|ROME, 13 SEPT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Why is it that married clergy are still allowed in the Eastern
Catholic rites while forbidden in the West? I understand the
impracticality of one's obligation to the family, but also to the
church-family. But other than that, I'm curious to know what
Tradition/canon law/teachings have to say about this matter.
R.R., Brookfield, Wisconsin
A: I would be very foolhardy to attempt to resolve the extremely complex
issue of the origin and development of priestly celibacy in a few lines,
especially when there is still much controversy among expert historians
The question, however, does afford an opportunity to clarify some
aspects of the issue that may be of interest to our readers.
Thus, with no pretensions of being exhaustive, I would first point out
that the Eastern Catholic Churches have their own legitimate traditions
which deserve equal respect with the traditions of the Roman rite.
The fact that these Churches are in full communion with the Successor of
Peter does not require that they abandon any legitimate customs so as to
adopt Roman traditions.
These traditions, with their attendant canon law, go beyond the
differences in liturgical practices and embrace such themes as Church
structure and governance, the process for selecting bishops, sacramental
practices, and the possibility of admitting married men to the
Therefore it is not a question of priests of such Churches "being
allowed" to marry as a kind of concession, but rather of the
continuation of a tradition that can boast many centuries of continued
That said, we can also consider that all Eastern Churches, Catholic and
non-Catholic, hold clerical celibacy in high esteem. All of them choose
bishops exclusively from the ranks of the celibate clergy, and while
some of them admit married men to ordination, no priest or deacon
marries or remarries once having received ordination.
Of course, having a married clergy will lead to pastoral approaches that
differ from those of the Latin Church. This should not be seen in
isolation but as being part of a wider context of living the Christian
faith built up over many generations.
I would even go further and say that it is not strictly true that
Roman-rite priests are "not allowed" to marry, if this is seen as some
form of external prohibition. Rather, the Roman tradition sees the gift
and charism of celibacy as accompanying the call to the priesthood,
though it realizes it is not an intrinsic necessity for a valid
We could venture to say that just as the whole Eastern tradition has
seen celibacy as a necessary quality for a bishop who, in a sense, is
espoused to his particular Church, the Latin tradition has developed a
vision in which this quality pertains to all priests in virtue of their
calling to serve Christ in a total way. The pastoral approaches of the
Latin tradition have developed as a consequence of this understanding.
All the same, I am loath to try to defend clerical celibacy from the
standpoint of what could be called the "practical argument" of freeing
priests from family responsibilities and even less from an economical
standpoint by saying that the Latin Church does not have the financial
and logistical structures necessary to support a married clergy.
While these factors are certainly real, the sacrifices required in
living celibacy, as well as the joys that come from it, are such that
they can only be understood theologically. Arguments based on merely
human criteria often boomerang and make the Church seem to be an
unfeeling institution that lays impossible burdens on its servants for
base pecuniary motives.
Priestly celibacy can best be understood as a logical consequence of
accepting Christ's invitation to share his mission of saving souls
through the priesthood. It is a response of total love to the invitation
of him who gave all for us and has loved us even more than we can love
* * *
Follow-up: East-West Difference Over Priestly Celibacy
After our comments regarding priestly celibacy (Sept. 13) a priest from
Australia asked that I clarify that priests or deacons can never marry
after ordination. We certainly mentioned this point in our previous
column but it is worth highlighting this important aspect.
Our correspondent wrote:
"[I]t might be helpful to correct the notion that, 'in the Eastern
Catholic Churches, priests can marry, unlike in the Roman Catholic
"In the East, married men are eligible for priesthood (there are
restrictions varying from place to place, e.g., a higher age than
celibates [e.g., 30 or 35]; consent of the wife; sometimes ordination
only after the first child is born, etc.). But in East and West,
uniformly and from the beginning, no priest can marry. A married man can
become a priest, but a priest cannot marry. A widowed priest cannot
remarry. Even if the Pope were to change the Church's discipline
regarding celibacy (out of the question), this would not affect one
Other correspondents mentioned several scientific studies defending the
historical priority of priestly celibacy, or at least permanent
continence if already married, over the practice of temporary continence
of married priests accepted in many Eastern Churches.
I am aware of these arguments, and they are very important, but I
eschewed dealing with them both because of their complexity and because
the question of the origin does not affect the fact that, today, the
Catholic Church respects the legitimacy of this tradition in those
Eastern Catholic Churches which ordain married men to the priesthood.
Another priest mentioned that, since 1998, in the Roman rite, some
permanent deacons have been permitted to remarry, a concession that
seemingly breaks the tradition that the ordained can never marry or
The principle that a married deacon cannot remarry if widowed is still
the norm in the Roman rite. However, some rare exceptions have been made
for extraordinary situations such as a widowed deacon left to raise
several young children. In such cases the permission to remarry has been
granted, taking into account the needs of the family as a whole and not
just the personal whims of the deacon.
In order to limit such situations, many bishops do not admit fathers of
young children to the diaconate. ZE05092721