My parents may not get to see the transformation of Catholicism they dreamed of when they married 50 years ago, but some changes are underway.
By Peter Manseau August 2019.
Mr. Manseau is the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian.
It made news around the world when my parents married 50 years ago this summer. They weren’t remotely famous. Their wedding was no lavish affair. The surprising interest in their nuptials can be summed up by a headline that ran in a Vancouver newspaper, thousands of miles from the ceremony in my grandmother’s modest Boston home: “Priest Weds Nun.”
The headline wasn’t precisely accurate. My mother was a teaching sister for a decade, but she had left her order the previous summer; my father by then had been a priest for eight years. On the day of the wedding, he was on a leave of absence from his nearby parish and, according to canon law, was automatically excommunicated for marrying without first receiving dispensation from the obligations of his ordination. As he told reporters waiting outside, he knew that his decision broke the rules of the church, but he had done so for its benefit.
“We believe in the goals of the church and love the church very deeply,” he said. “We have committed our lives to the church, and believe we are doing this for the good of the church.”
For him, to marry publicly as a Catholic priest was an act of protest meant to nudge Rome toward reconsideration of clerical celibacy and the church’s view of sexuality generally — a reconsideration he had come to regard as inevitable after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council earlier in the 1960s. “I really felt that in order to be true to the Gospel,” he said, “I should enter into the deepest relationship possible for the church.” By this he meant not his celibate religious vocation but marriage, family and the complicated relationships they would bring.
For my mother, though she shared these sentiments, their wedding day was more about becoming a bride than a modern-day Martin Luther. “Our plans,” she said in one news report, “are simply to live happily ever after.”
The headlines may not have captured the nuance, but they conveyed the essence: My parents’ marriage was newsworthy because it upset expectations. As a rule, those who make religious vows in the Catholic Church do not also make wedding vows. To newspaper editors, “Priest Weds Nun” was an irresistible ecclesiastical spin on “Man Bites Dog,” and the story itself turned out to be evergreen, as reporters continued for years to write about their life together, including in this newspaper.
My parents weren’t the only newlyweds to receive this kind of attention. Throughout 1969, couples in Texas, New York and California made headlines of their own: “Dissenting Priest Weds Nun Dropout”; “Former Priest Weds Ex-Nun”; “Priest Will Wed Nun He Met on Protestant College Campus.” A few similar news items had appeared in previous years, and many more followed in the years to come.
Stories about the weddings of priests and nuns were usually presented as singular curiosities, but in hindsight their real significance was not in their novelty but in their repetition. Unbeknownst to them, my parents were at the beginning of an exodus, a rejection of the established Catholic order from which the church has yet to recover.
After decades of growth, the ranks of Catholic clergy in the United States began to decline around the time of my parents’ wedding. Between 1969 and today, the number of priests has fallen nearly 40 percent; the number of nuns is down roughly three-quarters. Those who left did so for all kinds of reasons: ambition for secular careers, a longing to start families, just a yearning for another way of life. Yet entwined with those practical desires was the fact that many among my parents’ generation of priests and nuns recognized the church’s fault lines — its tendency toward secrecy, its culture of obedience, its history of abetting abuse — long before outsiders learned the extent of the problem.
As adolescents, both of my parents endured unwanted physical contact from priests who were supposed to be their spiritual mentors, the very men who guided them into religious life. My mother’s memories of the convent also include being required to use a medieval self-flagellation device she and the other sisters called “the discipline.” My father’s classmates in seminary included several of the most notorious of Boston’s pedophile clergy. Is it any wonder they began to ask to what else their faith might aspire?
My parents’ anniversary is an admittedly arbitrary date from which to look back over a half-century of Catholic history, but it happens also to coincide with a moment of widespread re-evaluation of the place of priests and nuns in the broader culture, in the United States and around the world.
In the cover story of the June issue of The Atlantic, another former Boston priest, the writer James Carroll, called for the abolition of the priesthood, blaming its culture of clericalism as the root cause of the church’s continuing crisis. On the latest season of the Amazon/BBC Series “Fleabag,” a fraught affair between a sassy atheist and a “hot priest,” as the internet calls him, leads to perhaps the frankest conversations about celibacy ever in a romantic comedy.
