Jeffrey Steenson's conversion is taking the Roman Catholic Church back to the future.
The year is 1509 and King Henry VIII of England has just married Catherine of Aragon in a union arranged with political alliance in mind. But the marriage is a total mess. In the years to come, Henry couldn't care less about alliance with Spain and he treats Catherine with disdain, flaunting relationships with other women. Over the course of the next 17 years she, in turn, commits an even greater sin by completely frustrating Henry's regal urge for a legitimate male heir.
Henry grows desperate when Pope Clement VII ignores his requests to annul a fruitless marriage.
But his requests arrive in Rome around the same time that the Spanish king, Charles V, has surrounded the city with his troops-not exactly the best time to kick a Spanish princess out of the castle in England.
And so Henry, with his allies in the English Parliament, eventually severs ties between the English Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church, putting himself in charge of annulments.
The Roman Catholic Church, in turn, excommunicates Henry and, with him, all his English subjects.
***image3***Nearly five centuries later, the same breakaway church nominally led by the Archbishop of Canterbury is undergoing an oddly familiar divorce over authority within the church. But the 21st century version of the split also revolves around the thorny topics of married priests, women priests and, just to give the storyline a modern twist, the role of gays.
The Episcopal Church-as the Church of England or Anglican Communion is known in America-has embraced women priests and even an openly gay bishop. As a result, a flight of priests, and even a couple bishops, have fled to more theologically conservative confines in Africa.
But not the Right Rev. Jeffrey Steenson. The former bishop of the Albuquerque-based Diocese of the Rio Grande, a sports-writer-turned-erudite-scholar, has taken the plunge. Last fall, Steenson resigned his post as an Episcopal bishop, converted to Roman Catholicism and is currently studying to become a full-fledged-and married-Catholic priest. These days, the esteemed bishop who once wore a golden miter and clutched a pastoral staff is starting over as a lowly priest-in-training.
In a dramatic and abrupt resignation speech to the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops in New Orleans last September, Steenson told his fellow brother and sister bishops: "My conscience is deeply troubled" and acknowledged that his "radical journey of faith" might seem "foolish," "disloyal" or even "an abandonment."
In resigning his post, Steenson made history: He's the first sitting Episcopal bishop to convert to Catholicism in more than 150 years and his decision set off a firestorm of criticism. Nationwide, there are approximately 80 ex-Episcopal priests now serving as Catholic priests and about 15 more in the pipeline. But Steenson is the only active Episcopal bishop to leave and convert. The former bishop hasn't talked publicly about the chain of events that led him to Rome.
Steenson's story-which he calls a "journey"-is not just one man's story. Rather, it reflects the story of a Catholic Church struggling with change. ***image4***Some see the church growing more dogmatic, orthodox, conservative, traditional. A few see it inching toward healthy reform. Others see it as the latest chapter in a complex theological narrative.
"I kind of feel sorry for people like Steenson," retired Episcopal priest and Santa Fe resident Marion Hammond says. "They're caught in history."
Steenson thinks he's fulfilling history. He says he's adopted a "radical solution" to the major theological problem of his life and times. And the historical irony isn't lost on the former bishop with a PhD in patristics from Oxford University. "There's something impish in me that says I get to put my thumb in Henry's eye," a smiling Steenson says, remembering an enormous portrait of Henry VIII he once encountered on a daily basis.
"The hope was always that we might reconnect and heal the breach, heal the schism," he says.
Steenson's conversion began last December in Rome when he and Michael Sheehan, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, walked through the ornate entrance to a side chapel at Santa Maria Maggorie, Rome's second-most-famous basilica.
Steenson recalls it was the day before the start of advent, the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. The ceremony was a quiet, low key affair, filled with prayer and vows.
The former archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, presided over the ceremony in his capacity as archpriest of the basilica. Steenson credits Law with personally helping him begin his journey back to the Catholic faith, a prospect he says he'd been talking about since the early 1990s. He doesn't mention Law's well-documented history of covering up incidents of pedophile priests during his tenure in Boston. "It just seemed so natural to ask him to receive me," Steenson says, using Catholic jargon to describe his formal conversion.
When it was over, shortly after 9 am, Steenson was confirmed a Catholic and given his first communion.
The ceremony was a major turning point in Steenson's life. And quite enjoyable. "It was just wonderful. Cool. Awesome!" he gushes. "I'm talking like a teenage girl now!"
Later that same day, Sheehan, Steenson, his wife Debbie and Monsignor Doug Raun of Rio Rancho's St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and two New Mexicans studying for the priesthood in Rome attended mass at St. Peter's Basilica, at the chapel nearest to the spot St. Peter is believed to be buried.
