April 3, 2010
If Catholic priests were married, this sex abuse scandal would never have occurred. I’ve heard such sentiments a great deal lately — usually from Catholics — but I have my doubts.
I’m no psychologist, but I suspect the predators involved weren’t the marrying type to begin with. Marriage of clergy should be considered, but on its own merits.
When I was a teenager seeking a church to call my own, I did so with an eye toward ministry. My quest for the apostolic faith led me to Messianic Judaism, then Rome.
I was awed by the Tridentine Latin Mass I experienced at a breakaway, traditionalist parish, and met with the priest to discuss both conversion and seminary.
I ultimately couldn’t proceed with either prospect, however, because I felt a call to ministry and to marriage.
Just when I began to accuse myself of moral cowardice for allowing personal desires to keep me from what seemed the Church, my studies led eastward.
In the ancient, apostolic Orthodox Church, I learned married men could be priests. More importantly, I discovered this wasn’t some progressive concession to modernist pressures, but a practice going back to St. Peter.
This apostle with a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30) was bishop of Antioch before going to Rome, and his native Christian East resisted pressure to mandate clerical celibacy when the teaching arose in Latin circles generations later.
Eastern clergy owe tremendous gratitude to a celibate monk and bishop from Egypt named Paphnutios, who stood against Western delegates at the Council of Nicea when they proposed celibacy for all priests and deacons.
This Western trend continued unabated, particularly after increasing claims of papal supremacy provoked a schism in 1054, ending Eastern influence on Latin practice.
For centuries, Rome ordained married men on condition they cease conjugal relations with their wives, but even this concession (perhaps never very practical), was nullified by the 12th century, when Roman councils closed the priesthood to married men.
It became the practice of East and West for bishops to be chosen solely from the celibate clergy (which in the East means monks or widowed priests), but any notion of requiring celibacy of Eastern priests died with a Constantinopolitan council in 692.
Still, there are certain canonical requirements in the Eastern tradition intended to prevent scandal. While married men may be ordained priests, priests may not marry.
The choice for marriage or monasticism must be made prior to ordination because a suitable candidate for ministry should have reached the point of maturity where he’s decided whether to embark on family life.
This also prevents pastoral conflicts of interest, not to mention other improprieties that might arise from priests dating parishioners.
My single seminary classmates had to postpone ordination until after marriage. I think all would agree this made sense.
In keeping with Paul’s instructions to Timothy (I Timothy 3:2-4), a candidate for priesthood can only have been married once. The same goes for his wife.
Although the Eastern tradition allows remarriage for laity (without annulments), clergy must meet a different standard.
Likewise, if a priest is widowed or divorced, he may not remarry unless he returns to lay status. This is a difficult proviso, and admittedly forces some tough decisions.
Finally, like our Levite forerunners, Orthodox clergy abstain from marital relations during our course of service in the temple — the eve of celebrating the Eucharist.
If Rome ever reconsiders clerical celibacy, it can look east for a working model from its own past.
In the meantime, let’s remember that the vast majority of celibate priests uphold the trust vested in them and deserve our deepest respect. They shouldn’t become victims of prejudice.
I could never be a bishop, but I cannot imagine being a priest without my wife. Not only would I perish without her moral support, but having a family also helps me better relate to my parishioners, whose struggles I share.
Barnabas Powell is pastor at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.