Edward Peters contra the East: A Reply

Edward Peters, who runs the popular canon-law blog In the Light of the Law, is on a crusade for clerical celibacy, and he’s not confining it to the Latin Church alone. Here is what he wrote about the Christian East:

Eastern approaches to married clergy. I say Eastern “approaches” to married clergy because there is not, contrary to popular impression, just one approach among Eastern Catholics. Not all Eastern Churches allow married clergy, and among those that do permit it, not all clerics marry. Still, Eastern Catholic Churches generally accept married men into holy Orders and allow those men to live more conjugato. Now, for reasons that go beyond canonical, Rome has long steered clear of directly addressing how a married, and essentially non-continent, clergy took hold in the East (though most eyes look back to the controversial Synod of Trullo) and asking, in that light, whether this practice should be merely tolerated, mutually respected, or positively protected. A synod purporting to treat of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church must honestly address the divergence between East and West in this regard.

There are some puzzling remarks made in this paragraph. Let’s go through them.

First, Peters is being slightly disingenuous when he speaks of “approaches” to a married priesthood among the sui iuris Catholic churches. While particular church practice sometimes varies in details, there is no canonical prohibition on the Eastern churches ordaining married men. Period. There have, in times past, been pushes (mostly at the behest of Latin bishops and priests) for local Eastern churches to adopt celibacy as the norm or at least to discourage married men from entering seminary. Today, however, despite the fact that some local Eastern churches have partially retained the Latin praxis, it is well recognized that such impositions historically represent an abuse, one which the universal Church has stepped far away from in recent decades. Moreover, the predominance of celibate Eastern clergy in the West has been due in large part to interventions from the Vatican, though that, too, is starting to change. So whatever “approaches” Peters is talking about doesn’t affect the ancient norm allowing clergy to be married in the East—a norm recognized by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental, and Assyrian Church of the East (which, in fact, allows clergy to marry after ordination).

Second, Peters is being even more disingenuous to hold that “Rome has long steered clear of” the married priesthood question in the East. It has always known about it, both before and after the various schisms which separated Eastern and Western Christendom. It has also known full well about the practice during every attempt at reunion and during the various local reunifications of various Eastern churches such as the Maronite, Chaldean, the “Unia” churches, and so forth. Peters, oddly, seems to be trying to suggest that Rome has just kind of shrugged it off. Perhaps, in looking over history, it would be fair to say that in earlier centuries Rome “merely tolerated” the divergent practice, but since at least the time of the Second Vatican Council, “mutually respected” (cf. Orientalium Ecclesiarum) or, really, “positively protected” (cf. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) has become the standard. It hardly seems like Rome has “steered clear” of the matter; it has directly addressed it and moved on.

Third, Peters’s remark regarding the “controversial” status of the Council of Trullo is a red herring. While it is true that this council was never well-received in the West, it has had the effect of shaping or, rather, reaffirming a number of practices and disciplines found among the Byzantine Rite churches, including the ordination of married men without the requirement of sexual continence. Given the Byzantine penchant for conservatism, it is doubtful, nay, extremely unlikely Trullo “innovated” the idea of a married priesthood without the requirement of permanent continence; rather it affirmed a practice that had been ongoing for centuries. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that Trullo was a Byzantine council; it did not include the Oriental Orthodox nor the Assyrian Church of the East, and yet all of those churches uphold the practice of ordaining married men. So if Byzantium was “innovating” at Trullo, why did churches not in communion with her also follow the same historic practice?

Last, to those who might object that Trullo ought to have no standing within the Eastern Catholic churches that follow the Byzantine Rite, there has never been any decree from Rome that Trullo was not binding on the Byzantine (Greek) Catholic churches and up until the establishment of a preliminary code of Code of Canon Law for the Eastern churches in 1949, Trullo was understood by Greek Catholics to be binding law with respect to the clergy and marriage.

At the end of the day it is hard to read Peters’s remarks as much more than an expression of Latin chauvinism. It is not the business of Rome to meddle in the affairs of the Eastern churches. The practices of the Christian East are not “praiseworthy” based on how well they conform to Latin praxis; they are to be respected and retained as authentic traditions of the universal Church. Finally, any attack by Latin Catholics on Eastern praxis regarding the married priesthood and celibacy would be needlessly alienating to the non-Catholic Eastern churches, communions which Rome has maintained it desires full and unimpeded unity with.


