Married Priests May Be Test for Catholic Church

The Rev. Richard Bradford is a Catholic priest at the St. Theresa of Avila parish outside Boston.

He's also a husband and father of three.

Bradford was first a priest in the Episcopal Church, which allows clergy to be married. He converted, and under a special dispensation, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1998.

Around the country, there are about 100 married Catholic priests. Most, like Bradford, are former Protestants disenchanted with their church's views on women and gays.

These men represent a crucial experiment for the Catholic Church.

"I think that the church is looking to see how we do," Bradford said. "I think it probably makes sense to see how we measure up."

Pros and Cons of Celibacy

Among the issues facing the church worldwide is a severe shortage of priests. Some Catholics believe that the problem could be solved if doctrine were changed to allow priests to marry. Others strongly disagree, and the question has triggered an intense debate on the value of celibacy.

Many in the church want to make celibacy optional for the clergy, arguing such a move would increase the number of priests and give them a better understanding of family life.

But Bradford says his marriage has a mixed impact on his vocation.

"To some extent it limits it, because I am a married man with family and home responsibilities, and so I'm limited in how much time I can be available," he said.

The Rev. Michael Sliney, who teaches in northern Virginia, is like a growing number of younger priests -- more conservative than their elders, and generally happy with the rule of priestly celibacy, though he admits it is not always easy.

"Christ completely fills my heart. I don't feel frustrated, I don't feel like I'm lacking," Sliney said.

But he added, "It is a sacrifice, I can't deny that. I'm still attracted to women. I'm a normal guy, and it's hard in this culture."

Only Room for One Love

But for Sliney -- and for many priests -- the vow of celibacy enhances their ministry. When a young parishioner recently asked Sliney why priests aren't allowed to marry, Sliney said his celibacy is something that helps separate his devotion to the faith from other people's.

"We're able to completely and totally commit ourselves, our souls, to Christ and to the church," Sliney said. "We have one heart, and that heart is difficult to divide with many loves."