D.P. Sullins has written an important book that deserves careful attention amidst semi-regular papal chatter about possible relaxation of the celibacy requirement for presbyteral ordination in the Latin Church. In Keeping the Vow: the Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests (Oxford UP, 2016), 336pp., Sullins, himself both a married priest and a sociologist teaching at Catholic University of America, has given us a usefully detailed picture of a very select group of men in one country, the USA. Those interested in clerical life, those interested in the marriage-vs-celibacy debate, and those interested in the sociology of the Catholic Church will all find much that is informative in this welcome and tightly written book.
Sullins looks at the advent of married priests in the US from the early 1980s to the present, beginning with the Pastoral Provision, which allowed married Episcopalian clergy entering the Catholic Church the possibility of being ordained as Catholic priests notwithstanding their being married and having families.
As a sociologist, he has studied this group in some detail, and amassed in this book, in a number of tables and figures, the fruits of his research and statistical calculations. Via surveys and interviews, we learn much about the background of these married priests and their wives--education, formation, length of marriage, and location. Strikingly, the largest number of these men is to be found in just one state: Texas.
Sullins has also surveyed these men carefully on a number of controverted doctrinal issues, and all down the line these men are, compared to a comparable group of celibate Latin priests, much more "conservative" or "traditional" when it comes to such things as abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, etc. (Interestingly, however, their wives do not tend to be quite as conservative.)
He has also surveyed bishops to see what they know about these priests, about the Pastoral Provision, and now the Anglican ordinariates, asking them also about their support for married clergy and their views on celibacy.
Sullins has also usefully dispensed with some of the myths that are sometimes circulated to warn people off a married priesthood, especially the myth that it will cost dramatically more. By carefully crunching the numbers, he demonstrates that the average remuneration for a married man would only be slightly more than that of a celibate guy.
Sullins also sheds welcome light on other areas, noting that on average married priests perdure in the priesthood longer than their celibate counterparts, and have much higher levels of job satisfaction. At the same time, however, and most counter-intuitively, they tend to be lonelier than their celibate colleagues precisely because the married men have so few colleagues who can relate to them. Most of these men, entering a diocese, do so among a diocesan presbyterate that has, Sullins shows, its own internal groupings--the relative liberals, the arch-conservatives, those with certain interests or hobbies, etc. Married men find it hard to break into these pre-existing groups, and while their celibate colleagues are as a whole welcoming and friendly, they are also distant. So married clergy find developing friendships a challenge.
Only in a couple of places does he briefly mention married Eastern Catholic priests, a topic he does not seriously treat, and usually stumbles when doing so. Thus, e.g., he says that the Eastern Catholics driven out of the Catholic Church over married priests formed "today's Greek Orthodox Church in the United States" (175). It was actually the OCA that they largely formed, and the Orthodox Church of America has in fact canonized the formerly Catholic married priest, Alexis Toth, who led an exodus of Eastern Catholics into Orthodoxy thanks in part to the stupidity and intransigence of such as John Ireland. My friend D.O. Herbel gives the fullest, fairest account of all this in the first chapter of his splendid and vital study, Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox.
A little earlier he implies (p.151) that the old rule prohibiting Eastern Catholics from ordaining married men in the United States is still in effect, but it is not.
These need not concern us insofoar as I am myself hoping finally to have movement from the publisher on my own book about married Catholic priests, which features a great deal of history and canon law around Eastern Catholics in North America, as well as chapters from married priests today, including several in the Anglican Ordinariates in England and the US.
In addition to not paying much attention to Eastern Catholic priests who are married--which, I must stress, is not a fault at all insofar as this book was clearly written to focus on another group, and so this is decidedly not a criticism, just an observation--there is one group I rather expected would be attended to more than they are: the phenomenon of the several Anglican Ordinariates. But the book seems largely to have been centred on, and perhaps even written before, the advent of Anglican Ordinariates in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Sullins alludes to them a couple of times, but that is all.
Again, though, what he has given us is a rich, important study that fills a significant gap. Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests does indeed tell an untold story, and tells it extremely well. We are in Sullins' debt for this fine book.