In discussions about priestly celibacy the practice of the Eastern Catholic Churches is often ignored or misunderstood. Most people are unaware that there are already thousands of married Catholic priests who serve in the Eastern Catholic Churches.
The Catholic Church is not a uniform, monolithic entity. Rather, it is comprised of 24 individual sui iuris churches that “enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage” (Lumen Gentium, no. 23). The Latin Church is the largest of these churches, but there are also 23 unique Eastern Catholic Churches. These churches are in full communion with Rome, and together with the Latin Church form the one Catholic Church. The Latin Catholic Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches share the same pope (Pope Francis), the same sacraments (including the Eucharist) and the same Catholic faith. Yet each of the 24 churches expresses this faith in its own unique way.
It is the longstanding practice within Eastern Catholicism to ordain married men to the priesthood. Media outlets sometimes erroneously report that these churches “allow priests to marry” or don’t practice celibacy. These and other myths give the false impression that the Eastern Catholic discipline contradicts the Latin discipline of priestly celibacy, or (worse yet) is a direct challenge to it. But as we shall see, the two disciplines are not as far apart as they appear.
Myth 1: Eastern Catholics Don’t Value Celibacy
In Eastern Catholicism celibacy is cherished as a gift to the Church. When a man or woman chooses to follow the example of Jesus through celibacy, this choice is celebrated as an eschatological witness to the world.
Moreover, the monastic life is held up as an ideal in Eastern Catholicism. Monks, whether female or male, are honored as spiritual mothers and fathers. Monasticism is at the heart of Eastern Christian spirituality, and there is traditionally a strong monastic presence in the Eastern Catholic Churches.
There is also a connection between holy orders and celibacy in Eastern Catholicism. That’s why bishops, who possess the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, are always celibate. While married men can be ordained as deacons and priests, only celibate men are ordained to the episcopate.
Myth 2: Eastern Catholic Priests are “Allowed to Marry”
This is one of the most pervasive myths about Eastern Catholicism. While married men may be ordained as deacons or priests, men who have already been ordained cannot enter into marriage. If a married deacon or priest becomes a widower, he will embrace a life of celibacy.
In this respect, the Eastern Catholic discipline is identical to the Latin discipline regarding married deacons. A married man can be ordained, but an ordained man cannot get married. This further witnesses to the connection between holy orders and celibacy.
Myth 3: The Eastern Catholic Discipline is an “Aberration”
When defending the Latin discipline of priestly celibacy, there is a risk of denigrating the Eastern discipline. I have seen Catholic authors refer to the Eastern discipline as an “aberration” or an “error” that is tolerated for the sake of unity. Some even claim that the existence of married Eastern Catholic priests represents a deficiency of faith.
In contrast, official Catholic teaching respects the Eastern discipline. See, for example, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which was promulgated by St. John Paul II. It states that “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” (canon 373). Similar statements are found in other church documents, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which affirms that the Eastern practice of ordaining married men as priests “has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities” (no. 1580).
Arguments for mandatory celibacy that denigrate or delegitimize married priests are problematic, for they are attacks on a legitimate discipline that is practiced within Catholicism. Moreover, they are inadvertent attacks on faithful Catholic priests who serve in the Eastern Churches.
Instead, it is possible to defend the Latin discipline without disparaging married priests. See, for example, The Theological Basis for Priestly Celibacy by Fr. Max Thurian. He makes a compelling case for the Latin discipline without denigrating the Eastern discipline, which is equally Catholic.
Myth 4: Families of Married Priests Suffer from Neglect
An oft-repeated argument is that married priests are torn between two vocations — marriage and priesthood — and can’t adequately live out either. It is routinely stated that a married priest would have no time to be a husband or father, and that his wife and children would suffer as a result.
This argument — that there isn’t time for a man to be both a husband and a priest — may be applicable to the Latin Church, but the situation in Eastern Catholicism is different. The presence of married priests is ingrained into the Eastern Catholic culture, and therefore priests, their wives, and their parishioners are generally good at maintaining a balance. The typical Eastern Catholic priest is no busier than a doctor or a police officer, and usually has as much time to dedicate to family life.
That being said, the Latin Church operates differently, and it would take a great deal of adaptation to make a married priesthood work in that context.
Myth 5: Married Eastern Catholic Priests are Ineffective Pastors
The flip side of the previous myth is that married priests are consumed by the obligations of family life, and therefore neglect the spiritual well-being of their parishes.
This is a generalization that may be true in a Latin context, but does not reflect the reality within Eastern Catholicism.
In my experience, the marital status of a priest has little bearing on his effectiveness in ministry. I have known celibate priests who are amazing pastors, but I have also known some incredible married priests. My present pastor is married and is a model of holiness. He serves two parishes, both of which are spiritually flourishing. On the other hand, I have encountered both celibate and married priests who neglect the spiritual needs of their parishioners.
Respecting Both Traditions
These observations are based on my experience in Eastern Catholicism. The Latin Church operates differently, with its own needs and expectations. Just because a married priesthood works in the East doesn’t mean that it would work in West. The Latin discipline has tremendous value, and there are compelling reasons to maintain it. For this reason, any changes to this discipline should be approached with caution.
At the same time, those who argue in defense of the Latin discipline must remember that there are thousands of married Catholic priests who faithfully serve in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Arguments for priestly celibacy should avoid generalizations that inadvertently paint married Eastern Catholic priests as being inherently deficient, or as being aberrations. They are Catholic priests too, and deserve the same level of respect afforded to celibate priests.
Dr. Anthony Dragani is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania. An Eastern Catholic deacon, Father Deacon Anthony serves two parishes in western Pennsylvania.