One summer my husband, John, an Eastern Orthodox priest, worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital. The nuns invited him to dine free in the hospital cafeteria. One day they told him he could bring me along for a meal, under one conditionthat he not tell anyone that I was his wife.
Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son
We snuck into the cafeteria together like a couple of stowaways. I ate my tuna sandwich and drank my soda uneasily, certain the nuns could spot the scarlet PW on my forehead. But history, at least, is on my side. Eastern Christians have retained the earlier tradition of allowing married men to be ordained priests, although our bishops do come from the ranks of celibate monk-priests.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, clerical celibacy has been debated since at least the fourth century. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII enforced clerical celibacy in an effort to end simony (the sale of church offices). During the next century, the first and second Lateran Councils made the policy more clear and universal. Many Catholic theologians say this is primarily a matter of discipline, not doctrine. From this soil, however, a great forest of piety has grown up, so that some Catholics still view a married priest as no priest at all.
Enter Peter Manseau's memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, A Nun, and Their Son. It tells the story of his father Bill and mother Mary Doherty. Both loved the church and desired to serve. When an older priest recognized a vocation in him, Bill sublimated his desire to marry and have children to his greater desire for priestly ministry.
Mary Doherty's relationship with the church was mixed. She found solace and comfort in the services, but she suffered abuse at the hands of her parish priest, Fr. Gerard Creighton, who was a very sick man (imagine a milder version of the sociopath in The Devil the White City). To this end, Vows contains a nauseating scene that involves unwarranted dental extractions and priestly groping. It's the stuff that nightmares are made of, but Mary never stopped loving her church.
Bill and Mary met years later while serving in a struggling Boston neighborhood. Bill began to discern a call to be a married priest and courted Mary, who left the convent. The couple marriedand waited for several decades for ecclesiastical affirmation that never came.
Meanwhile the clergy sex scandals had broken on the evening news. Mary and Bill watched with horror and tears. In one of the book's most gripping scenes, Mary tracks down the graying Fr. Creighton and asks him why.
Manseau's own journey has led him full circle to a Trappist monastery, where he contemplates taking his own vows. His deeply joyful experience there offers a nice counterbalance to his parents' more negative experiences at the seminary and convent. "It's quite a life," a priest at the monastery tells him, "Sweet joy, it really is."
This book is a great read, but from an Eastern Orthodox perspective it has some notable omissions. Bill and Mary are struggling toward a marriage loosely resembling the historical situation the East has retained, which is part of why I had hoped for a reference to Eastern Orthodoxy or Byzantine Catholicism (a rite under the Pope which allows for married clergy). Our context requires a commitment to lifelong marriage or celibacy before ordination. Both are considered paths to holiness.
Manseau also occasionally lacks nuance. His barbs against the Roman Catholic Church sometimes dug into my enjoyment of the narrative. Don't expect an objective account, although perhaps it is unrealistic to hope for one when a young man pens the story of his parentsespecially the heartbreaking story of the abuse his mother endured. How could he not be angry?
I would recommend Vows to anyone who wants to better understand the tensions that shaped the Roman Catholic Church of the past century, and the recent clergy sex scandals in particular. Recovery groups say that we are as sick as our secrets. Perhaps Vows, in the sharing of many secrets, has the potential to bring about healing.
Jenny Schroedel, a monthly columnist forBoundlesswebzine, lives and writes in Chicago.
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Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Manseau wrote about losing faith for The New York Times Magazine.
Terry Gross interviewed Manseau about the book on NPR's Fresh Air.
The Boston Globe had an extended review.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Coming to a Bookstore Near You | Marsden and Hart, Noll and Stout, and more (Jan. 10, 2006)
Ring Out the Old Year | Some highly subjective awards for 2005. (Jan. 4, 2006)
Not Just Looking | Books for the eye. (Dec. 27, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2005 | A charming bedside miscellany, a new novel by P. D. James, and much more. (Dec. 20, 2005)
How to Survive a Bookalanche | Some more keepers from 2005. (Dec. 13, 2005)
'Tis the Season for Books (And Lists of Books) | Part one of our 2005 roundup. (Dec. 6, 2005)
Taizé in the Fall | A parable of community. (Nov. 29, 2005)
'Have Mercy on Me, O God' | A report from AAR/SBL. (Nov. 22, 2005)
The Shrine Next Door | A superb study of Chinese popular religion helps to set the context for the appeal of Christianity in China today. (Nov. 8, 2005)
Dissecting Divorce | A new book by Elizabeth Marquardt offers a child's-eye-view of divorce. (Oct. 25, 2005)
Heavenly Real Estate | A geography of art in New York at the midpoint of the 20th century. (Oct. 18, 2005)
Narnia Etc. | A chronicle of reading. (Oct. 11, 2005)
How Wide the Divide? | A proposal for compromise between "value evangelicals" and "legal secularists" on church-state issues. (Sept. 13, 2005)