Married Clergy, Monastic Celibacy: The Eastern Balance

My perspective on celibacy is an unusual one. Shortly after I became a Christian, at age 21, I began thinking about forgoing marriage – even though I was strongly attracted to the prospect of marriage, and belonged to a non-denominational Protestant group with no formal concept of “consecrated life.” Nonetheless, from the witness of Scripture and tradition, I could see that the unmarried state was a great gift, and one that God might possibly desire to give me.

However, when I entered the Catholic Church, not long after my initial Christian conversion, I did so in the Byzantine Catholic (or “Greek Catholic”) tradition – one of the Eastern Catholic ritual traditions, in which parish clergy are normally married. For reasons I will discuss shortly, this is not currently the standard practice among Byzantine Catholics in North America. But it is allowed in some cases; and I myself was received into the Church by a married Byzantine priest, Fr. 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 some people – 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 almost 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. In June 2014, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation – an organ of ecumenical work between the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Orthodox churches – recommended that the Vatican lift all restrictions on the ordination of married men among the Eastern Catholic jurisdictions of North America.

This recommendation came on the 85th anniversary of the Vatican decree “Cum Data Fuerit,” which imposed clerical celibacy on the Byzantine Catholic jurisdictions of North America. Although married clergy 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.

The once-total ban on married Byzantine Catholic priests in North America has been relaxed in recent years. Married clergy from overseas may now serve here, and the Greek Catholic jurisdictions in North America may ordain married men with approval from Rome on a case-by-case basis – an option that is increasingly exercised. There is talk of petitioning Rome to remove even this restriction, a proposal that has received new momentum with the recommendation of the Orthodox-Catholic Consultation.

It is clear to me that this should occur as soon as possible. A blanket permission for married Eastern Catholic clergy in North America would be an important act of ecumenical reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Orthodox churches, which have always allowed the practice. It would also accord with the mandate of the Second Vatican Council, which called on all the Eastern Catholic churches to recover the fullness of their traditional ethos.

However, this conclusion does raise a further question. Apostolic celibacy – the choice to forgo marriage for the sake of God and his Kingdom – is still an essential part of the Byzantine Christian heritage, as it is part of every traditional, historic expression of the Christian faith. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask: if a married priesthood is fully permitted (as I believe it ought to be) 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 move toward 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. This is essential, to ensure that religious celibacy does not simply die out among Greek Catholics in North America. This form of Christian witness must be preserved among us: not so much within the Byzantine Catholic parish priesthood, where it is not traditional; but in its customary venue, the monasteries.

Some Roman Catholic critics, often unversed in our tradition, believe that the spiritual value of celibacy is a sufficient reason for maintaining the current 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 lies not in maintaining these problematic restrictions on married clergy (even in their current loosened form), but in reviving traditional Greek Catholic monasticism in North America. When our Byzantine tradition is practiced in its fullness, these two practices – married clergy and celibate monks – tend to balance and reinforce one another. Thus, the push to restore married 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. This is in distinction to the active religious orders, involved in particular apostolic works such as preaching or teaching. There have been attempts to establish active, non-monastic consecrated life – on a Western model – among Byzantine Catholics, but these have proved awkward and found little long-term success.

Monasticism – in its uncompromised, historic form – is an essential part of our tradition. Thus, 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.

A revival of Greek Catholic monasticism must be undertaken alongside any effort to restore the traditional married Byzantine priesthood. This is necessary not only for a healthy balance in the Church, but also for the sake of bearing witness to the world. For while the secular world thinks of celibacy and marriage as opposites in tension, the Church 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 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.

Both family life and consecrated life are in danger today, threatened by an individualistic and secularized culture. Yet, as Abbot Nicholas recently pointed out in a talk to guests at the monastery, 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 reinforce one another; they stand or fall together. I hope this connection will be considered and discussed at the 2014-2015 Synods on the Family, especially given their overlap with the upcoming Year of Consecrated Life (Nov. 21, 2014 – Nov. 21, 2015).

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 our hierarchs and laity.

image: St. Paraskeva Greek Catholic Church, a 16th Century Byzantine Church in Radruz, Poland via Elzbieta Sekowska / Shutterstock.com

Benjamin Mann

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Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • noelfitz

    This article by Benjamin Mann is excellent and very timely. Our loyalty, commitment and
    affection should not prevent us from being candid about difficulties in our
    Church.

    It appears that the Roman Church is anti-marriage, seen for example in its ban on the marriage of permanent deacons, even though most adult Catholics are married and some
    married priests, such as former Anglicans and those of other rites as maronites,
    are in the Roman Catholic Church.

    However the synod later this year on the family may show a more positive appreciation in the Church of marriage and the family.

  • Rosemary

    I am sorry that you do not mention Our Lord or his Mother, Mary and the example they set as icons for us to follow. Both were celibate, which eventually became the model for the clergy. Great saints of the Early Church also set the example such at St Anthony of the desert.

    One must also address the supernatural quality of Holy Orders and our Jewish tradition of men being set apart for performing sacrifice. All priests are set apart from the laity in that they, not laypersons, are ontologically engaged as instruments of the sacrifice. We may face some danger of compromising the efficacy of the sacraments when the fidelity of the priest is divided.

    The Latin Church has a different theological attitude from the Eastern Rite and certainly from the Orthodox regarding the sacraments. I would like to read your comment on that difference.

  • Pat Titus

    I agree with Rosemary. I am now in awe of Catholic priests. Their vocation is mysterious. The power in their hands and words unite heaven and earth, and reconcile us with the almighty. Monks can’t do either.

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