East-West Difference Over Priestly Celibacy

Author: Father Edward McNamara


East-West Difference Over Priestly Celibacy

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 and theologians.

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 priesthood.

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 practice.

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 ordination.

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 ourselves. ZE05091322

* * *

Follow-up: East-West Difference Over Priestly Celibacy [09-27-2005]

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 Church.'

"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 priest."

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 remarry.

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

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field