Marriage and Celibacy Stand or Fall Together

COMMENTARY: The Eastern-Catholic tradition of married clergy and celibate monasticism highlights the fruitful unity-in-difference of these two complementary vocations.

(photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery)

Both family life and consecrated life are in danger today, threatened by an individualistic and secularized culture. Yet the crisis of the family and the crisis of consecrated religious life are not really two separate problems, nor can they be addressed and resolved in isolation from one another.

A healthy family life often nurtures the seeds of a consecrated vocation, while consecrated life engenders the kind of robust Catholic culture that supports families in their practice of the faith. Thus, celibacy and marriage mutually enrich and reinforce one another; they stand or fall together. I hope this link will be considered and discussed in the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

My perspective on the link between the vocations of celibacy and marriage is an unusual one. When I entered the Catholic Church, I did so in the Byzantine Catholic (or “Greek Catholic”) tradition — one of the Eastern-Catholic ritual traditions in which monastic celibacy and married parish clergy coexist. In fact, I was received into the Church by a married Byzantine priest, Father Chrysostom Frank.

So, on the one hand, I have always had a high view of apostolic celibacy: as a witness to the kingdom of God and as the source — for those called to it — of a greater freedom to serve the Lord. I believe I am one of those people; and so I am pursuing a celibate vocation, working toward becoming a monk at Holy Resurrection Monastery. On the other hand, I have felt quite at home for eight years in a parish led by a married priest, together with his matushka (our term for a priest’s wife in the Slavic tradition).

The question of celibacy and marriage, and the balance between them, has been in the headlines recently, particularly in relation to the Eastern-Catholic Churches. Eighty-five years ago, in accord with the Vatican decree Cum Data Fuerit, clerical celibacy was imposed on the Byzantine-Catholic jurisdictions of North America. Although married clergy still continued to serve in the historic Greek-Catholic homelands, they could not serve in Western countries; nor could married Greek-Catholic men be ordained here, for fear that this would confuse the larger Roman-Catholic population. This issue, and prior tensions related to it, caused two lasting schisms.

In November 2014, however, it was announced that Pope Francis and the head of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches had lifted these restrictions. This change in discipline — restoring a long-standing practice of the Christian East — now gives permission for the ordination of married Eastern-Catholic men as priests in these territories.

Pope Francis’ move was not a radical departure, however, but clearly in line with the actions of his predecessors, since the once-total ban on married Byzantine-Catholic priests in North America had been relaxed even before Pope Francis’ decision. For example, married clergy from overseas were permitted to serve here, and the Greek-Catholic jurisdictions in North America could eventually ordain married men with approval from Rome on a case-by-case basis.

This new and positive step does, however, raise a further point. Apostolic celibacy — the choice to forgo marriage for the sake of God and his kingdom — is still an essential part of the Byzantine heritage, as it is part of every traditional, historic expression of the Christian faith. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask: Now that a married priesthood is fully permitted among Greek Catholics in North America, where will the witness of apostolic celibacy come from in our Churches?

This question is not hard to answer, if we look to Tradition: Alongside the custom of married parish clergy, Byzantine Christians have historically maintained the evangelical witness of celibacy in their monasteries. Monasticism began among Eastern Christians, and its later Western forms drew heavily from Eastern sources.

Monastic celibacy is fundamental to our heritage — so much so that, out of respect for their presumed spiritual authority, the Eastern Churches traditionally choose only monks to become bishops.

Apostolic celibacy took a variety of different forms in the West, particularly in the Middle Ages and during the Counter-Reformation. However, the Tradition of the Eastern Churches is different, based on an older model. We uphold the charism of celibacy primarily within the original framework of monastic life: within communities of consecrated men or women, not primarily devoted to an active apostolate in the world, but living the contemplative and liturgical life which has prayer as its primary work.

As they embrace the full restoration of a married priesthood, the Greek-Catholic jurisdictions in the West should also invest their attention and resources in the renewal of traditional Byzantine monastic life. Authorities at the Vatican, likewise, should also consider what they can do to promote the same cause. We need practical action and concrete investment in monasticism to ensure that religious celibacy does not die out or seriously decline among Greek Catholics in North America.