The spring announcement that the gothic horror film “The Nun” would have a sequel suggests that the word alone is considered sufficiently terror-inducing for not one but two big-screen scream fests, while a recent social experiment called Nuns and Nones put decidedly unfrightening elderly Catholic sisters in conversation with religiously unaffiliated millennials who admire the former’s dedication to activism.
Viewed side by side, these varied examinations and representations reveal a deep ambivalence: The priest might be cast as the key to the church’s failings or an answer to secular prayers; the nun is a figure fit for nightmares but also a potential role model for those seeking order in their lives.
Popular culture remains haunted by priests and nuns in a way that its audiences’ adherence to, indifference toward or rejection of Catholic doctrines does not fully explain. Priests and nuns remain, for many, symbols simultaneously of what was and what might be. Their symbolic significance endures even as their numbers fall and the meaning of their vocations, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, continues to shift.
This re-evaluation is not just an American phenomenon. When South American church leaders gather in Rome this fall for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, they will consider allowing married men to be ordained as priests to address the shortage of Catholic clergy in an area home to tens of millions of people. While some wonder whether this might eventually provide a template the Vatican could follow elsewhere, in other places where the church is growing as the ranks of clergy fall, would-be married priests are not waiting for official sanction. The priests of Kenya’s breakaway Renewed Universal Catholic Church, for example, are guided by a desire to keep their Catholic identity without forgoing marriage or resorting to the “secret families” they say many supposed celibates maintain.
Catholic sisters around the world are also now being seen in a new light. Scandals like those involving the abuse committed at the Magdalene laundries in Ireland on the one hand, and, on the other, the abuse suffered by nuns at the hands of priests and bishops recently acknowledged by Pope Francis, have allowed figures too often caricatured as parochial school despots or cardboard saints to be more fully understood.
It is too soon to know what such movements and revelations will mean to the future of the faith. In the long history of the Catholic Church, there is ample precedent both for the opening of theological loopholes to address practical concerns and for independent churches attempting to continue their ministry in the style, if not with the blessing, of Rome. Yet it is clear that in the 21st century the issue of sexuality and its implications for religious service, long simmering beneath the surface, is in the open as never before.
The actor who plays the priest in “Fleabag,” Andrew Scott, who grew up Catholic in Ireland, said recently in an interview with New York magazine, “If the church could be a little movable on the subject of priests and nuns being allowed to marry, then I think maybe there might be more people interested in entering the church in our generation.”
Though such prescriptions are offered far more often by those who have left the Catholic Church than those who remain, today this is not an uncommon view. That it once would have been a scandalous notion suggests that those who shed their collars and veils five decades ago did something quietly revolutionary. Despite a lifetime of preparation for service to a church that once viewed itself as unchanging, they imagined that change was possible.
As a historian of American religion, and no longer a practicing Catholic, I have developed some distance on my parents’ story. I have far less of a stake than they do in the future of vocations they left behind. Whether the ranks of priests and nuns continue to decline, or somehow return again to the kind of flourishing that made them the significant cultural markers they remain, I will watch with interest, comparing their rise and fall with that of other religious groups that have experienced similar trajectories.
As a son, though, I can’t help but hope the church might one day acknowledge that my parents were right. While those who left were once seen as vow breakers, disappointments or worse, their understanding that a reckoning regarding matters of sexuality and power was long overdue has proved prescient.
My parents may never see the transformation of their faith that they dreamed of when they married, but 50 years later, they represent a road not taken, a path that the church they love, despite it all, may one day follow.
Peter Manseau (@plmanseau) is the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian and the author of a memoir, “Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son.”
The priest wedding the nun was a very 60s and 70s thing.
Why? Because there were more heterosexual persons in the priesthood.
With the homosexualising of seminaries and priesthood heterosexual men in seminaries and priesthood are becoming as scarce as the corncrake 😊
The other connection is that many priests and nuns in the past were semi forced by their families to enter the seminary and convent to bring honour and respectability on the family.
Such priests and nuns were unsuitable to celibacy and virginity.
I visited many convents in my time and the enforced virginity made many poor nuns mad with frustration and denied mother instinct. Some of them became as mad as march hares and wicked and sadistic.
I was serially beaten by such nuns as a child in a convent school.
One heterosexual priest said to me one time: “They wouldn’t let us get rid of our semen and it went to our heads and made us mad”.
In the future the abolition of celibacy and the ordination of women will give us much better and more integrated priests.
And those two moves will also rebalance the current homosexualised priesthood.