Former protestant pastors could strengthen the Catholic Church

As a devout Roman Catholic born and raised among the evangelicals of the Bible Belt, it’s clear to me that our two communities have tied the issue of celibacy and marriage for our pastors into a Gordian knot of traditions, contradictions, and exclusions.

On one end of that knot, Catholic priests are officially required to be celibate. I wonder what Saint Peter would say about this, especially since he was married (Matthew 8:14-15). There may be a few dozen married priests, but they entered the church through an extremely narrow exception for former Episcopal pastors or those from denominations with Anglican roots.

On the knot’s other end, protestant ministers are effectively required, or at least strongly expected, to marry. I don’t have to wonder what Saint Paul would say about this because he not only practiced celibacy, he advocated for it (1 Corinthians 7:27-34).

Sure, there isn’t any such rule requiring protestant pastors to marry, but I ask you, if scripture says it’s preferred, or at least acceptable, then where are all of the celibate protestant ministers? Even if one or two prominent examples come to mind, their scarcity is the exception that proves the rule.

This knot has doubtlessly prevented many men from answering the call, either those Catholics who, like Saint Peter, are also called to marriage, or those protestants who, like Saint Paul, are also called to celibacy (a celibate protestant pastor would also lack the support structure that communities of priests like the Franciscans or Jesuits provide their members).

For these men, there is no clear path to the pulpit.

But now Pope Francis could, as Alexander did before him, swiftly solve at least the Catholic end of that knot with one swift stroke of the sword. Reports from the Vatican indicate that he is considering allowing married men to become priests if they are “viri probati,” that is, “tested men” who have long proven themselves mature, faithful, and virtuous.

This isn’t like some of the more controversial changes some seek within the church, like ordaining women or validating homosexual unions. Those are impossible because they go against unchangeable doctrine. Celibacy for priests is just a rule, however. It was changed once and can therefore be changed again.

Such a move could revolutionize the Catholic Church, especially in the Bible Belt, because some of our best potential priests are, or were, preaching from protestant pulpits.

Say what?

Yes, we Southerners often hear about Catholics who become born-again evangelicals, but the door swings both ways. Some of our church’s most passionate and effective members were raised and taught scripture in evangelical churches, and that also includes former┬ápastors.

Many of them regularly share their stories on Birmingham-based EWTN’s popular show “The Journey Home.” Each week the program tells the story of a former protestant minister’s conversion – their lifelong opposition to Catholicism, an initial curiosity or a persistent question, their struggle to reconcile their newfound faith with their lifelong beliefs, their fear of change, and finally their acceptance and courageous public conversion.

I’m always struck by their passion for Christ. These men have solid understandings of scripture and have been trained to teach it with a level of energy and excitement greatly needed in today’s world. After watching an episode, I nearly always come away thinking, “That guy would have made a great priest.”

But aside from their poignant stories of faith and their ability to preach, what also usually strikes me is their professional dilemma once they announced their new beliefs: their conversion leaves them not only unemployed but nearly unemployable. After earning a doctorate in divinity and serving as a Baptist pastor for a couple of decades, how else does such a man earn a living and provide for his family?

If reports from Rome are to be believed, such men might someday be welcomed into the priesthood. For the sake of our congregations, the priesthood and all – all – of those called into it, I sincerely hope so.

Meanwhile, we mustn’t lose sight of the virtues of a celibate priesthood. As Saint Paul wrote, it remains the preferred way for a number of practical and beneficial reasons … but it’s just not the only way.