Francis MacNutt's colorful life, controversial marriage and (now) death gets sparse coverage

By Julia Duin
Get Religion
February 04, 2020

A few weeks ago, a giant in the Catholic and charismatic Christian world died quietly in Florida at the age of 94. Francis MacNutt was a man who in his time was as radical as another Francis, the current pope, is today.

If you wish to understand the roots of the Catholic charismatic movement worldwide — and indeed the only thing keeping Latin America from going majority Protestant — you need to know the story of this former priest.

Back in the 1970s, few journalists understood how key this man was in getting the movement accepted by the Catholic rank and file. Thus, his life and work received very little mainstream press coverage.

So let’s move to the present.

MacNutt, whose memorial service is February 9 at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, will probably not get significant honor from his fellow Catholics because, as a priest, he got married on February 9, 1980.

Yep, that memorial rite is set for 40 years to the day of his marriage.

What are the odds that this milestone in Catholic culture receives very little attention?

Since coverage of this man’s life is so sparse, I thought I’d fill in a few holes in explaining what a trendsetter he was.

Fortunately I have a lot of original articles and documents from that time period (there are benefits to having covered this beat for 40+ years), plus I interviewed him for a Nov. 28, 1987, Houston Chronicle piece. (A Chronicle photo of the MacNutt family is atop this post. ) MacNutt’s name was not brought up during the recent debate among Catholics about allowing married priests in the far reaches of the Amazon (tmatt covered this here), but his story is quite relevant to it.

Back in the day, MacNutt may have been the leading figure in the Catholic charismatic renewal, which kicked off in 1967. He was certainly considered the top preacher in the movement. I remember him back in the 1970s; his 6-foot, 4-inch frame clothed in a long, white Dominican habit, at huge Pentecostal Catholic rallies at the University of Notre Dame; at the Giants stadium in New Jersey and at the historic 1977 Conference on Charismatic Renewal in the Christian Churches in Kansas City.

But few people knew that, in 1975 at the World Conference on the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (at a time when the renewal was at white heat in all denominations), MacNutt met a psychotherapist 23 years younger than him: Judith Sewell. The two kept on encountering each other at various events and by 1979, they knew they wished to marry. If you think married Catholic priests are something of a unicorn today, they were even more so back then. And especially this priest, who was so at the center of the church; who headed up the Catholic Homiletic Society, founded its journal, Preaching, and helped found the Association of Christian Therapists.

MacNutt knew that, as a married man, he’d be forbidden to celebrate the sacraments ever again. But when he got word that he would be excommunicated and not even able to receive the sacraments as a lay person, he flew to Chicago to plead his case to the provincial leader of the Dominican order. He was hoping he could be laicized; that is, granted release from his priestly vows and allowed to revert to being a lay person. He was 54 at this point; he figured he’d given his best years to the Catholic Church and now he wanted to get married.

Unfortunately, his timing was off. Pope John Paul II had just been installed and had shut the door on priestly dispensations worldwide. And so Francis and Judith MacNutt got married in a United Methodist Church in Clearwater at a small ceremony attended by only a few friends.

(Before I go on, I wish to credit an article in the Nov. 13, 1993, issue of Charisma for many of these details. The author was Jeanne Pugh, longtime religion editor for the St. Petersburg Times which, back in the day, constantly took first place for its huge religion section at annual conferences of religion reporters.)

I also still have a copy of a terse statement from the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal that ran in the April 1980 issue of New Covenant magazine, which was the voice of the renewal. The statement said in part:

“Francis’s decision to leave the priesthood without laicization and to marry saddens us greatly. We know that his action is objectively, seriously wrong and we believe that for him it is a tremendous personal mistake…We strongly believe in the principles of obedience in the) Catholic Church and we cannot support what Francis has done …

But MacNutt never looked back. His wife quickly gave birth to a daughter, then a son. They relocated from Clearwater to Jacksonville at the invitation of then-Diocese of Florida Bishop Frank Cerveny to operate an ecumenical healing center in conjunction with the diocese. When MacNutt spoke with Pugh, he was even more adamant that celibacy should not be a requirement for priests and that clergy who ask to leave in order to marry shouldn’t be punished by the church.

Years later, I did a piece for the Washington Times on men like MacNutt who left the priesthood and one of the most common questions from these ex-priests was why they were excommunicated — while sexually abusive priests were not. Even former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked following revelations of his sexual abuse of seminarians and under-age boys, was not excommunicated.

It’s really too bad that no one has done a retrospective on MacNutt, whose ministry — and speaking invites — actually grew after his marriage. Charisma did an obituary, but there isn’t much else.

I have a copy of a March 21, 1987, article in the Florida Times-Herald that talks about his burgeoning Christian Healing Ministries organization and how, for many years, charismatic and evangelical Episcopalians adopted him as one of their own. There were some great quotes about healing in there: “You can’t wait until you feel ready,” MacNutt had said about starting such a ministry. “You will never act.”

In 1993, he did get a dispensation from the Catholic Church and a separate wedding ceremony performed by the bishop of the (Catholic) Diocese of St. Augustine. Throughout the years, I would hear occasional reports of his healing center in Jacksonville (see this 2004 Charisma piece by Lee Grady) and in 2008, I met him for the first time in person at a conference at Regent University in Virginia Beach. Now well into his 80s, he was confined to a wheelchair and in a lot of physical discomfort. Nevertheless, he graciously agreed to endorse, for the back cover, one of my books on the charismatic movement (in which he briefly appeared).

MacNutt will be known for his work in healing but he was even more of a pioneer as a married priest. Hitherto, people could dismiss clergy who left to marry as outliers but MacNutt was the ultimate insider.

“I think celibacy is good,” he told me, “but not the connection of that with the priesthood. The question is: Why can’t married people be ordained? I couldn’t see the point of mandatory celibacy in the church.”

Come to think of it, I can’t be too hard on journalists for not covering this story, when so few were around in the late 1970s and 1980s when MacNutt was so famous. It’s for events like this that years on the beat really kick in to cover folks who, in their day, were just as impressive if not more so, than those of us who’ve outlived them.



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