Further Reflections on Mandatory Priestly Celibacy

Further Reflections on Mandatory Priestly Celibacy June 10, 2019

This is a collection of various Facebook comments of mine in response to an earlier paper, Mandatory Priestly Celibacy: New (?) Argument. That ought to be read for background, because I made a highly specific argument regarding Eastern Orthodox priests, that has some subtle aspects to it.

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With the data I found (from America), we see that when there is a choice to be married or to be celibate, before being ordained as a priest, 90-93% of those who are Orthodox priests chose marriage. That, to me, does not suggest a very robust appreciation of celibacy (in conjunction with the priesthood) at all. Clearly, celibacy is more highly spoken of in Scripture, as part of the evangelical counsels, yet only 10-13% of Orthodox priests (in America) choose it? I think that undervalues celibacy.

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I’m talking mostly about parish priests, not monks (where there is more agreement between Catholicism and Orthodoxy). We simply like most of our priests to be more like both Orthodox and Catholic bishops (celibate) than Orthodoxy does. If they want to bash our policy, we reply with the Bible and note that they have the same opinions regarding their bishops. So we apply it to priests, too, in the Latin Rite. Ho hum. No biggie. But because it has to do with sex, it is (as with all these issues) a big stink and never-ending controversy.

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I already knew that I lacked worldwide statistics, so the argument is tentative in that respect. I said that where we do have statistics, 90-93% of Orthodox priests are married.

[My Orthodox dialogue opponent] precisely confirmed my argument by saying, “we don’t often have celibate parish Priests.” Why is that, if celibacy is valued in Orthodoxy as much as Catholics value it (as we are told)? We agree regarding monks and bishops. Thus, the argument is about parish priests. I’m not minimizing the importance of monasticism; I’m simply taking about one particular thing.

The Catholic argument regarding parish priests would be that they have to be responsible for hundreds or thousands of people; therefore, being single would be at least as important as it is for the monk, so that undivided attention can be given to the flock.

I’m not trying to force anything. I am giving the rationale for our view, which is constantly both maligned and misunderstood. This is what apologists do. The Orthodox (and Protestants) say that we overvalue celibacy; I am replying that they undervalue it, by the looks of things. The Bible appears to put consecrated celibacy on a higher plane than marriage (the evangelical counsels).

This is why, as a western, Latin Catholic, I am glad that celibacy is required for priests, since it merges the priesthood with heroic observance of the evangelical counsels.

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If we get the total statistics and compare all Catholic priests with all Orthodox, it is still gonna be the case that many more Orthodox priests are married. So my question is: why? Why don’t we see many more celibate Orthodox priests than we do? Why is it that marriage is encouraged in their case but forbidden to the bishops and monks? In other words, what would be the argument against an Orthodox parish priest who wants to combine the monastic ideal with his own job as shepherd of a flock?

Why do Orthodox prefer their parish priests to be married rather than celibate?

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I support folks keeping to all legitimate Christian traditions that are not immoral (such as, e.g., allowing contraception and divorce). I am defending the Catholic view of priestly celibacy that is constantly maligned and attacked, and challenging Orthodox to defend their own views.

I say that celibate priesthood is a higher state of life, according to the notion of heroic, consecrated celibacy, in line with the idea of the “evangelical counsels.” That seems to be what East and West disagree about; yet the East applies the same criterion to their bishops and monks, so I don’t see how they can denigrate our applying it to our priests. We simply have a stricter standard there. The Orthodox should respect that, since they are stricter than we are in a number of ways (such as fasting requirements).

It seems to come down to this notion that priests somehow have less capacity monks and bishops to be celibate, as if it is (practically) impossible or undesirable for them to do so, or as if there just aren’t enough men out there called to be both celibate and priests (which is the constant, droning secular argument against us). And this is what I object to, if that is the reasoning.

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What we’re saying is that we choose to select our priests from among those men who are called to celibacy and the evangelical counsels.

St. Paul is talking about the average person (like me!), who is not living heroically. We’re modeling our priesthood in the Latin Rites after someone like St. Paul himself (and St. Peter): who renounces riches and the married life in order to serve his flock. Paul argued that the apostles (by extension, priests) had the right to both remuneration and to be married.

He renounced both in his own case, because he was living heroically: above and beyond. So the (Latin) Catholic Church says, in effect, “yeah; that is the sort of man we prefer in a priest: so that he can give ‘undivided attention’ to God and His flock” (1 Corinthians 7).

It’s not forcing anyone to do anything (this is why we encourage those discerning a call to take many years); it’s simply a standard and a rule. The NBA does not “force” anyone to be 6’11”. It simply chooses from the men who are that tall, to be in the NBA.

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Yes, a single man doesn’t understand as well all the things involved in marriage (via empathy), but that is only one thing. And we shouldn’t overestimate the notion of having to personally experience everything in order to understand it. After all, that is one of the major fallacious pro-abortion arguments: “you’re not a woman! You can’t possibly understand or talk about abortion!” It’s not true.