Some Roman-Catholic critics, often unversed in our tradition, believe that the spiritual value of celibacy was a sufficient reason for maintaining the former restrictions on Byzantine-Catholic clergy in North America. While this concern is misguided, and sometimes borne of ignorance, there is an element of legitimacy to it — insofar as it would be truly regrettable for the charism of celibacy to be lost or downplayed in the course of restoring a married parish clergy among the Greek-Catholic Churches in Western nations.

However, the solution to this problem does not lie in the restrictions once imposed by Cum Data Fuerit. To preserve the witness of celibacy among Greek Catholics in North America, we must revive traditional Byzantine monasticism within these territories.

When our tradition is practiced in its fullness, these two practices — married clergy and celibate monks — tend to balance and reinforce one another. Thus, the restoration of married Eastern clergy should be complemented and balanced with an equal effort to promote traditional Byzantine-Catholic monasticism.

When I speak of “traditional” Byzantine monasticism, I mean the ancient form of contemplative, cenobitic (community) life — rooted in a stable community’s celebration of the daily liturgical cycle. Because this is an essential part of our tradition, wherever there are Byzantine-rite Catholic parish communities — whether in our home countries or in the so-called “diaspora” — there should be authentic Byzantine monasteries also. For a variety of reasons, historical, cultural and ecclesial, this ideal has rarely been realized: Authentic Greek-Catholic monasticism has been relatively scarce, especially in the West. But it is certainly not too late to work toward the ideal.

The Eastern balance of married clergy and monastic vocations can also bear witness to a confused culture. For while the secular world may see celibacy and marriage as opposites in tension, the Church — East and West — understands them as mutually supportive vocations. This view of celibacy and marriage is urgently needed today, at a time when both institutions are in crisis.

Priestly celibacy is an established practice of the Latin Church; and while it is a discipline that could theoretically be changed, there are good reasons for thinking it should continue as a general norm for Roman Catholics. But the Byzantine Tradition has great value alongside the Latin practice: In a unique way, complementary to that of monks and celibate priests, our married priests model the spiritual fatherhood to which all men are called. They can show other men, very concretely, how to combine spiritual and natural fatherhood.

If married Byzantine priests offer a particular model for spiritual leadership among the laity, it is no less true that monastic communities can serve as models for family life and the “domestic church.” A family cannot pray the entire daily liturgical cycle; but families can, and indeed must, find ways to live a Christ-centered life together.

This is the explicit purpose of monasticism, but it is also the purpose of family life and, ultimately, of every human endeavor. Monks are teachers of discipleship, to individuals and families.

Pope Francis seems to understand the balance between married clergy and monasticism in the Christian East. Two weeks after the announcement about the lifting of restrictions on married Eastern-Catholic clergy, the Pope issued an apostolic letter on consecrated life — saying that he was “counting on” monks and other consecrated persons to “wake up the world” with their prophetic witness. He spoke specifically about Eastern-Christian monasticism in this letter, pointing to the “ecumenism of the consecrated life” that can assist “the greater journey towards the unity of all the Churches.” The Pope also urged Catholic bishops to promote the consecrated vocation “as a spiritual capital which contributes to the good of the whole body of Christ.”

The balance our Byzantine Tradition strikes between celibate monks and married parish clergy is not a cure-all, nor should it necessarily be considered as a universal model for the Church. Still, when given a chance to flourish — with full support given to both the married and monastic sides of the equation — it has proved to be a potent formula for the generation and preservation of Christian culture. This is a fact that students of Byzantine or Slavic history know well.

I have also seen the evidence for myself. I have found the spirit of real Christian community — not easily found in today’s world — in a parish led by a married Byzantine priest and also in a traditional Greek-Catholic monastery.

My hope is that both such environments may multiply abundantly, with our priestly and monastic customs existing harmoniously alongside those of the Latin West.

Our Byzantine-Catholic communities, especially in Western countries, may be small. But when the Tradition is lived in its fullness — in both parishes and monasteries — the impact on the cause of Christian unity and the building up of Catholic culture can be immense. The monastic element of that tradition, no less than the married priesthood, deserves the full support of the hierarchy and laity.

Editor’s note: This commentary is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Benjamin Mann is a postulant at Holy Resurrection Monastery,

a Byzantine-Catholic community in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.