The Deacon's Bench

From time to time, you hear about married former Protestant ministers becoming Catholic priests. A couple months ago, I mentioned here some Lutherans who had made that leap.

But this may be the first time I’ve read an article about a man who hadn’t yet made up his mind. It’s all about discernment. It comes to us from the Denver Post:

Phil Webb knows the weight of a divided heart.

The 52-year-old husband, father and former Episcopal priest weighs it every day as he considers ordination to the Catholic priesthood after leaving a church he felt was in turmoil.

The little-known Pastoral Provision of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope John Paul II in 1980, permits former male Episcopal priests, even married men with children, to pursue two sets of vows – marriage and priesthood.

The pope granted the provision at the request of breakaway Episcopalians troubled by a 1976 decision to ordain women.

In the past 27 years, more than 80 Episcopal ministers in the United States have left their church and been ordained Catholic priests.

To any Catholic clergy who might be envious of his permission to be a married priest, Webb says don’t be.

“It’s a burden to carry around two vocations in life,” Webb said.

Even as a married Protestant minister, Webb said one is always robbing time from one vocation for the sake of the other.

The Catholic Church terms celibacy “a gift of an undivided heart.”

Yet celibacy was not mandatory for Latin Rite Catholic priests until the 12th century, and it isn’t required of Eastern Rite priests if they’re married before ordination.

A recent study by Catholic University in Washington estimated that making celibacy optional likely would quad ruple the number of priests.

The church says, however that the Pastoral Provision for Episcopalians is not a move in that direction.

“It is clear in everyone’s mind that this is not a proving ground for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church,” said the Rev. William Stetson on the Pastoral Provision website.

“In fact, the special challenges of a married clergy … show the value of the norm of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom in the Western Church,” Stetson said.

Webb said he decided to leave the Episcopal Church about three years ago after 16 years as a clergyman primarily because the church was tearing itself apart over changes in doctrine.

Over the past two decades, Webb watched members break away from Episcopal parishes to form new congregations, some becoming missions of conservative Anglican dioceses in Africa, over issues such as the blessing of gay unions and ordination of women and an openly gay bishop.

“It was an ugly fight. Relationships got fractured,” Webb said. “I just came to believe that if Christ founded a church, you wouldn’t be forced to leave it.”

For Protestant churches, the only solution to conflict is to split apart, he says. His years in the Episcopal Church were “rich and good,” but he has come to deplore schism.

“The Catholic Church has a clearer understanding of what it means to be one holy and apostolic church,” he says.

Webb has done many of the things required by the Catholic Church to pursue ordination – including petitioning the church, obtaining Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s permission, studying theology for a year and passing written and oral tests.

He has not made a final decision about entering the priesthood.

“I need to be ready spiritually,” Webb says. “The care of souls is an intimidating responsibility.”

Go and read the rest and let’s keep men like Phil Webb and his family in our prayers.

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