Friday, March 7, 2014

Married Priests
 Fr. Wissam Akiki greets his wife, Manal, following his ordination on February 27, 2014.

"The Lord confirmed that marriage is something of value…because he attended a wedding," as St. Augustine remarked, yet St. Paul declares, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman," and he comments, "I wish that all were as I myself am," that is, without a wife. The value of both marriage and celibacy has always been a part of Christian teaching, since Jesus Himself, who both announced the indissolubility of marriage and proclaimed that marriage will not be in Heaven. The way these two vocations interact with the separate vocation to priesthood has changed over the centuries and is dependent on circumstances.

 First, a basic teaching of the Church must be repeated: "Perfect and perpetual not demanded of the priesthood by its nature" (Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis §16). Just as the old priesthood of the order of Aaron did not necessitate celibacy (after all, it was priesthood passed on through heredity), so the new priesthood of the order of Melchizedek does not necessitate it. Thus St. Paul lists a characteristic of a good candidate for the priesthood as "the husband of one wife"; the same qualification is applied to bishops as well (Tit 1:6; 1 Tim 3:2). Even the New Testament states the validity of a married priest and even bishop, and so the early Church had many married clergy. This never meant, though, that the counsel of St. Paul, "Do not seek marriage," was disdained. There were many who embraced the call to be "eunuchs for the kingdom" even in the early Church, as we see, for instance, in the early virgin martyrs, and, as monasticism became more prevalent, it spread celibacy as well.

Over time, the recognition of the specific aptness of celibacy to the priestly life grew, and eventually the entirety of the Church, East and West, accepted the rule that bishops should be celibate; thus, in the East, most bishops are originally monks who are then raised to the episcopate. Whereas the Roman church came, in time, to extend the rule to priests and eventually all clergy, the Eastern churches continued the tradition of allowing married priests alongside celibate ones (usually monks). In the past century, the Roman church, upon reinstating the permanent diaconate, once again allowed for deacons to be married.

History and theology show that the married priesthood is a legitimate piece of Christian tradition and practice, and the decision on whether celibacy should be a rule is a matter of each individual church's discipline. However, in the Eastern Catholic churches, tension has arisen on this issue. In general, one of the largest sources of tension in the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Catholic churches is in the keeping of legitimate Eastern traditions. Many of the former restrictions placed on the Eastern Catholic churches (such as extensive alterations of the Eastern liturgies to make them more similar to the Roman Mass) have been lifted, but restrictions on married priests remain.

The current practice is that, in their homelands, the Eastern Catholic churches are allowed to ordain married men freely, in accord with their tradition; however, in areas where Roman Catholics are in the majority, the bishop's conferences of the region determine whether to what extent Eastern Catholics can keep this tradition. In the United States, the rule is that permission can be granted on a case-by-case basis, after submission of the case to Rome (as in the recent ordination of Fr. Wissam Akiki, the first Maronite married priest ordained in the United States).

Restrictions on legitimate traditions are greatly painful to the Eastern Catholic churches, and they are also a stumbling block in relations with the Orthodox: why would they want to unite with Rome if they will be treated as "second-class citizens," with these restrictions on their traditions? The particular issue of married priesthood has a particularly sorrowful example of the effect of these restrictions. In 1889, Fr. Alexis Toth, a Byzantine Catholic priest, came from the Old Country to the United States. By the time he crossed the Atlantic, he was a widower. Despite the fact that he was a celibate priest and would remain so (in both the East and the West, priests cannot marry once they are ordained), Archbishop John Ireland, a Roman Catholic archbishop, would not allow him to use his priestly faculties and to be a parish priest, because he was formerly a married priest and because Archbishop Ireland thought Eastern Catholics were not really Catholics. Because of this, Fr. Toth broke communion with Rome, taking 20,000 Eastern Catholics with him, and became Orthodox; he was canonized by the Orthodox in 1994 for his central role in establishing Orthodoxy in the Untied States.

In summary, the married priesthood is a tradition reaching to the earliest days of Christianity, and one that is practiced in tandem with celibate priesthood in the East; in the West, though, the discipline of celibacy was eventually enforced due to the apt connection between the two vocations of celibacy and priesthood. The current situation of the married priesthood in the Catholic Church is that the Roman church allows the ordination of married men on rare occasions (usually when a married Anglican priest or other Protestant minister comes into communion with Rome); the Eastern Catholic churches ordained married men without restriction in their homelands, but on a restricted basis in primarily Roman areas. The reason given is that married Eastern priests would be scandalous to Roman Catholics; however, the lack of them is, in a sense, scandalous to the Orthodox. Thus this issue is a point of tension between Rome and the Eastern Catholic churches at this time.

Nota Bene: The quote from St. Augustine is from his The Excellence of Marriage, 3,3.

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