those trappings and the simpler, yet joyful, realities of marriage and family. Service is still a part of their history. It is why they entered the priesthood in the first place. It is how they understood the call. So many are still willing to do just that. They would gratefully spend time during the week preparing a homily, then go down the street Sunday morning, put on some vestments and say Mass in their own parish communities. They wouldn’t mind doing sick calls and being with the dying or even doing some marriage preparation, some weddings, some baptisms. They would give themselves gladly to that, grateful that all that training and those gifts are being put to good use. It seems to me, if clerical culture needs to be broken up and exposed to the light, that would just about do it.

Yes, it’s a shame that the bishops have been so worried about seminary numbers, going about closing parishes, putting priests to work as pastors of three parishes at once, trying to maintain parishes that twenty-five years ago had three priests on staff, but now have only one. It is a shame that these bishops have been motivated by this concern to throw their resources into keeping sexually screwed-up priests in, no matter what the cost.

While all the time, they could have been working, quietly but firmly, toward bringing good priests who happen to be married back into ministry. Had they done so, we might not be all the way there yet, but we would be much closer to the point at which you didn’t have to be a convert or Eastern-rite to be a married priest.

For now, the chalice stays in the closet, the baby runs joyfully wild, marveling at the bubbles falling from the heavens, and the ghosts of ancient history lurk in the shadows, marveling at the puzzle of such pointless waste.

Published in the 2003-01-17 issue: 
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Amy Welborn is a freelance writer living in Indiana.

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