What life is like for a married Catholic priest in Texas
DALLAS — The priest wakes up at 4 a.m. on the days he celebrates the early Mass, sipping coffee and enjoying the quiet while his young children sleep in rooms awash in stuffed animals and Sesame Street dolls and pictures of saints. Then he kisses his wife goodbye and drives through the empty suburban streets of north Dallas to the church he oversees.
In a Catholic world where debates over clerical celibacy have flared from Brazil to the Vatican, Joshua Whitfield is that rarest of things: A married Catholic priest.
The Roman Catholic church has demanded celibacy of its priests since the Middle Ages, calling it a “spiritual gift” that enables men to devote themselves fully to the church. But as a shortage of priests becomes a crisis in parts of the world, liberal wings in the church have been arguing that it’s time to reassess that stance. On Wednesday, Pope Francis sidestepped the latest debate on celibacy, releasing an eagerly awaited document that avoided any mention of recommendations by Latin American bishops to consider ordaining married men in the Amazon, where believers can go months without seeing a priest.
Even the most liberal of popes have refused to change the tradition.
It is “the mark of a heroic soul and the imperative call to unique and total love for Christ and His Church,” Pope Paul VI wrote in 1967.
Then there’s Josh Whitfield.
Whitfield is a husband, a father of four and a relentlessly good-natured priest beloved by the parishioners at Dallas’ St. Rita Catholic Community. His life is spent juggling two worlds. He celebrates Mass, he hears confessions; he drives his son to karate practice, he encourages his oldest daughter’s love of baseball. He is, he says, “an ecclesiastical zoo exhibit,” one of the tiny community of married priests that even most Catholics don’t know exist.
But inside St. Rita, he’s just Father Josh.
“It’s people like you who are interested in married priests. Here at St. Rita we just get on with it. My job is just to do the tasks the bishop has given me as best I can, and try and make it work,” he said in an interview in his book-filled office, where photos of his wife and children vie for space with photos of popes and sketches of his religious heroes.
There are around 125 married Roman Catholic priests like Whitfield, an Episcopal convert, across the U.S., experts say, and perhaps a couple hundred total around the world.
Surveys of Catholics show widespread backing for a married priesthood. A series of reports in recent years by the Pew Research Center showing 62 percent support among U.S. Catholics, 56 percent among Brazilians — the world’s most populous Catholic nation — and 63 percent in Central and Eastern Europe.
One reason behind that is a church facing an immense, and growing, shortage of priests. In the U.S., the number of priests has dropped by more than one-third since 1970, falling to less than 37,000 in 2018, even as America’s Catholic population has jumped from 54 million to 74 million, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Worldwide, the number of priests has remained fairly stable over the past 50 years — but the Catholic population has doubled to 1.3 billion.
But there’s one very small, very notable Catholic constituency that mostly doesn’t support opening up the priesthood to married men: Married priests themselves.