  1. I wonder how priests in the Latin tradition think about married Eastern clergy. In times like these, when much of the Latin tradition has already been modified, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them felt that the requirement of clerical celibacy was unnecessary merely because it is a Latin tradition. Priests have always been free to remain celibate, so nothing would prevent those who wished to remain celibate from doing so, while those who desired marriage would not have to sacrifice either marriage or the priesthood. On the other hand, such a move would probably be perceived in the Western world as a progressive reform, and it is possible that many Latin Rite Catholics would find such a move disturbing, since they have so rarely been around married priests. Then again, converts to Catholicism would probably have less difficulty adjusting.

  2. I do not think it would be at all desirable to impose celibacy on EC clergy, but I do think it is a blessing for us Latins. Our priests are free to serve their flocks without the danger of neglecting their families. EC parishes tend to be smaller, so this is not such a huge consideration in their cases. But for us Latins, it is. I have seen this borne out in Real Life again and again. St Paul said it best: The single man is freer to attend to the things of the Lord. The priest must be radically available — and how can he be so if his family (rightly) claims much or most of his attention? As any preacher’s kid can tell you, it’s usually the family that suffers in such cases. That’s not fair to the family. But again, I can see how it might work where the congregation is small, and I’m told that’s usually the case in EC parishes.

    1. My father is a Roman Rite deacon, and I was only enriched because of it.

      One may reply that a priest is busier than a deacon. Fair enough. But the Roman parish of my youth had three active deacons, all married with kids at home, all very active in liturgy and parish ministry – the homebound, marriage prep, annulment counseling, Catholic Scouting, baptism prep, and more. All three of these vocations would not exist if these men were not allowed to be ordained for their marital status, it would further burden the priests of the parish, or move the tasks to lay volunteers, who are not the same.

      I submit, therefore, that if there were more eligible men, there would be more priestly vocations and less burden per priest.

      And after 13 years worshiping with the UGCC, I can tell you that the priest’s wife is a tremendous asset to a parish, also. The “pani” usually does a lot of work that a Roman parish has to hire someone to do.

      1. Well, again, I think the size of the parish may be a factor. In a small parish, sure, I can see how married priests would be fine. In a large parish, I think there could be practical, logistical difficulties. Heck, even WRT the permanent diaconate: In my admittedly limited experience, it seems that most guys wait till their kids are grown or mostly grown before entering the diaconate program. Especially if they also have full-time jobs, as our own deacon does. (Some guys wait until retirement.)

        I honestly don’t care how often or when a married priest has sex. I’m much more concerned about the logistics, as Saint Paul apparently was. Or, rather, the time factor — the availability factor. In a large parish, at least, a celibate priest is much more available to the flock than a married priest would be. And he never had to choose between his family and his flock. Saint Paul made this argument in canonical inspired Scripture, so surely it cannot be simply dismissed out of hand?

        Again, I am not impugning the Eastern praxis. If it works, it works. But I do not see how it could easily become the norm for us Latins, with our huge congregations.

        Someone said that perhaps we Latins could have smaller, more intimate parishes. In some areas, where Catholic numbers are dwindling, that might be feasible. But, here in the South, where Catholicism is booming and we can’t build new churches fast enough, we simply don’t have the luxury of building little intentional micro-parishes. We have to get the most bang for the buck — and no, it’s not just because of the priest shortage. It’s because of the exponential growth of the laity — largely because of (a) Yankee transplants and (b) Hispanic immigrants. My diocese, Charlotte, is one of the fastest growing in the country. Perhaps St Albans, Vermont, can found a smaller, more intimate parish with married clergy. For Charlotte, NC, struggling to keep up with a growing Catholic population, it’s a slightly more difficult task.

          1. Yes!! I love it here, in every way. Great dioceses, temperate climate, lofty mountains, and beautiful beaches. God’s country, you might say. :)

  3. As a member of the Ordinariate of OLW I hope that married men will be allowed to be priests as well as deacons, but then we have small churches and groups who could be served by someone with a part-time job in some instances. And to the argument that most RC parishes are too big and busy for a married man, I would suggest that there are two answers to this: one being the discipline of celibacy, and the other being to make a gradual shift to smaller and more intimate parishes.

