Church And Marriage

A Look At Married Priests In The U.S.

With the continuing sexual abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church, 60 Minutes thought we'd take another look at a story we broadcast last winter.

It's about a subject that has come up repeatedly as American Roman Catholics search for ways of restoring the credibility of the church. The subject is celibacy and the hard-and-fast rule that Roman Catholic priests remain unmarried and refrain from sexual relations.

What you may not know is that the celibacy rule is not so hard and fast. There are, right here in the United States, married Roman Catholic priests - and they have the blessing of the pope. Correspondent Morley Safer reports.

Father Christopher Phillips has been the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement, a church in San Antonio, Texas, for nearly 20 years – ever since he left the Episcopal Church and converted to Catholicism. He says Mass and he gives Communion.

But unlike most priests, he has a family, including five children, his wife, Joanne, and a grandson.

"When in public, in front of other people, they always call me 'Father,' he says. "Of course, at home, it's 'Dad.'"

The only Roman Catholic priests who are allowed to have wives and families are clergymen who converted from other Christian denominations and were already married when they became Catholic. These priests had never taken a vow of celibacy.

Father Phillips, once an Episcopal priest, became a Catholic because he thought the Episcopal Church was becoming too liberal: "The big thing that really got me out of the Episcopal Church into the Catholic Church was the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, artificial contraception - those moral issues."

The parish in San Antonio has grown under his leadership, and he says being married may have helped him as a counselor: "Sometimes it helps if you've been there and you've been through it."

Father Michael Shiep has also been there.

This former Lutheran minister doesn't see any conflict between being a father to his five sons and being 'Father' to everyone else.

"When I'm with my parishioners, I'm a priest who happens to be married," says Father Shiep, a priest with the Diocese of Venice, Fla. "At home, I'm a father and a husband who happens to be a priest."

The Catholic Church says it doesn't keep records on exactly how many married priests there are in the U.S. There are probably only 100 or so.

Father John Ellis of St. Bernard's Church in Florida is formerly an Episcopalian. He and his wife, Burgess, feel a bit like an experiment that's being closely watched by the church and by other priests.

"Most of the priests understand that Burgess and I are pioneers, that we are perhaps allowing the hierarchy of the church to take a firsthand look at celibacy and married priests and see that married priests can be a happy addition to the Catholic Church," says Father Ellis.

In fact, the pope himself approved bestowing the priesthood on these married men. Bishop Joseph Gallante is chief spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "It's putting its toe in the water. It's done it. And it's very interesting that most Catholics have had no problems accepting married men who've been ordained priests."

Father Ellis says most of his parishioners have no trouble accepting him:
"The question is why hasn't it happened earlier? Why can't all priests get married?"

When Christianity began, there was no vow of celibacy. In fact, the Bible suggests that at least one of the Apostles, St. Peter, was married.

Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, favors making celibacy optional. He says celibacy is a man-made rule that has changed over the centuries.

"In the Roman Catholic Church, it never became a universal law until the 12th century. Then it became a matter of practicality. Priests and bishops were leaving church property to their children, so they had to stop that," says Father McBrien. "And now the reason is that celibacy is God's gift to the church and that it allows the priest to have a closer relationship to Christ and the church."

McBrien believes that making celibacy optional would solve a lot of problems. "It would allow the Catholic Church to draw from a far wider pool of potential recruits for the priesthood," he says. "We're running out of good priests."

About 20,000 men have left the American priesthood in the past 30 years. Most left over the issue of celibacy, adding to a serious shortage of priests. Nearly 3,000 parishes have no resident priest at all.

Lee Ganim left the priesthood because he wanted to have a family. He's a husband, father and grandfather with his own chain of restaurants in the Florida Keys, living what most people would call the good life.

Does he have any regrets?

"Regrets, no," says Ganim. "I have been blessed with a most beautiful wife and four precious sons. But the regret is that I know in my heart that I am still a priest, I'll always be a priest and that God wants me to be a priest."

Ganim knew he wanted to be a priest since childhood, and he entered a seminary at age 17 and gladly took a vow of celibacy.

"It was such an honor in those days to be called to the priesthood, and you were taught that before all time, before your birth, God had anointed you, had picked you," he says. "And you were so honored with all that, you never stopped to consider what impact celibacy might have on your life as a grown man."

The turning point came when his brother and sister-in-law asked him to baptize their daughter. "I knew then that I needed to have my own family," he says, admitting that if celibacy every became an option, he would return to the priesthood. "I'd be the first one in line. I've been in line for 28 years, because I know that's what I'm supposed to do."

Ganim belongs to a group of about 2,500 former priests. All but a few of them are married. They continue to perform Mass and other priestly duties, even though the church doesn't recognize them.

They also continue to lobby the church, demanding the same rights as married priests who converted from other Christian denominations.

"That's the terrible thing, really, about the law of obligatory celibacy," says McBrien. "It links inextricably the call to ministry with the call to live a celibate life. And they don't necessarily work together."

What's more, McBrien says that seminaries attract a disproportionately high number of homosexuals, which may well be part of the church's problems.

"My position is that gays can be good priests. They are good priests. But it's not healthy when the gay culture is the dominant culture in a seminary," he says.

"We have evidence that it has actually driven many heterosexual young men out of seminaries, who otherwise felt they had a call to the priesthood."

The Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans accepts both heterosexuals and homosexuals. But all of them must undergo psychological testing before they're accepted, in the hopes of rooting out young men with sexual and emotional problems, or problems with celibacy.

"We discuss it in our classes. We discuss it in workshops. Counseling is offered," says Beau Charbonnet, who has one year left at the seminary.

"You know what you're giving up," says Joseph Bordelon, new at the school. "I think we'd be lying to say it's not difficult. It's just by our nature, you know, we want to have sex."

But if celibacy were optional, which would they choose?

"In thinking of the call, celibacy has always been a part of it. A married priesthood for me just doesn't fit," says Charbonnet.

There's been a lot of criticism within the church itself about too many homosexuals within the church. But Reverend Ricardo Phipps says that doesn't bother him: "I'm not extremely concerned about there being too many homosexuals in the priesthood. What my concern is, is that there would be too many people, heterosexual or homosexual, who are not being true to the promise of celibacy."

Plus, Father McBrien says it's an open secret that priests do have affairs, especially priests in Latin America and Africa: "Celibacy isn't practiced there in large measure. The people understand that the priest has his wife, his children, his family. They accept it."

And Rome, he says, turns a blind eye to it.

About 75 percent of American Catholics say they're in favor of ending celibacy. But that's unlikely to happen.

"I would be very surprised to see a pope come in to do sweeping, sweeping changes," says Bishop Gallante.

"For so many years, over 23 years, this pope has kept the issue off the table, not allowed it to be discussed," says McBrien.

And because of the sex abuse crisis that has erupted in the Catholic Church, especially in this country, it is now very much back on the table.

In fact, last month a group of 160 priests from Milwaukee petitioned the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asking the church to make celibacy an option for priests.