"That was the most moving thing that we did together," Sheehan recalls in an interview in his Albuquerque office. Two days later, Sheehan spoke alone with Pope Benedict XVI following the weekly papal audience at the Vatican.
"I told the pope, I said, 'Holy Father, the reason I'm here is to be the sponsoring bishop for an Episcopal bishop who became a Catholic here just a couple of days ago,'" the archbishop recounts. "And I said, 'The reason Jeffrey Steenson wants to be a Catholic is that he wants to be united to you, he wants to follow you, the successor of Peter.'"
The archbishop describes the pope breaking into a big grin, replying, 'Well, thank you archbishop, and I think there maybe are others that are coming into the church, too.'" Sheehan's German accent is convincing.
Born into an Episcopal family, Steenson entered the Episcopal priesthood and served as a parish priest in Philadelphia and Ft. Worth, Texas, before moving to Albuquerque in 2000. He was elected bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande in October 2004 and served in that capacity for nearly three years. He pins his breaking point with the Episcopal Church to a single decision at a gathering of the bishops a year ago last March.
"The bishops had taken a vote and basically declared that the essence of the Episcopal Church is that it's a purely democratic institution." He calls the vote "the thing that broke my back as an Episcopalian."
A: "Democracies are great in the civil world, but I don't think they work in the church."
Unlike the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion offers its national churches a measure of autonomy, and the American church has taken full advantage of it. Many think it's been put to good use. Not Steenson. He thinks these differences with the Vatican are harming the cause of getting all Christians to eventually pray from the same prayer book.
For example, regarding the Episcopal Church's embrace of ordained women priests, Steenson laments that "the Episcopal Church has gone too far in a direction that the Catholic Church will never be able to accept."
But Steenson also was troubled by much earthier, non-theological concerns playing out in the Episcopal split, such as who keeps a church's property when an American church bolts to another diocese, say, in Uganda?
"I believe that property, the particular property assets of the Episcopal Church, belong to the denomination and not to the congregation," Steenson states. "[But] I felt like I was going to be put in a place where as bishop I would have to litigate against congregations and my conscience would not allow me to go there. I mean, to take a church matter into a civil court? I just felt unable to do it."
Steenson says he doesn't want honest differences between Episcopalians who've stayed or left to morph into hardened positions. "I just want to keep enough space and good will so that maybe we can reason together down the road."
But a moment later, Steenson criticizes reformist notions on women and homosexuality with a hard nod to the wisdom of tradition. "I just don't think that our generation, our culture, our time is so omniscient that it can sort of cavalierly overturn all these generations and centuries of moral understanding," he says.
Married Catholic priests, on the other hand, is a notion Steenson believes people can accept.
It's Holy Thursday, three days before Easter, and Steenson is at a rehearsal for the Mass of the Lord's Supper in a mostly empty St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Rio Rancho. It's shortly after 5 pm and Monsignor Raun stands just off the altar. "How should we do this?" he asks himself.
As the alter servers, priests and others practice how to line up properly and where they need to go during the service, Steenson seems a little confused about where to kneel and when to bow. He's a "priest in training" as the monsignor puts in several times.
Jeff Whorton is a fellow neophyte and ex-Episcopal priest also studying right now for the Catholic priesthood.
He's scheduled to finish in May, seven months before Steenson. Whorton,***image8*** who stands next to Steenson in the procession, wears fatigues and clunky black boots befitting his National Guard status. The married father of five looks much younger than his 39 years.
Before agreeing to an interview, Whorton plays down his detailed knowledge of the Catholic Church's teaching and structure just after a midday service on Good Friday. "I'm a dumb knuckle dragger," he jokes, pointing out that he's a simple paratrooper and soon-to-be military chaplain.
Steenson and Whorton are practically joined at the hip, but unlike Steenson, Whorton's conversion had two additional stops. Raised a Methodist in El Paso, he later took classes at a Baptist seminary in San Antonio before heeding a call, he says, to become an Episcopal priest.
Barely a few years later, he felt a calling to be a Catholic priest. He says an Anglican book entitled Documents Illustrating Papal Authority caused a theological lightbulb to turn on: "I realized that the fullness of the Christian faith is to be found in this ancient venerable expression of the faith in the Catholic Church."
Steenson, father of three adult children, and Whorton will soon stand out as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe's only married priests.
Whorton says his wife Susan, a stay-at-home mom, is completely supportive of the move. It's his 6-year-old son who gave him a scare. "He said, 'Dad, when I grow up I want to be a priest.' And it struck me that if he decided to be a priest, I would never have grandchildren from him and he would be bound by the church's rule, the canonical rule. It sort of took my breath away at first," he says.