    I must admit to some sympathy for the argument, not for a celibate priesthood & diaconate, but for continency in orders or at the very least a discipline of abstinence at certain times. I get the feeling that a fair evaluation of the early evidence points towards a certain expectation, perhaps, rather than a strict rule about this… and also, there is the fact of the almost universally accepted rule against marriage after orders are received. This seems to point towards a real difference in how the marriage should be lived out in orders. The marriage is now ordered to, subsumed into, the deacon’s or priest’s role in the nuptials of Christ and his Church, and they therefore cannot simply take up another marital relation in which they will “care for the things of the world”, after they have received orders. To say that they can feels to me like a version of the Protestant idea that Mary had a regular marital life after the Annunciation – once called to a higher thing one ought not to go back to the (excellent and good, but) lower thing.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is that while it seems that there is no evidence to claim that the clerical state ought to be celibate, it seems to have a theological dynamic that leads towards continency, even if this is not a strict requirement in tradition.

    1. Timothy,

      Within the Byzantine Rite (Orthodox or Catholic), married clergy (priests and deacons) are expected to refrain from marital relations the day before serving the Divine Liturgy. In Orthodoxy at least the failure to do so amounts to a serious (or what Catholics would call a mortal) sin. And while I imagine the clergy aren’t much better than the laity on this, they are certainly expected to refrain from marital relations during the fasting cycles of the Church (Advent, Lent, Dormition, etc.). So, contrary to contemporary belief, the married clerical state is not some sexual free-for-all, or at least it is not intended to be any more than the lay married state is.

      As for your point on the Ordinariate, I really don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. I think it would be pretty hard for Rome to offer the Ordinariate a blanket exception to the rule of clerical celibacy while expecting the rest of the Roman Church to still abide by it.

      For the record, even if the discipline of celibacy were relaxed, I don’t think we would see an explosion of married priests and the end of celibacy. What I fear, though, is that the Latin priesthood will be comprised of two “tiers,” with the perception being that celibates are “real priests” and married clergy are “secondary priests.” Keep in mind that in the Orthodox world, secular (i.e., married) clergy were often looked down upon as a second-class caste for centuries. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens in the Roman Church, too.

      1. That is understandable for the reasons I outline in my comment below. They are no less priests than celibates, of course, but they are ones who are part of an exception made for weakness of the flesh. In the same way, seculars who make now vow of poverty are living in a less perfect state than their religious brethren.

        1. It’s dangerous ground for laypeople to speak of “weaknesses of the flesh” in others, particularly priests.

  4. As Fr Cochini has amply shown in his book, by far the most important written on the subject in the last hundred years according to Henri de Lubac, The Apostolic Origins of Christian Celibacy, the Roman Church has maintained the early Christian ideal of a totally continent clergy better than any other Church. The East’s practise in this regard may be very old, and is certainly not an abuse, but it is a departure from the ancient ideal and so cannot be said to be “a good thing.”

    The universal witness of the Fathers and the Canons of Trent (Session 24, Canon 10) show that the superiority of perpetual celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God, in imitation of our Lord, over the married state. The married state is an image of the life of the kingdom when the Church, as bride of Christ, is united with her divine spouse and so is holy and a means to holiness but it is merely an image. Celibacy is, however, a true living of the life of the kingdom now, a direct foretaste of heaven, where there will be no giving or taking in marriage (Matt 22:30).

    Now more than ever we need the witness of celibacy to show that we have no hope for ourselves in this world but are prepared to give up all for the kingdom of God. In the face of a faithless world we must continue to show forth this total commitment in faith.

    1. While citations are helpful, it should be noted that Cochini’s book has met with quite a bit of criticism over the years, particularly the manner in which it attempts to downplay anything coming out of the East as not “authentically Apostolic” and to exalt Western-only sources.

      The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it ignores the fact that the East, no less than the West, has a longstanding culture of celibacy clergy and religious: monasticism. If one is going to look for an ideal, wouldn’t one start there and not a secular priest, celibate or not? And let’s face it: Many celibate Latin priests are quite worldly; live far better lives than most of their parishioners; and put in less hours “at work” than one might expect for someone with their benefits and station. If one is going to start talking about the “witness” of “celibate clergy,” I think we have to be a lot more realistic about what the situation looks like on the ground.

      1. I quite agree about the East having a glorious history of celibacy, especially in its venerable monastic tradition. I also agree that a religious priest is called to a state of greater perfection than even a celibate secular priest.

        Regarding the witness, I would say that in the face of our hyper-sexualised culture celibacy is certainly an effective witness, even if it lacks the added perfections of total obedience and poverty.

        My point is basically this, we all agree, East and West, that the highest ideal is monasticism. In many ways this is better remembered in the contemporary East than in the West. The Roman Church’s requirement that all priests be celibate means means that her clergy are closer to the ideal than the Eastern clergy. The East does not allow married men to be ordained bishops and I would see this as a tacit acceptance of this.

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