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Spotlight Report

Marriage of faith

These Catholic priests are honoring vows to God and family

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 3/21/2002

Terry McDonough, with his wife, Susan, was an Air Force chaplain when the couple fell in love. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)

Louise Haggett, founder of Celibacy Is the Issue, knows of at least 2,500 married priests. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)
The altar holds a candle, a basket of pita bread, a glass of wine - and a remote control clicker. Ron Ingalls is celebrating Mass in his Ashland living room.

In Terry McDonough's Duxbury home, his wedding album sits next to his ordination album. On his IRS forms, he lists ''priest'' as his occupation. When he and his wife, Susan, attend church with their children, McDonough feels a painful stirring. ''I'd love to be up there offering Mass instead of sitting in the pew,'' he says.

Ingalls and McDonough call themselves married Catholic priests, and no, they don't consider that an oxymoron. There are 2,500 men throughout the country who feel called to both the priesthood and to marriage. But the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has a problem with that. Many married priests are laicized, which means their religious vows are annulled. Others like McDonough, who refuse to go through the process, are kicked out of the priesthood. Either way, they all point to canon law (No. 290) that says: ''After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.'' In other words, they believe: ''Once a priest, always a priest.''

They are members of a group called Celibacy Is the Issue (CITI). Surprisingly, the Framingham-based group was founded not by a priest but by a woman. Ten years ago, Louise Haggett's mother was dying in rural Maine, and the grieving daughter could not find a priest to visit. ''This was a woman who had gone to Mass every single Sunday,'' says Haggett. ''It was devastating. I didn't know there was such a shortage of priests.''

When she returned home from her mother's funeral, Haggett read a magazine story about a pedophile priest. ''The district attorney had covered it up because he was a priest,'' she recalls. Curiosity led her to the library, where she discovered a slew of stories about the Catholic Church's ordaining married priests from other faiths. Today it is estimated that about 100 such priests ''came in through the back door,'' as Haggett puts it. (She notes, sardonically, that Cardinal Bernard Law of the Boston Archdiocese is in charge of the national program, which is called ''pastoral provisions.'')

''For me, that was the last straw,'' says Haggett, who is 61. ''I saw a terrible injustice to the celibate priests and a terrible injustice to those Catholic priests who had married and been kicked out.'' In some cases, she says, Catholic priests who married have been replaced by married Protestant-turned-Catholic priests and their families.

Haggett took $10,000 from a bonus at work and in February 1992 started CITI at her dining room table. A former advertising executive, she ran a small ad in the National Catholic Reporter: ''If the Berlin Wall Can Come Down, Why Can't Celibacy Be Abolished?'' She was surprised at the number of priests who responded.

Celibacy education

Today, CITI operates out of an office in a strip mall. It has a mailing list of more than 5,000, half of them married priests. There are bumper stickers on the walls: ''39 Popes Were Married'' and ''St. Peter Was a Married Priest.'' Here's what the organization wants people to know: that prior to the year 1139, popes, bishops, and priests were married. That Catholic priests in the Eastern rites, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Armenians, are allowed to marry. That many priests who have served for decades are cut off with no pension after they marry. That the Catholic Church changed the celibacy law in the 12th century to prevent priests, upon their death, from leaving their homes and land to their families.

''Celibacy,'' declares Haggett, ''is all about real estate.'' She grew up a devout Catholic of the ''pay, pray, and obey'' school. ''I'm as Catholic as the pope,'' she says. ''But I know the difference between my faith in God and all this political bullpuppy stuff that's going on.'' Haggett attends Mass the first Wednesday of every month at the home of one of the married priests in her membership.

This month, Mass was held at Ron Ingalls's house. Thirteen people assembled around the coffee table/altar. There were prayers and readings and music. Then Ingalls, who spent 15 years in seminary and the priesthood before leaving and later marrying, said: ''As always, let's open it up.''

The discussion turns to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked many archdioceses; perhaps those least surprised are the married priests. ''When you deny a person's right to something that is natural and good, it metamorphoses and rears its ugly head. It seeks its release in inappropriate behavior,'' offers Ed Minderlein, a priest who served for 17 years before taking a leave of absence in 1986. Through a matchmaker, he met a former nun who, like him, longed for marriage. Their first date was a walk around Walden Pond; the next morning, they attended Mass together. He and Fran, who are both 58, were married in 1990.

Today, he is a social security claims representative, she a computer software programmer. Both say they felt called to the religious life and to marriage and believe the two should not be mutually exclusive. But when he applied for dispensation from his vows, Minderlein was told by Church officials that by marrying he had ''given scandal to the faithful.''

The Archdiocese of Boston looks askance at CITI and its ''Rent a Priest'' service, an online listing that refers people to Catholic priests who have married and will perform pastoral and sacramental ministry, including weddings, funerals, and baptisms ( ''Any priest who has left the ministry and gotten married does not have faculties to function as a priest anymore,'' says Chris Coyne, director of the Archdiocese's Office of Worship. (They would be able to come back if they divorced, ''but we're not promoting that.'') ''As individuals,'' he adds, ''they are still members of the Church because they are baptized Catholics.''

As for the married Protestant-turned-Catholic priests, the Boston Archdiocese will not assign them to parishes, Coyne says. ''We recognize that their first priority is to their wife and children.''