The solution is not to ditch celibacy because discernment was lacking in too many cases, but to make the discernment more rigorous and strict. Nor does merely being married make a person, ipso facto, “more mature, psychologically stable, and orthodox.” (!!!) Surely anyone can see the fallacy there!

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I also note that vocations (to celibate priesthood) are slowly increasing even now, with the constant talk of sexuality and attack on celibacy as an impossible ideal in Christianity (and supposed cause of sexual abuse and all the rest of the usual media / secular garbage).

Therefore, such heroic lives are still being formed and brought about by God, and our job is to find and encourage these people to become priests. But there will always be those who fall short. The entire human race is fallen. We should never be surprised by this. We have to especially do our best to minimize it in our clergy, because it is so scandalous when the priest falters and falls into sin.

A priest who says “I am called to celibacy and believe I am called to be a priest” is not “forced” to do anything. He is joyfully following God’s will for his life. Priests in the Latin Rite come from a very small group of men with that special call of heroic renunciation.

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Why is it that Orthodox parish priests are far more likely to be married than not? I still haven’t gotten an answer to that simple question. And why does this not show that a married parish priest is the norm rather than a celibate one? What is the reasoning there? Is there any answer to my question, besides, “well, then the priest can relate to married couples better, because he’s married”? I’m simply curious as to the reasoning: why Orthodox monks are celibate but parish priests are usually married. There must be some rationale that Orthodox and Eastern Catholics give for that. But for some reason I have the greatest difficulty in getting an answer to my simple question.

Latin Rite Catholics can give many biblical, disciplinary, and practical reasons for why we think that celibate priests are a higher calling, while at the same time not denying the validity of the married priest at all. It goes back to the evangelical counsels and the Pauline “undistracted devotion to the Lord” that the single person can give.

If anyone can direct me to a specific defense of the practice of married parish priests and why they are preferred in Eastern Christianity, I’d love to see that.

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Meanwhile, in two seconds in a Google search I can find Orthodox attacking our preference for celibate priests (this is what I have to deal with as an apologist):

The first error of the Westerners was to compel the faithful to fast on Saturdays. (I mention this seemingly small point because the least departure from Tradition can lead to a scorning of every dogma of our Faith.) Next, they convinced the faithful to despise the marriage of priests, thereby sowing in their souls the seeds of the Manichean heresy. (Except from The Encyclical Letter of Photius: 867 AD)

Photius makes no sense: if the evil, wicked “West” requires celibacy for priests, that is “Manichean,” whereas if the East requires it for monks and bishops, that’s not “anti-body” or “anti-sex” at all. The spectre of an alleged odious “anti-sex” mentality or prejudice seems to lurk behind so many critiques of our celibacy requirement, and here it is in Photius himself. Has he no knowledge of 1 Corinthians 7 or Matthew 19? Has he never heard of the evangelical counsels?

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I am arguing, “okay, imagine a situation where celibacy is not required; does a priest voluntarily choose it or does he choose marriage?” And so Orthodox priests in the US choose marriage by a 9-1 ratio. Thus I concluded, based on that, that marriage is overwhelmingly the preference, and asked why that is? Why would the actual statistics come out like that, rather than 55% married / 45% celibate, or even 66-33?

And my sheer speculation was that celibacy is difficult, and folks will choose the easier path, given the choice; hence it comes out 9-1 in favor of marriage. Thus, making celibacy mandatory is advisable, so as to preserve the special charism and vocation of celibacy.

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The late Fr. Ryland: a married priest in the Latin Rite (who was a friend of mine also), defended priestly celibacy in an article, and makes this historical statement (whether it is accurate or not, I don’t know):

The Eastern Orthodox discipline of optional celibacy (optional for priests and deacons, required for bishops), was first formulated in 692. Prior to that time, all the Eastern Churches followed the apostolic tradition of mandatory continence for both married and unmarried clergy.

But the Council of Trullo in 692 radically changed the discipline of celibacy. One of its canons did retain the prohibition of bishops, priests, and deacons marrying after ordination. It also partly preserved the apostolic tradition in requiring perpetual continence of married men who were installed in the episcopate. But it decreed that married men ordained to the diaconate and priesthood could continue their conjugal life after ordination. The council herein both explicitly and polemically rejected the clerical discipline of Rome, which is to say, the apostolic tradition.

To justify this departure, Trullo quoted the earlier canons of the Council of Carthage. That council, as we have seen, had restated the rule of perpetual continence for all married clergy by appealing to what it called the apostolic tradition. Its records were widely available. Trullo changed the wording of the Carthaginian canons so that they mandated only temporary continence for married clergy only on days when they served at the altar. (This is effectively the Old Testament law for levitical priests who served in the Temple.)

Despite this radical alteration of the Carthage council’s ruling, the Council of Trullo blithely assured all who would listen that by their decrees they were only “preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order.” 11 The Catholic Church, of course, has never recognized the Council of Trullo.

If he is correct, the Eastern practice (similar to it’s late-arriving policy on divorce and remarriage) only goes back to 692, and hence is not apostolic, and barely even patristic.

