National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

Mating and dating among Eastern Rite priests


During the spring of 2002, the church was confronted with the spectacle of some clergy who had sadly failed in their commitments in chastity by engaging in immoral relations with minors. Throughout the furor this scandal unleashed, the priesthood itself came under close scrutiny by the media, which insisted that celibacy was the cause of the problem.

Celibacy has been required of diocesan priests in the Latin Rite since the Second Lateran Council in 1139. But it was not always a universal requirement in the Roman Catholic church, as we know. Even some of the popes were married. For instance, Pope Anastasius I (399-401) was succeeded by his son, Innocent I (401-417). And Pope Hormisdas, a widower (514-523), was succeeded 13 years after his death by his son, Silverius (536-537). All four are recognized by the church as saints.

Even before the scandal broke, America magazine published in its April 15, 2000, issue an essay by Fr. Gerard S. Sloyan, professor emeritus of the Catholic University of America and Temple University in Philadelphia.

The essay’s title was “The Return of an Old Tradition.” The prophesied revival of an old tradition was a married clergy for the Catholic West.

According to Sloyan, “The chief observation to be made about a married priesthood in the West is that it is inevitable. … The questions here are not whether the change will be a good thing or a bad one. … The only point here is that this change is going to happen, and the worldwide Catholic communion of 1 billion needs to prepare for it. ...

“The first step in this direction should be serious studies. … These studies must first assess the people’s capabilities of supporting a married priesthood. … Married priests may be expected to have large number of children, for whom they and their wives will wish to provide higher education.”

Sloyan concluded, “The major alteration in church life that will undoubtedly occur can be only a matter of speculation.”

However, the modus vivendi et operandi of married priests is not haphazard guesswork, but an open book. We simply have to check how the loyal-to-Rome Eastern Rite married priests live, succeed and get along. Their only restrictions are that they cannot marry after ordination; they cannot remarry after the death of their spouse; and they cannot be appointed a bishop.

In the former Czechoslovakia, where I was ordained, there were plenty of Eastern Rite Catholics who acknowledged the jurisdiction of Rome. We lived in perfect harmony with their clergy (who jokingly referred to our rectories as “Homes for Unwed Fathers”).

In Czechoslovak seminaries, the Latin Rite students lived together with the Eastern Rite Catholics. Our curriculum was the same, but there were some small differences in lifestyle. For instance, we had to shave, but they grew beards.

The most piquing discrepancy was that on Saturday night the Latin Rite seminarians went to the chapel to read the Lives of the Saints, but the Eastern Rite seminarians took off to visit families with marriageable girls, since they had to tie the knot before ordination.

They were fine, clean-cut fellows who used to say that there were at least two instances when “marriage” had to come before “sex”: in the dictionary and in their courtship.

Even after ordination, we remained good friends and visited one another. Their life wasn’t easy. Children were born at regular intervals. The wife had to be a mother, sacristan, sexton, chairperson of various committees and sometimes even choir director.

The family was closely watched by the people, and critical eyes often found some real or concocted topics for gossip. The children, “the priest’s kids,” had to behave all the time -- or else. Any misunderstanding, criticism or dissatisfaction with the family meant a plummeting Sunday collection.

No wonder one of my Eastern Rite colleagues told me, “In fairy tales, the couple falls in love, gets married and lives happily ever after. That’s why they are called fairy tales.”

Of course, celibacy for us on the Latin side requires a certain sacrifice on the part of the priest. We exchange a personal bond with a spouse and family for a different but no less real bond with the church. I am convinced this is what our Lord meant when he replied to Peter, saying that he would receive “a hundred times as many homes, brothers and sisters, mothers, children and property” in exchange for his sacrifices (Mark 10:28-31). Pope John Paul II has repeatedly and strongly defended the Latin Rite rule on priestly celibacy. He calls it a timely challenge for contemporary society and says a married priesthood may create bigger problems than those it intends to solve.

There is no clear solution to this issue. But in the end, even celibate priests are guaranteed two dates. Both of them are engraved on their tombstones.

Fr. Robert G. Fin teaches at Gannon University in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

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