If anyone had asked me what I thought about Eastern Orthodoxy before I converted, I would have said it was basically a popeless Catholic Church, except that its priests can marry.
My presumption was mostly wrong. While there are certainly important similarities between the theologies of world’s largest and second-largest Christian Churches—for example, our understanding of the nature of Communion—there are also crucial differences that still impede reunification more than a thousand years after the tragedy of the Great Schism.
Moreover, it is a misnomer to say that Orthodox priests can marry. They can be married, and indeed, most Orthodox priests are. But a priest can’t marry while a priest. If he wishes to have a family life, he must get hitched before he is ordained to the deaconate, the penultimate step before becoming a priest.
I bring this up because of the ongoing debate within Catholic circles—pushed energetically by the Church’s internal and external critics—about whether to revoke the rule requiring priest celibacy. The regulation was formally established at the Council of Trent in 1563 after centuries of controversy over the issue of priests and marriage. Prior to Trent, the Catholic Church took the same approach to the question of priestly marriage as the Orthodox Church did (and does today). If the priestly celibacy were no longer required, the Catholic Church would likely return to its former practice. To understand better what that would be, let’s look at the Orthodox approach to this important question.
An Orthodox man who feels called to the priesthood has two options. The first, as mentioned above, is to receive the necessary education and, if he is single, delay being ordained until after he is married. The other priestly track requires the aescetic sacrifice of celibacy, perceived in the Church as a form of martyrdom. Almost all such unmarried priests are or become monastics, known in the Church as “Hieromonks.”
The Orthodox Church follows St. Paul’s instruction that our spiritual leaders be married to only one woman. Thus, if a priest’s wife dies (or there is a divorce), he can never remarry and remain a priest; in such circumstances, he is also expected to be celibate. Bishops in the Orthodox Church must be Hieromonks. Some bishops have been married, and entered monastic life after being widowed.
There are several benefits to having married priests. It allows the men who toil in the trenches of parish life to experience the joy of having a wife and children, which makes the priestly call easier to follow. Many believe that having a family helps a priest better understand the everyday trials of the laity. At the same time, since a married priest must find a mate before being ordained, he is not distracted from his parish duties by the search for love.
There are also some burdens associated with the Orthodox practice. In the United States, the priest’s parish, not the Church itself, is responsible for his compensation. Some parishes are too small to pay wages and benefits adequate to support a family. Thus, unlike their Catholic counterparts, some of our priests serve their church part-time while pursuing secular means of earning a living. In addition, the married priest has dual responsibilities to the Church and to his family, which can cause tensions in both areas.
All of this raises some interesting issues should Trent’s priestly celibacy requirement ever be revoked.
1.Would former priests, voluntarily laicized when they wanted to marry, be welcomed back into the priesthood? There is already a precedent for that approach: Married clergy from other denominations can be ordained priests after they convert to Catholicism. Allowing a similar mercy to married former Catholic clerics would certainly help ease the current priest shortage in the West.
2.Returning to the two-track approach to priestly ordination, which was followed universally when the Church was unified, would encourage those men called to the virtue of priestly celibacy while increasing the number of men pursuing religious vocations.
3.The most difficult question would be whether to require existing priests to remain true to their vows of celibacy. While that might be seen as discrimination against existing priests, not requiring continued celibacy of those already ordained would open the door to their dating, which might cause a whole new set of problems. One possible solution would be to allow existing priests who want to pursue family life to be temporarily laicized, with the prospect of returning to the priesthood once they marry.
From where I sit, the controversy over the celibacy of Catholic priests looks to be intensifying. I hope my brief description of the Orthodox—and once Catholic—approach to this issue helps readers interested in the controversy to formulate their thoughts. I am just glad we Orthodox don’t face this particular question. We have more than enough boiling pots of our own.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He is a sub-deacon in the Orthodox Church.