I am an Eastern Rite Catholic priest of the Byzantine Rite of the Ruthenian jurisdiction. While I myself am a celibate priest, I come from a long line of married Byzantine Catholic priests on both sides of my family. It is with great interest that I am following the apprehension among many of my Latin Rite brethren that a potential outcome of the upcoming Amazon Synod is the restoration of married priesthood in the Latin Rite of the Church, a practice that also existed in the Latin Rite during the first millennium of the Church.
It is the jurisdiction of each particular Church, East and West, to determine for itself whether or not the discipline of mandatory celibacy, or an adaptation of this discipline, ought to be the required norm for all men ordained to the priesthood. Since the Latin Rite Church has maintained the custom of mandatory celibacy for priests for over a thousand years, any hint at change in this regard does indeed warrant the utmost prudence, honest scholarship, and wise discernment.
For the sake of clear discernment on this issue it is critical to avoid erroneous foundations upon which arguments for mandatory priestly celibacy are often founded. For a further treatment of these arguments I would also refer the reader to Dr. Anthony Dragani’s essay titled “Is Mandatory Clerical Celibacy an Apostolic Tradition?”
The ontologizing of celibacy and priesthood
What the Church really seeks to preserve in the ordained ministry is the eschatological dimension of our Faith—our ultimate destiny as the mystical bride united eternally with the Bridegroom Christ at the Wedding Feat of the Lamb in Heaven. The discipline of celibacy and total continence is one way to preserve and give witness to that eschatological dimension, but it is not the only way. Historically and theologically, priestly celibacy—while a worthy and powerful witness to the Eschaton—is neither necessary nor indispensable to the priesthood itself.
The tradition of the Eastern Churches reminds us that the mutually exclusive dichotomy is not between marriage and priesthood but between marriage and monasticism. Celibacy is intrinsic to the very character of monasticism but not to the sacramental priesthood itself. Yet even here, as Saint John Paul II articulated so well in his Theology of the Body, celibacy and marriage interpenetrate and subsist in each other (cf. TOB 78). They are essentially two sides of the same coin to love and live in the Spousal Mystery.
Where there is a tradition of married priests in the Eastern Churches there are ancient rules concerning continence between a priest and his wife in regard to the celebration of the Eucharist. In this way the married priest (in cooperation with his wife) can give witness to the inherent eschatological dimension of the priesthood. The Eastern tradition also reminds us that it is actually the monastic who is most perfectly configured to the person of Christ and not the priest.
Is Celibate priesthood is holier and superior to married priesthood?
Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 teaches us that celibacy (or continence) is ‘superior’ to marriage only in the sense that Heaven is superior to life on earth. Celibacy makes already present on earth what marriage only anticipates—the Eschaton and our being the one bride of the Bridegroom Christ. The celibate priesthood in and of itself is not inherently holier than the married priesthood.
There is also a danger that this erroneous position has a certain rootedness in Manicheanism and related heresies in which physical matter, the human body, and related things (such as sexuality), are disconnected from any spiritual value and are therefore of a more banal character. The priest who abstains from sexual relations is not more ‘pure’ than the priest or layperson who engages in the one flesh union of Sacramental marriage.
The holy and profoundly self-donative lives of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox married priests, particularly during the Communist persecution in Eastern Europe, certainly demonstrates that a married priest is not inherently less holy than a celibate priest. Many of these married priests shed their own blood in faithfulness to Christ and His Church.
How can a priest have two wives—the Church and a woman?
A married priest does not have two wives anymore than a married lay couple has two spouses because they too must have Christ the Bridegroom as their first “spouse”. For the married priest it is a matter of sharing in two sacraments of marriage and ordination, of being “espoused” on the sacramental level and on the mystical level.
Part of a ‘progressive’ agenda, along with women’s ordination
Rightfully so, there is always a hearkening back to the Eastern Churches for any consideration of theological developments in the Latin Rite Church. However, the venerable tradition of married priests in the Eastern Churches should not be used as a proof text to justify a married priesthood that is lumped together with other items of a so-called progressive agenda that includes women’s ordination, among other things. It is not enough just to say, “Well look at the Eastern Churches. They have married priests so why can’t the Latin Rite Church?”
