Dallas – The priest gets up at four in the morning when he has to give Mass early, have a coffee and enjoy a moment of peace while his children sleep in rooms full of stuffed animals, Sesame Street dolls and pictures of saints. Then he says goodbye to his wife with a kiss and goes by car, through deserted streets, to his parish.
In the Catholic universe, shaken by debates over the celibacy of priests from Brazil to the Vatican, Joshua Whitfield is what he describes as an anomaly: a married Catholic priest.
The Roman Catholic church demands celibacy from its members since the Middle Ages, describing it as a “spiritual gift” that allows men to devote themselves fully to the church. But the crisis resulting from the shortage of priests worldwide caused liberal sectors of the church to begin to say that the time had come to reconsider the position before celibacy. On Wednesday, Pope Francis stepped aside and spread a long-awaited document on the subject in which he avoided any mention of the recommendations of Latin American bishops who believe it is necessary to order married individuals in the Amazon, where the faithful spend months Without seeing a priest.
For lovers of tradition, there is nothing to discuss.
Celibacy is “the characteristic of a heroic soul and the imperative call to a unique and total love for Christ and his church,” wrote Paul VI in 1967.
But there is Josh Whitfield.
Whitfield is a husband, father of four children and a priest revered for his flock in the Santa Rita Catholic Community of Dallas. He spends his life between two worlds. He officiates masses, hears confessions, takes his son to karate classes and encourages his eldest daughter to take pleasure in baseball. It is part of a small community of married priests that not even most Catholics know it exists.
In Santa Rita, it’s just Father Josh.
“People like you are interested in married priests. Here in Santa Rica we don’t give it much importance. My job is to fulfill the tasks that the bishop commissioned me in the best possible way,” Father Whitfield said in an interview in his office full of books, in which the photos of his wife and children are mixed with photos of potatoes and drawings of the religious figures he admires.
In the United States there are about 125 married priests, experts say. And in the world about 200.
Different consultations indicate that Catholics mostly support the marriage of priests. A series of reports from the Pew Research Center in recent years indicate that 62% of United States Catholics and 56% of Brazilians welcome priests’ marriage. In Central and Eastern Europe, 63% approve it. Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world.
One reason for this is that the church faces a huge and growing shortage of priests. In the United States, the number of priests decreased by a third since 1970. In 2018 there were only 37,000 priests despite the fact that the Catholic population had risen from 54 million to 74 million, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Globally, the number of priests remained stable in the last 50 years, although it is noteworthy that the Catholic population doubled, reaching 1,300 million faithful.
There is a small sector of Catholics opposed to the admission of married priests: Married priests themselves.
“Many married priests, like me, have this strange, almost contradictory stance. I know it is difficult to understand. But that is part of the irritating beauty of Catholicism. The church insistently thinks with a theological perspective, not sociological or political,” Whitfield said. .
The Catholic Church, which has almost two dozen rites, allows the marriage of priests in the churches of the Eastern Rite. He also admits some married men like Whitfield, an episcopal ex-priest who converted to Catholicism with his wife Alli in 2009 and three years later he was ordained as a Catholic priest.
While married priests were common in the early centuries of Christianity, the Latin Rite – the largest branch of Catholicism and the dominant rite in the West – has a tradition of celibacy in its priests since the 11th century as a way of maintaining the patrimony of the priests in the church, without passing to their heirs.
Pope Francis has maintained a delicate balance around the issue of celibacy, pointing out that it is a tradition, not a theological dogma, and therefore is subject to change. His pronouncements range from categorical statements such as “I do not agree with allowing celibacy to be optional, not”, to more ambiguous ones, such as saying that priests can be allowed to marry “when there is a pastoral need” in remote areas where there is Great shortage of priests.
This possibility alarms conservative sectors and emboldens liberals. Both sides agree that if married priests are allowed in regions such as the Amazon or the Pacific Islands, this would open the doors for the approval of the marriage of priests in general.
Whitfield, 41, became a Catholic priest in 2012 under the Pastoral Criteria, a series of rules approved by John Paul II in 1980 that give married episcopal priests who convert to Catholicism the opportunity to be Catholic priests.
The process can take years and includes everything from psychological interviews to examinations on Catholic theology and, ultimately, a dispensation from the pope.
The converted priests consider themselves exceptions to centuries of Catholic rules, part of a campaign for the Catholic church to join with some branches of the Anglicans. They have some restrictions: They cannot be bishops or remarry if their wives die, and they must spend the rest of their lives without getting married.
Many of the priestly married converts had become disenchanted with the episcopal church as it became more liberal in recent decades, fighting major battles around issues such as women’s ordination and gay marriage. Ironically, they are now the heroes of liberal Catholics, who see them as modernizing forces of the church.
“We are conservative men who left the episcopal church and now we run into all these left-wing Catholics who celebrate our presence,” said Father Paul Sullins, another married priest with three children and who teaches at the Catholic University. “It can be awkward, but we try to love each other.”
Deborah Rose-Milavec, from the FutureChurch Catholic group, is one of those progressive figures.
“Whatever their position towards marriage, by the way they live their lives they show that it is totally possible to have married priests. They are effective in their ministry. They can officiate Mass and raise children. They can give the sacraments and have a family,” he claimed.
Sullins admits that married priests like him can open the doors upon the arrival of others.
“We could be the vanguard one day, even though we don’t want to be the vanguard,” he said.
Whitfield, who left the episcopal church in part because he was very upset with the intensity of his divisions and was drawn to the tradition of obedience of Catholicism, avoids getting into discussions about celibacy.
“Maybe he thinks I’m going to give strong opinions on the subject,” he said. He says celibacy should be the norm, but if the church decides to admit married priests, “I would accept it and show them how to make it work.”
He and Alli clearly enjoy their married life.
With four children under the age of ten, they live in the middle of a chaos of schools, sports, toys and birthday parties. Dinners with bustling, finding time to bathe everyone is a task, the same as programming the lives of so many children. They are, according to Withfield, “a beautiful family that lives in constant chaos.”
“I love going home and playing with the boys until they make me angry and I scream at them,” he says.
Whitfield is a gentle man who regrets how bad he speaks Spanish and wonders if he spends enough time with his children. Read voraciously. On their shelves there are books of all kinds of authors, from Jane Austin to Dickens and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as treatises on theology and a biography of St. Benedict.
In many ways, it’s an old-fashioned marriage: He works and she attends the house and the boys.
Whitfield’s workload is heavy: masses, confessions, administrative duties, counseling, bureaucratic problems with church school and regional clergy meetings.
The obligations of the church and those of the family sometimes generate conflicts.
“It would be nice if he was with us on a Saturday morning,” said Alli. But Josh has masses and confessions, and it is she who must deal with the boys’ soccer games and birthday parties.
The parish welcomed Whitfield and his family with open arms, but sometimes complications arise, such as when parishioners are amazed when Whitfield mentions Alli in a sermon about a priest’s wife – a conversation – that he is not very sure of some catholic traditions.
“Some mothers ask me: What was your family doing? Do you let your children eat meat on Fridays?” Says Alli.
For her, hers is a normal family, in fact, more religious and more conservative than most. When Whitfield had problems with his episcopal faith, she worried about other more practical things.
“We were in this beautiful (episcopal) church and they supported us a lot. We knew where their next salary came from. If we became Catholics, that would all end. I was very scared of that perspective: That suddenly your husband is out of work.”
Sometimes she marvels at the direction her life took after meeting Josh in college being almost a teenager.
“I didn’t ask for any of this. She was a 20-year-old girl who longed to get a man with some faith. But, you know, I guess God thought this would be something fun.”