In spite of early concerns over how parishioners would react to him and his wife, Whorton persevered, despite recognizing that his status sets him apart.
"I will always have a divided heart in many ways because of my devotion to my wife and family," he concedes. Whorton expresses admiration for the celibate priest who is a "living portrait of Christ giving himself completely for his bride, the church" and says: "In some ways, I feel like I'm less of a priest, not being celibate myself."
Yet despite the fact that he is married and soon to be a Catholic priest, Whorton is flatly opposed to the option of marriage for other Roman Catholic priests. "No, not at this time," he says.
Steenson's view is different, if only slightly.
About priestly celibacy, he says "I support and honor it," but also acknowledges his hope "that [it] would be reviewed in the future. I think it would be a good thing for a priest to be married."
This is Steenson the reformer. He even thinks that the trickle of married Episcopal priests could help bring that day sooner. But he adds a caveat: "I certainly don't intend to advocate for it." This is Steenson the institutional man. "I just want my own marriage to be a good witness for the Catholic faithful," he says.
It's 8 am on Palm Sunday at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Albuquerque. It's also Steenson's wedding anniversary, but he doesn't work here anymore. This used to be his cathedral, where he'd take the pulpit on Sundays and preach to the Episcopal faithful.
On this Sunday, it's Fr. Mark Goodman in red vestments in front of the altar. As a sparse, mostly Anglo, mostly gray-haired crowd listens, a trio of speakers read the passion, the account of Jesus' final days on earth. The narrator is Timmy Case, a blond woman and Episcopal priest who also wears red vestments. Later, in his sermon, Fr. Goodman draws attention to the series of bad choices made by Jesus' followers and persecutors-Judas, Peter and the Roman authorities. "Just like the people in this story today, we are all human beings."
Priests who are married, and therefore not celibate, are as human as humans can be.
Sheehan acknowledges the prospect of married priests may be jarring to some. "People seem surprised. Isn't this strange? A married man becoming a Catholic priest?" he asks rhetorically.
But he quickly points out that the so-called "Pastoral Provision" allowing for married Episcopal priests to keep their wives as Catholic priests was first invoked in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. Sheehan adds that the very first priest he ever ordained years ago was a married ex-Episcopal priest.
Some see a very practical problem with the prospect of an optional married priesthood.
"How can we afford it?" Fr. Joel Garner, pastor of Albuquerque's Holy Rosary Catholic Church, asks. He notes that most priests' salaries in New Mexico tend to hover around $30,000 per year. And while he's sympathetic toward the would-be reform, he predicts married priests with children would need higher salaries.
Fr. Donald Cozzens is a Catholic priest ordained in 1966 who has written extensively about the priesthood. He's also an opponent of mandatory priestly celibacy and he thinks the arrival of Steenson is likely to cause some confusion among the rank-in-file.
"I think many diocesan priests and laity are probably scratching their heads in a certain wonderment and perplexion," he says in an interview.
Hammond, the retired Episcopal priest, goes further. "I think it's unfair," he says firmly. "I think it would bother the other [Catholic] clergy. Many must be saying, 'I've lived my whole life as a celibate and all of the sudden you say it's not necessary?'"
For many traditionalists, the only thing more jarring than the acceptance of married Catholic priests is the role of women and gays in the Church.
When it comes to women, Steenson seems to be of two minds, and his record and his words on the subject are a mixed bag. While Episcopal Church policy would have allowed him to ordain women as priests, Steenson never did so. Yet he praises the women priests he encountered over the years. "I don't want to ever denigrate the ministry of the women priests. It was a privilege to serve with them," he says.
But the fight over women's ordination, Steenson says, has effectively estranged the two churches.
While he acknowledges Pope John Paul II's teaching that only men can be priests because of Jesus' "free and sovereign decision" to choose only male apostles, he's open to reform. "I don't theoretically close the door on the possibility of women priests in the Catholic Church," he says.
Even Episcopal Church reformers like Hammond understand Steenson's reticence.
"I had the same trouble everybody else had," Hammond says. "My subconscious had a hard time accepting a woman behind the altarâ€¦but after a while, as I began to get to know women priests, I began to think this is alright."
Eugene Kennedy, a former Catholic priest and professor emeritus in Loyola University's psychology department, notes that the Episcopal Church was the first Christian denomination to elect women as bishops. "But that wasn't because they were advanced theologically," he says. "It was because it was a porous structure."
Indeed, the autonomy the Anglican Communion has bestowed on its national churches, which has led to its ordination of women and open acceptance of gay priests, is one of the reasons Hammond says he is "proud" of the Episcopal Church.
