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.