Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I have heard that they are thinking of allowing some priests to marry somewhere in some jungle far away. What are your thoughts? I thought priests were supposed to be unmarried celibates.
I think you are talking about a Synod of Bishops, scheduled for October 2019 in which bishops from Latin America’s Amazon region will meet to discuss issues confronting the church in that part of the world. One of the most pressing issues is the lack of clergy in the area. It is rumored that the possibility of ordaining married men may be on the agenda.
What do I think of it? "Do not move your neighbor's boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” Deuteronomy 19:14 And for good measure, Deuteronomy 27:17: ”Cursed is he who moves his neighbor's boundary mark.” Job 24:2: ”Some remove the landmarks; They seize and devour flocks.” Proverbs 15:25: “The LORD will tear down the house of the proud, but He will establish the boundary of the widow.” Proverbs 22:28 “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set”. Hosea 5:10: “The princes of Judah have become like those who move a boundary. On them I will pour out My wrath like water.”
Six separate times the Bible forbids monkeying around with boundary stones. When the Bible says something six times, I’d pay attention. Why shouldn’t you move an ancestral boundary stone? You can never get it back quite the way it was, and soon you are going to find out why it was there in the first place. I remember an old Lithuanian priest, Fr, John Plancas. When he saw them taking the confessionals out of the churches, he shook his head and said, “Soon they’ll figure out why they put them there in the first place.” Change happens. It’s supposed to happen, but how and why it happens is very important.
Celibacy has a long and disputed history in the church The Council of Elvira (306) is apparently the first official meeting of the church that required clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse. "Bishops, priests, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives.” This may refer to the period immediately preceding the celebration of the Eucharist as is the practice in the Eastern Church Catholics and Orthodox even for the laity. Around 390, the Council of Carthage decreed that, “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites (deacons)…, to observe perfect continence, (as) the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed... It pleases us all that bishops, priests and deacons, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.” Note the phrase “serve at the altar.” The implication, in light of well-known custom among eastern Christians, is that when they are serving at the altar they refrain from relations as a kind of fasting.
Saint Hilary of Poitiers (315–68), a Doctor of the Church, was a married bishop. Pope Felix III (483–92), whose father was almost certainly a priest, was the great-great-grandfather of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604). Pope Hormisdas (514–23) was the father of Pope Silverius (536–37). It is unknown whether they lived a normal conjugal life after their ordinations. The First Council of Nicaea (325) considered ordering all married clergy to refrain from conjugal relations, but the Council was dissuaded from doing so by a monk, St. Paphnutius of Thebes. (Some scholars doubt the existence of St. Paphnutius and say that clerical marriage was allowed because of pressure by Emperor Constantine the Great. The point is moot. Even when something is forbidden, it is not forbidden unless it was going on, and Paphnutius is a really cool name. You can’t make up things like that.) It seems to make great sense that one fasted from intimacy for a stated time before the offering of the Eucharist, as is still done in eastern Catholic and eastern Orthodox communities.
The reason that priests in the Latin west are celibate is probably because Western Christians became accustomed to daily mass following the custom of the monasteries. Both east and west, monks celebrated daily Mass and included intimacy as something from which they fasted in preparation. Non-monastic priests and laity only fasted at certain times of the year and in preparation for the Holy Eucharist. Where mass was offered every day, it makes sense that the celebrants be unmarried. It seems that in the Latin west celibacy began to be the usual custom around 400 or 500 AD. In the Greek speaking east celibacy has never really caught on except among monks and bishops.
The rule of thumb is this: a married man may be ordained, but an ordained man may not marry. If a man is called to Holy Orders and comes with a wife, well, he comes with a wife. If he doesn’t come with a wife, be he single, or a widower, he may not marry after ordination. Married deacons in the west are ordained with this condition. If they are married, they promise not to marry a second time. That’s how it has always been. Unlike the Greek east, our custom in the west is not to ordain married men to the presbyterate except by rare exception. Why the long history? Because I want to make the point that there is nothing innovative or heretical about ordaining married men. We do it now. We have always done it. I know that I will get some complaints from hyper traditionalists who are so traditional that they disregard tradition, but history is history.