For Steenson, the 2003 election of V Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire-the only openly gay, non-celibate bishop ever elected in the church-also was a major flashpoint. He acknowledges that it was "a contributing issue," but not the main one, as to why he left.
Nonetheless, reform-minded Catholics are concerned about their church becoming a haven for conservative converts.
"I think it's a very sad testimonial that our church is seen as a haven for bigotry," Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, a national gay Catholic advocacy organization, says. "These people don't want to minister in an Episcopal church that recognizes the giftedness and equality of gay men, or gay people, so they flee to the Roman Catholic Church. I think it's heartbreaking."
Duddy-Burke lives in Dover, Mass., with the woman she's been committed to for nearly 40 years.
Duddy-Burke articulates a broader criticism of the Catholic Church, singling out Pope Benedict XVI, a stalwart defender of orthodoxy.
"He says that gay couples are a threat to world peace," she says, closely paraphrasing the pope's remarks at World Peace Day in January. "It's very extreme."
Yet, Duddy-Burke is more inclined to think that such rhetoric is a product of ignorance, not hate. "I find official church teaching misguided and based on a tremendous misunderstanding of what it means to be lesbian or gay. Too often they equate being gay with sex and nothing more and ***image14***don't seem to understand the totality of sexual orientation," she says. Duddy-Berke believes her sexual orientation is a blessing. She thinks the church can and should change its teaching on sexuality.
But Fr. Cozzens, also a religious studies professor at John Carroll University, believes that the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality is actually a selling point for many converts.
"The church says, 'God bless you if you happen to be gay or lesbian, but you are called to live a celibate life. You are not really entitled to fall in love and have any real ongoing intimacy with a partner," Cozzens says. "I think they"-meaning men like Steenson and Whorton-"feel it's not an easy thing to hear, but it's true."
On the subject of homosexuality, Steenson's mind appears made up. And quick. "I don't think I've spent more than five minutes agonizing over the question of homosexuality," he says, noting that it's a theological, not a personal, issue: "The Catholic Church can't change its teaching on the purpose of human sexuality because it's part of the divine law."
On the other hand: "I don't take a fundamentalist approach to this, which would say, 'Drive them out, hunt them down and persecute them and purify the church,'" he says. "I'm not comfortable with that approach at all."
The rainbow flag that flies at St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Santa Fe is visible from St. Francis Drive and leaves no question as to the church's position.
"We're supportive of Gene Robinson and we support women clergy," Fr. Richard Murphy says, speaking on behalf of what he describes as a "pretty much liberal, progressive faith community."
As it happens, Fr. Murphy also is a convert-an Irish Catholic turned Episcopalian after he grew disenchanted with Catholic teaching on celibacy, divorce, birth control and the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Fr. Murphy calls the possible breakup of the Anglican Communion "the million dollar question," but he says he's optimistic it can withstand a total split over the theology of sexuality and gender. And, despite his theological differences with Steenson, he considers him a friend.
He may be "very conservative," Murphy says, but he's also a brilliant church historian and will be an asset to the Catholic Church. "No doubt about it," he says.
But that doesn't keep Fr. Murphy from zeroing in on the overarching point of departure that has led Steenson and so many others into the Catholic fold.
"There's a movement within the Anglican Communion for more centralized authority for the Archbishop of Canterbury. But I think that goes against the grain of who we are," he says. "I'm not looking for a pope."
Steenson is. And Kennedy thinks he knows why.
"The authority of the Catholic Church looks intact to Episcopalians. They envy it. A lot of people become Catholics for that reason, for the certainty that it gives them in an age of uncertainty." A clear, strong hierarchy, he argues, will do that.
Kennedy posits that hierarchies have been maintained primarily by controlling information. But times have changed, he says. "Information used to be considered a kind of stock good, now it's a flow good. [The Catholic Church] put it up on a high shelf and said the only people who had access to this information are the top peopleâ€¦but information wants to be diffused. It can't be kept up on the top shelf anymore."
Kennedy believes the leadership of the Catholic Church is postponing the***image17*** collapse of hierarchy. Plus, he says it was never meant to be that way in the first place. "Christ did not found a hierarchical church," he says. "That was an accident of history."
Meanwhile, the debate over the future of the Catholic priesthood-and especially the role of women and gays-will continue. Even if the Vatican disapproves.
"Right now, there is a kind of attempt to put a moratorium on this kind of discussion," Fr. Garner of Albuquerque says. "The brakes are being put on it, clearly from the highest level. But you can't keep people from talking and discussing," he says. "You just can't."
Jeffrey Steenson's conversion is taking the Roman Catholic Church back to the future.