Keeping Different Kinds Of Vows

Father John Gremmels, a Roman Catholic priest, was new to his parish when he went grocery shopping near his church in Ft. Worth, Texas, a few years ago. As he pushed his cart, he held hands with an attractive woman, setting local gossips atwitter. But as priestly scandals go, this one was blessedly short-lived. People quickly learned that Gremmels, 49, is one of a rare breed: a married Catholic priest whose exemption from the vow of celibacy came directly from Pope John Paul II. Gremmels's marriage to Tracy, 41, is totally in accordance with church law. But for Catholics unaccustomed to a priest with a wife and three kids, some experiences take getting used to, like the time his young daughter jumped into his lap during mass. The Gremmelses have adapted, too. "We try not to do too much snuggling in public," he says.

It's too bad every scandal in the Catholic Church can't be solved that easily. Since January the church has been rocked by revelations that officials covered up decades of molestation charges against priests. Last week in Boston, lawyers released documents that sent new tremors through the community. According to the files, Cardinal Bernard Law transferred alleged sexual predator Father Paul Shanley to new parishes and then out of state without alerting colleagues to the priest's history of abuse charges. The new revelations caused some of Law's strongest supporters--including Sen. Edward Kennedy--to back away. By late last week observers thought Law's resignation was imminent. But on Friday the cardinal announced his intention "to serve this archdiocese... as long as God gives me the opportunity." However, some observers believe that won't be long.

The sex scandals have renewed debate about one of Catholicism's defining traits: its all-male, celibate clergy. Some reformers argue that ordaining married priests might eliminate some of the conditions that led to the abuse. Indeed, in a recent NEWSWEEK poll, 69 percent of Catholics favored allowing priests to marry. But as they envision this hypothetical, many Catholics are unaware of the small program--administered, coincidentally, by Cardinal Law--that's already providing rare exceptions to the celibacy rule. Since 1981, when the pope signed a "pastoral provision" allowing married Episcopal priests to be ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood, more than 80 married U.S. Episcopalians have switched teams, bringing their wives along as they join the nation's 48,000 Catholic priests. The pope allowed the provision to provide sanctuary for disillusioned Episcopalians, and church officials say it doesn't signal any rethinking of the celibacy requirement. Most of the married priests work quietly in the church bureaucracy, but a few serve in parishes. They downplay their novelty, and most say they support the church's celibacy requirement for their peers. "We don't see ourselves as the tip of the iceberg or the vanguard of a new wave," says Father Richard Bradford, a married priest in Boston. But as we imagine a non-celibate priesthood, it's worth examining the parishes where married priests are already as familiar as the Lord's Prayer.

Most of the differences are subtle. There was no glint of recognition as Father Allan Hawkins, 68, gave the eucharist to the woman in the black leather jacket during mass at St. Mary the Virgin in Arlington, Texas, last week. Most of the time the woman, his wife, Jose (pronounced Jo-zee), 60, is just another parishioner, one who is not above forgetting to turn off her mobile phone during the first moments of mass. In some Protestant churches the minister's wife is the organist or Sunday-school teacher. But this is untrodden ground for Catholics, so "my wife would be anxious to avoid anything like that," says Hawkins, whose British accent inflects his liturgy with the sound of Anglicanism. When it comes to sacraments, marriage requires one adjustment: he won't hear his wife's confessions. Jose says: "You don't want him to go 'OK, and last Tuesday, what did you do?' "

Seventeen miles away in Ft. Worth, Father Gremmels sits in an office filled with Notre Dame paraphernalia and ticks through the pros and cons of married priests. Married priests escape the loneliness that can plague clergy living alone, he says. But without families to relocate, celibate priests move more easily between parishes. They aren't at risk of divorce, which could rock a parish. Celibates are also far cheaper for parishes to finance; they require less health insurance, smaller rectories and more-modest retirement plans. Most of all, they don't have to balance the long hours of ministry with the time demands of family. To make this balance work, Gremmels rarely accepts dinner invitations from parishioners and avoids wedding rehearsals to keep Friday nights free for his family. He refers to his family in perhaps one out of 10 homilies, he says, but in some settings the couple plays "don't ask, don't tell" to avoid the complicated explanation. "Sometimes we mention we're married, sometimes we don't," says Tracy, stopping by on her way to the afternoon car pool.

Parishioners seem supportive of their priests' lifestyle. Luanne Graham's favorite priests are married, but she worries that their work-load hurts their families; celibates "can give themselves 100 percent to their vocation, instead of being divided," she says. Others say married priests can better identify with a parish. "Father Hawkins has a perspective that a lot of priests don't have because he's married and has a family," says Bob Flynn. But Flynn's wife, Lee Ann, thinks that's less important. "Does he have more insight into married life? Of course he does," she says. "But his job is to get me into heaven, not to be my marriage counselor."

The pool of men who've taken this circuitous route to the U.S. Catholic priesthood seems likely to remain small: just three or four men a year are currently making the switch. Whether these married priests foreshadow a larger movement is impossible to say. Father Hawkins, for one, believes the priesthood would benefit from a broader mix of married and celibate priests. Even in a life of Christ, some Adams would be happier if they could bring an Eve along.