The Catholic Encyclopedia writes about the Council of Trullo:

It was attended by 215 bishops, all Orientals. . . . In the matter of celibacy the Greek prelates are not content to let the Roman Church follow its own discipline, but insist on making a rule (for the whole Church) that all clerics except bishops may continue in wedlock, while they excommunicate anyone who tries to separate a priest or deacon from his wife, and any cleric who leaves his wife because he is ordained (can. iii, vi, xii, xiii, xlviii).

Note that there was no tolerance for the Western preference for celibacy; it had to be a rule for “the whole Church” to be able to marry. Thus, the complaint (often justified) of Easterners of excessive Roman requirements and forced practices works both ways in this case. No Western bishops were even present to vote in this council! Yet they were supposedly bound to its decrees?

So we  find that at Trullo in 692 all Eastern bishops wanted to impose on the entire West the relaxation of celibacy. So it ain’t just the East wanting to observe its own traditions, but also to impose them on the West (whereas we usually hear about things the other way around: the pope imposing his will in the East). Then the obvious question to be raised would be, “why prefer a non-apostolic practice to an apostolic one?”

I’m just trying to understand rationales and to know the historical facts. If the practice can only be canonically traced to 692 then it’s not apostolic. Since it is a disciplinary and not doctrinal issue, that’s not a deal breaker altogether, but it does seem to me to be an argument for the preferability of priestly celibacy (if it has apostolic pedigree and the other practice does not).

I reiterate my own position, which is tolerant and all for observing more local traditions, while at the same time acknowledging that celibacy is a higher state of heroic renunciation and part of the evangelical counsels.

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All we do is apply the Orthodox monastery requirements also to most parish priests. If our view doesn’t wash, then it also doesn’t among Orthodox monks. Therefore, by straightforward logic, any Orthodox argument against our celibate priests collapses, since if one estate of life is derided (celibate Catholic priests), the other corresponding one (Orthodox monks) goes with it (i.e., if we are logically consistent and making a fair, dispassionate analysis).

The Orthodox monk goes through the same conundrum that the Catholic potential priest goes through. I say that God gives the desire “to will and to do”. If He is calling one to celibacy, this doesn’t require all the anti-sex rhetoric and bloviations about how Catholics hate sex and marriage so much.

All it takes is an understanding of Jesus (some make themselves eunuchs: Matthew 19) and St. Paul (“I wish that all men were as I myself am” / “undistracted devotion” of the single man / everyone has his own calling).

Heroic renunciation of sex for the sake of the kingdom is not the same as being “against” sex. Man, if folks could just grasp that concept, I would be eternally grateful! It’s always been difficult for me to comprehend why many find it so difficult, because it was always utterly self-evident to me, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic. It’s really not hard to understand at all. But because it has to do with sex, all this silly and irrelevant and hyper-polemical junk gets bandied about.

As I’ve said over and over, I have nothing against married priests (where they are allowed by canon law). I have been friends with two in the Latin Rite (the late great Fr. Ray Ryland and Fr. Dwight Longenecker).

So as usual, it is the Orthodox frowning upon (indeed, by the looks of it, also being downright prejudiced against) distinctive Catholic practices, while we are fully tolerant of Orthodox practices; indeed, allow them among Eastern Catholics and may (for all we know) allow them again in the Latin Rite on a wider basis, since we already do in terms of dispensations for Anglicans, etc. It’s a discipline and can change.

Surveys have shown that 80% of Catholic celibate priests would stay so even if allowed to marry.

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If we allow choice of celibacy or not for [parish] clergy [which I have said over and over is what i am talking about], it seems like the de facto norm quickly becomes marriage. This appears to be the case in Orthodoxy (from what statistics I could find), and it certainly unquestionably is in Protestantism.

This, in turn (without judging any individual’s call; I don’t need to, to make my argument) seems to undercut what I believe is the priority given to celibacy (as a “higher / heroic calling”) in the New Testament. If we grant that, then it becomes an argument for making it mandatory, so that celibacy can be given the place of honor that the New Testament appears to call for.

That was my exact argument. The lopsided ratio among Orthodox priests suggests to me that celibacy is being undervalued in a way that St. Paul and Jesus (who even literally talked about leaving wives and homes and everything whatever for the sake of ministry) never do.

I’m not opposed to married priests in principle: even to a possible change in the Latin Rite (though I would favor a limited one, if so); my concern is with preservation and honoring of the celibate higher calling. To be concerned for one doesn’t entail being against the other (yet it is so often perceived to be so, because folks think in “either/or” dichotomous terms).

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It could possibly be also in Orthodoxy that some of those who are called by God to be celibate and a parish priest refrain from doing so because of the environment that is overwhelmingly making a married parish priest the norm. In this case, they are not opposing God’s will so much as being discouraged from what they believe to be His perfect will, because of the clergy situation “on the ground.”

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(originally 8-2-14 on Facebook)

Photo credit: P-JR (7-6-14); pellegrina of a Catholic priest [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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