Married Priests

Are priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches permitted to marry?

No, priests are not permitted to get married. But married men may be ordained as priests. There’s a big difference.

In all but two of the Eastern Catholic Churches, married men may be ordained to the priesthood.

I understand that in Eastern Churches, married men can become priests. In these cases, do the married cupples practice celibacy, living as brother and sister?

No, they continue to live as husband and wife.

Why does the Eastern Church allow for married clergy? How can the priest lay down his for his spouse and then lay down his life for the Church?

There is a difference in how the Eastern and Western Churches understand the role of a priest. In the East the priest is first and foremost a minister of the Holy Mysteries. He is not considered to be “outside of the world,” but is a part of it along with his parishioners.

However, there are individuals in the Eastern Churches whose lives are eschatoligical signs, who in a sense do live “outside of the world.” These are the monks. Both men and women can be monks in the Eastern Churches, and they are the ones who most fully “lay down their lives for the Church.”

In the Latin Church the role of the priest has become somewhat fused with the role of the monk. In a very real sense Latin Catholics look at their priests in the same way that we Easterners look at our monks.

I don’t see this difference in discipline as being at all problematic. We just need to respect each other’s legitimate disciplines.

Doesn’t the existence of married Eastern Catholic priests undermine the valuable discipline of celibacy in the Latin Church? Isn’t the Latin discipline the superior one?

I believe that it is possible to defend the Western discipline without denigrating the Eastern discipline. Likewise, I believe that it is possible to defend the Eastern tradition of a married priesthood without denigrating or undermining the Western tradition of a celibate priesthood.

Between the Eastern and Western Churches there is not only a difference in liturgy, but also a difference in “ethos.” Our Eastern and Western Churches have distinct characters, and for this reason different disciplines suit our situations better. So, I would venture to say that mandatory clerical celibacy is better suited for the Latin Church, and that optional clerical celibacy (allowing for a married priesthood) is better suited for the Eastern Churches.

This understanding is reinforced by the Second Vatican Council:

“…the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, no. 5).

I would definitely say that our tradition of a married priesthood is “more harmonious with the character of our faithful.” However, this does not mean that it is at all harmonious with the character of the Latin faithful.

I’m not sure I quite understand how Easterns developed a tradition of married clergy since early times. My difficulty is, canon 3 of the Council of Nicaea reads:

“The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.”

This particular canon was introduced to prevent clerics from engaging in scandalous activities. The very term “subintroducta” indicates a woman who is living as his personal disciple, under the pretense of piety. Apparently some clerics would bring these young women into their homes, and mentor them in something other than the Christian faith.

I completed an extensive study of clerical celibacy in the ancient Church, which was published in Eastern Churches Journal. My findings conclusively demonstrate that at that the time of the Council of Nicea most of the clerics in both the Eastern and Western Churches were married men. However, a movement began in the Western Church during the fourth century to promote clerical celibacy, beginning with a canon ascribed to Council of Eliva. But it took many centuries for this to become the norm in the West. In the East no such legislation was ever promulgated, although the Council in Trullo did eventually legislate mandatory celibacy for bishops.

Of course ultimately this question is a moot point. What matters is the current legislation in the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has laid down the law for Eastern Catholics, so we can hardly be considered disobedient:

373. Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches)

Do you agree that priestly celibacy more perfectly conforms the priest to the person of Christ?

The Eastern Churches have always seen celibacy as being a special, high calling for those who have this gift. While we ordain married men to the priesthood, we also recognize that those who have the gift of celibacy should be encouraged to foster this gift.

But for us Eastern Christians the person that is most perfectly configured to the person of Christ is not the priest, but the monk. It is the monastic life that is the highest possible vocation in our theology, and an important component of the monastic calling is the gift of celibacy. Thus, in its essence I must agree with Father Echert’s statement. For Eastern Christians I would phrase it differently, however: “celibacy more perfectly conforms the monk to the celibacy of Christ.”

A big part of the underlying psychology between the Eastern and Western Churches is that Roman Catholics see their priests in the same light that we Eastern Christians see our monks.

Wasn’t celibacy the norm for the priests in the early Church? Is the married priesthood a later development?

A married priesthood was the norm in the early Church, although there were always men who chose to live celibate lives. Beginning in the fourth century in the West there was a movement to encourage married priests to live in continence, abtaining from sex with their wives. This movement never caught on in the East.

During the Arian crisis, in which many bishops and priests embraced the heresy of denying Christ’s divinity, the Church was saved by monks. It was the celibate monks who preserved the true doctrine, and the Church was extremely grateful. Thus, in the West many local councils began to legislate clerical celibacy, holding up the monastic vocation as an ideal for all priests. During this time bishops such as St. Augustine required their priests to live in community with them.

In the East the response was somewhat different. Rather than requiring all priests to be celibate, the Eastern Churches at the Council in Trullo (692) required all bishops to be monks. This has been the law for the Eatern Churches ever since.