The unbroken tradition of married priests in the Eastern Churches has to be seen in the context of the nature and character of Eastern Churches and even in the cultures in which these Churches have existed. There was and is a cultural support for married priests both within and outside of the Eastern Churches. Most of the women who would become the wives of an Eastern priest came from priestly families themselves. Married priesthood cannot just be a matter of a woman (particularly a career woman) being married to a man who just happens to be a priest, as though he has his career and she has hers.
The ecclesial structure of Eastern Churches is usually much more local than in the Latin Rite Church and deals with small closely knit communities. In these communities the wife of the priest even has titles that imply that she is indeed the spiritual mother of the community.
Can a married priest be present both to his parish and to his own family?
While there will be times when the wife and children must know that “Daddy” has to choose his priestly duties first and foremost, in practice the married priest can be even more present to his wife and children than most lay fathers who spend a large part (maybe even the best part) of the day at work away from home and family. However, for the children of a married priest to see their father chooses first his obligations to God and service to others is a valuable and formative lesson.
Except when running errands, sick-calls, and so forth, the married priest is basically a “stay at home Dad.” Rectory life with the priest family is something akin to today’s homeschooling families. Furthermore, “Dad” can always take Mom and/or children along with him to some of “Dad’s” duties—a great way to foster vocations from the priest’s own family! In Eastern Christian parishes the wife and children often become in-house ‘staff,’ and are not a distraction to their priest-father’s ministry but rather share in his ministry and can act as a support system.
Having an all-celibate clergy does not guarantee that pastors will be present to their people either. Sufficient support systems for the celibate clergy is an area that needs attention in the Church today. Lacking sufficient support systems, celibate clergy can themselves often be less present to their parishes as they involve themselves in all manner of distractions, hobbies, trips, or even addictions in attempts to cope with loneliness, lack of intimacy, stress, or futility.
Can the parish afford to support a married priest and his family?
There are certainly financial challenges for the family of a married priest. Yet, the married priesthood has survived for 2,000 years. God will provide and bless that which is done according to his will and for his honor and glory.
While celibacy in and of itself is not the root of the clergy sex scandal, nonetheless an all-celibate clergy has indeed exacted its own financial strain upon the Church through millions of dollars in lawsuits, and rehabilitation programs.
Where should the Church, East and West, go?
In no way is this essay intended to convince the Latin Rite Church that it should have married clergy. Rather, I seek to be of assistance to my Latin Rite brethren in hopes that their discernment on the topic of married clergy for their own Church will be fully in accord with the will of God. Historically, the Church has in fact modified its discipline of mandatory celibacy such as the ordination and acceptance of former Anglican or Protestant clerics as Catholic priests. These men were not required to break up their marriages or to stop having marital relations with their wives as a requirement for the Catholic priesthood.
Priestly marriage and priestly celibacy are not callings that automatically offer solutions to the challenges clergy face today. The focus ought to be on how to form men to see their priesthood and their authentic manhood and fatherhood as defining each other.
It is providential that the very Churches that have had a married priesthood are the very Churches that gave the Church celibacy. Monasticism, with its inherent celibate character, grew up in the Eastern Churches of the Egyptian deserts. In addition to the rediscovery of the mystical dimension of manhood, fatherhood, celibacy, and priesthood there will have to be the rediscovery in priestly formation of the ascetical disciplines of monasticism. As St. John Paul II said in his Apostolic letter Orientale Lumen: “Monasticism is the reference point for all of the baptized.” This means dying to self and dying to the tyranny of our fallen passion and living instead for Jesus Christ—whether we are married or celibate, male or female, adult or child.
The homes from which vocations spring will have to rediscover the spirituality of the Domestic Church and raise children on a sacramental ethos of gift, wonderment, and gratitude. The home is where the ethos and skills necessary for the vocations of marriage and religious life are learned first and best.
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