HOWEVER, I’m not sure that ordaining Amazonian men is a good idea at this time or in the manner being contemplated. There are problems.
1) Money. If you are going to have married clergy who are full time you had darn well better pay them a decent wage. If you don’t they will find interesting ways to make money. I remember hearing of the situation in a distant country where it was common for indigenous priests to have common law wives and children. The locals preferred the missionaries from America over their own clergy, because the Americans didn’t demand exorbitant fees for sacraments. “How shameful!” I hear you say Hold on. If a man has a wife and a slew of kids he must think about how he is going to feed, clothe, house and educate them. A man’s natural concern should first be his own family. This is natural and even holy. Familial responsibilities will limit the clergy in unexpected ways. Priests don’t like to offend their bishops or their congregations but will occasionally take a bold strand when they believe it to be a matter of conscience. Had I a wife and kids to feed my conscience would be a lot more picky. I ought to take the brave stand even if it means getting kicked of the parish, but do I have the right to make my family homeless for the sake of my conscience which I may just be mistaking for my bad temper.
2) Danger. I have served in really bad neighborhoods most of my life. Had I a wife and children, you bet I would prefer the north suburban parish to the inner-city parish. The priest may be hero, but it is only natural and noble to want the best for one’s wife and kids.
3) Sex. It is a very painful thing for a community when its priest falls afoul of the sixth commandment. It is really painful and a source of really enjoyable gossip when the priest’s wife or kids get caught in a compromising situation. I just read about a Roman Catholic priest of the Anglican usage who was recently arrested. His wife had been having a fling, I believe with a member of the congregation. The priest kidnapped her, drove her all over the city hitting her, yelling at her and blaring heavy metal music. He stopped at their parish church where he made his wife kneel at the altar as he threatened to choke her. This went on for 18 hours. According to his wife, Father took nude photos of her which he threatened to send to everyone in the parish. I assume this will not happen a lot but when it does, believe, you will hear about it. Divorce and abuse will probably happen just as commonly as they happen among the general Catholic population and when there is trouble in the rectory, there will lots of kind people who will want to console the pastor, or console his long-suffering wife, and I don’t just mean by bringing them hot chocolate and cookies. Get ready.
4) Kids. Most of the pastor’s kids I have known are great people. However, some of them spend lives in therapy because dad took better care of his parish than he did of his family. Preacher’s kids can be just great, and no one notices. It’s expected, after all. See the preacher’s kid’s name on a police blotter or on the evening news and just watch the fun. I have been told that it is hell to be under the constant scrutiny of a congregation. It is especially tough when you are thirteen and ticked at your parents who of course are perfect because you, poor sap, are the preacher’s kid.
5) Lunch. I had a fun experience a while ago. I have a good friend who married a Greek Orthodox girl. I often visit them at their home. Every time I go to some great celebration and her family is there, they look very nervous. I thought this was because I am Catholic. My friend told me that it had nothing to with Catholicism. It is just that it’s unusual for a Greek priest to go to Sunday lunch at a parishioner’s home especially without his wife. Just imagine the scene “Honey I am going to the widow Woopenwurst’s for lunch after church. I’ll be back around 5.” Her response: “You’re what?” We in the west are used to the priest being part our lives and families. He won’t be, or least shouldn’t be when he has a wife and family of his own. My friend explained that when a priest comes by to visit, it isn’t usually a fun moment. It means someone had died, or at least soon will. We in the west are used to a certain closeness and even informality with our priests. In the east it just ain’t so. There is a wife to help make sure it ain’t so. Shall I continue? I might as well take the plunge.
I have probably insulted most people already, but now I will take on a real challenge. CLERGY WIVES!!!! I’ll save that for next week at this point – it would probably good to have a wife who would wisely tell me to cool it.