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Former Episcopal priest may be first divorced Catholic priest.

MOBILE, Ala. - There was a time when the idea of married priests was beyond the wildest dreams of most Roman Catholics. But now, 14 years after the church began accepting married Episcopal clerics into its priestly ranks, another unprecedented event is taking place.

A Catholic priest is getting a divorce.

Fr. William Bry Shields, a former Episcopal priest now serving as principal of McGill-Toolen High School in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile, will soon be divorced from his wife of 18 years.

When a Mobile judge approves the out-of-court settlement the couple reached on May 10, Shields will become the first active Roman Catholic priest in America to be divorced.

Shields, 43, married Ruth Ann Shields, an obstetrician and gynecologist, in 1977. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1984. Ruth Ann Shields filed for divorce 10 months ago, citing incompatibility. The couple has five children, including twin girls born in 1986.

Neither William Bry Shields nor officials of the Mobile archdiocese would comment on the matter and few details of the settlement are known. But according to the priest's attorney, Joe Sullivan, Ruth Ann Shields will maintain custody of the children. The church would not be responsible for child support or alimony payments, he said.

The Shields' divorce, though an isolated incident. promises to fuel debate among Catholics over the already controversial issue of married priests - especially the question of whether the church should allow all of its priests to be married.

"Many people who advocate optional celibacy ... propose (a married priesthood) as something that's going to solve the problems of the priesthood," said Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism and became a priest. Neuhaus, who is a proponent of mandatory celibacy, is unmarried.

"I think an instance like (the Shields' divorce) is a sobering and probably healthy reminder that marriage is seldom an unqualified solution to problems, and it brings with it extraordinarily powerful and difficult problems of its own," he said.

William Bry Shields was ordained a Catholic priest in 1984 under a special "pastoral provision" approved in 1981 by the Vatican that allows married Episcopal priests to join the Catholic clergy. In the past 10 years about 60 married Episcopal priests, many of whom were disenchanted with their church's liberal positions on the ordination of women, use of gender-neutral language in liturgies, and the practice of some Episcopal clerics to bless same-sex unions, have become Catholic priests.

Fr. James Parker of Charleston, S.C., was the first married Episcopal priest to join the Catholic priesthood in the United States. He now supervises the program for accepting Episcopal clergy into the church, guided by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Parker says he is aware of no other active priest who has been divorced.

Although the church usually accepts the civil aspects of divorce rulings, in Catholic belief it is not possible to end a marriage because of the biblical injunction, "What God has joined together, let no one separate."

How great an impact will the Shields' divorce have on the church? According to Parker and other observers, it is t soon to say.

Already a controversy is brewing. Opponents of a married priesthood cite the potential for divorce as one more reason priests should not he married, while supporters of married clergy insist that divorce should not count against opening the entire priesthood to marriage.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien, a liberal Catholic theologian who holds the Crowley-O'Brien-Walter chair in theology at the University of Notre Dame, said he worries about a conservative backlash against a married priesthood sparked by the divorce question.

Such a backlash, he said, will only delay the inevitable.

"We're talking about a question that is going to be a significant question for the church of the 21st century, because we are going to have a married clergy, and those clergy - both women and men - are going to get divorced," McBrien said.

Fr. Richard McCormick, professor of Christian ethics at Notre Dame, called it "inappropriate" to use divorce as a reason to oppose a married priesthood.

"The underlying supposition is that priests are on a pedestal," he said. "But they are human beings and subject to human disappointments and weaknesses, too."

Parker said the church has no guidelines addressing clergy divorce. It remains unclear whether William Bry Shields' divorce will have any effect on his relationship to the church.

One thing is clear: William Bry Shields could not remarry and remain an active priest.

"The sacramental bond (of marriage) cannot be broken by a court of law," said Fr. Christopher Phillips, a married former Episcopal priest who is pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio, Texas.

"It's out of practical consideration to other priests," Phillips said, explaining why William Bry Shields would not be allowed to marry again. "It's our accepting the idea of celibacy as being an integral part of the priesthood."

Some of the most forceful criticisms of the Vatican's "pastoral provision" for Episcopal priests have come from liberals who claim it gives former Episcopal priests favored status over other priests. The Shields' divorce could rekindle that debate.

"I totally resent the fact that the church is being so unjust, that they're ordaining married Protestant ministers and they're completely ignoring their own," said Louise Haggett of Framingham, Mass., founder of Celibacy Is the Issue, a group that promotes optional celibacy for priests.

But McBrien, who voices similar criticisms of the measure, said he hopes the Shields' divorce does not stir too much discussion.

"I believe in a married clergy," said McBrien, "but if I started talking about divorced clergy, I mean, people would jump all over you.
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Title Annotation:Fr. William Bry Shield
Author:Holmes, Parker; Spolin, Gustav
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 2, 1995
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