Nationwide, many bishops have threatened priests who list themselves with Rent a Priest. One priest in the Midwest was told by his bishop to resign his leadership position in the local Knights of Columbus ''because of the scandal'' he had brought to the Church. Another priest out West was threatened with having his marriage-encounter ministry canceled by the bishop if he didn't remove his name from Rent a Priest. (He did.) In the South, a priest who wed a divorced woman was informed last year by his bishop that he was being suspended for his ''attempted marriage.'' Another priest in the same state was told that his marriage to a parishioner was not recognized by the Church, that he was ''living in sin'' and should divorce. A married priest in New Jersey was informed by his bishop that that he was ''doing a disservice to people'' by referring to himself as a Catholic priest.

Priesthood in crisis

Ron Ingalls, Ed Minderlein, and Terry McDonough speak of a ''crisis in priesthood'' - the shortage of priests and the sex scandal - and lay both at the door of mandatory celibacy. ''Isn't it ironic how celibacy forced on the priesthood ... has resulted in the Church's having to sell off property in order to pay for the abuse that mandatory celibacy has created?'' says Minderlein.

As the home Mass continues, Ingalls, 67, who has two daughters in college, leads a prayer for ''healing, change, and renewal'' in the aftermath of the Church scandal. His wife, Sheila, adds: ''And for the victims, that they'll find a way to trust and to love.'' The service concludes with Holy Communion.

As members of CITI, Ingalls and McDonough are listed both on the Rent a Priest Web site and in its printed version, ''God's Yellow Pages.'' There are 300 names - six in Massachusetts - available for ministerial services, plus priests from Canada and Puerto Rico.

Ingalls marries 20 to 30 couples a year. ''I tell them I'm not a licensed priest,'' he says, ''that the Church will not consider this a valid marriage.''

McDonough, whose business cards read: ''Married Catholic Priests Ministering to Neglected and Discouraged Catholics,'' tells his brides and grooms that ''God recognizes their marriage, but Cardinal Law does not.'' He calls himself Father Terry McDonough and says he had a childhood calling to the priesthood. At 13, he entered seminary. Fourteen years later, on Feb. 2, 1962, he was ordained. He was on the fast track, working his way up to base chaplain - and Air Force major - at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford. His record was spotless, his job evaluations superb. But the fast track came to a screeching halt when he turned down a transfer to Germany.

Although celibate, he had become close friends with a woman. Still, the Church was all he'd known for more than 30 years. ''I knew if I got married, I would have no profession. I had no savings.'' He knew, too, that the Church would ostracize him. ''If you married and left, the Church very actively worked against your getting a job. They sabotaged you. You are suspended, forced to leave the rectory with only your personal possessions; your salary is terminated; and you lose your pension plan, even if you have ministered 30 or 40 years.''

But the tug of the heart was stronger. He announced his plans to marry, and on Feb. 2, 1984 - exactly 22 years after his ordination - he was kicked out of the Air Force. Four months later, he and Susan Connolly were married in an Episcopalian church; their monsignor had refused to marry them. He was 48, she was 28. Today, they have a 16-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter.

''I chose not to become laicized because I'd have to say that my ordination was a mistake, and it was not a mistake. I was called to be a priest,'' he says.

McDonough adds that Cardinal Law wrote letters to the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard chiefs saying that if they accepted McDonough, the Church would never endorse another Catholic chaplain for the armed services.

Let down by the Church

After his dismissal from the Air Force, McDonough sued for reinstatement. It took five years, but he won his case. The Board for Correction of Military Records said the Air Force had acted improperly in discharging him because of ''undue influence by the Roman Catholic Church.'' In 1989, he resumed his Air Force career, but not as a chaplain. He was sent to a base in Wyoming where he served as a social action officer.

There was a shortage of priests in Cheyenne, so McDonough put out the word that he would be available to perform emergency ministry. The bishop of Cheyenne sent a letter to every priest in the diocese warning them to have nothing to do with McDonough, and the Catholic Church began excommunication procedures against McDonough and his wife, Susan, also a devout Catholic, who had attended 12 years of parochial school. Susan wrote back threatening to ''expose all the priests that I know who are married or openly gay.'' Two days later, she got a letter saying the excommunication was off, she says, ''for my family's sake.''

In 1991, McDonough, now 65, retired from the Air Force and has been working as a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford. As a Rent a Priest, McDonough does weddings, funerals, and nursing home visits, and hears confessions. He and his family attend Mass every Sunday in Duxbury.

But he remains upset over his treatment by the Church. ''I walked away with nothing, and Cardinal Law is paying pensions for guys in jail. I didn't leave the priesthood. I left a lifestyle that was physically, spiritually, and psychologically disabling for me. A lot of the other guys didn't leave, and look what's happened,'' he says, referring to the sex abuse scandal.

Still, McDonough feels change in the air. At a pub the other night, a man who heard he was married - and a priest - gave him a thumbs up and said, ''Good for you.'' More telling, the archdiocesan newspaper The Pilot recently wrote that the issue of celibacy may need to be reconsidered. ''After telling us to shut up after all these years, now they're saying the same thing. I think it's great,'' says McDonough.

''You know,'' says Susan, who is a recreation director at a nursing home, ''I think if Jesus was sitting here, he would think it was fine for me and Terry to be married, and for Terry to be a priest.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 3/21/2002.
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