A Priest’s “Believing Wife”

ST. PAUL WAS UNDER ATTACK, not by Jews or Romans, but by some of those whom he had evangelized and who thought that they should be leaders in the community. Paul pointed to his own way of life in order to show them what leadership really is. St. Paul earned his own living while laboring as an apostle, living simply and without a family of his own. He compared his practice to that of the other apostles including Peter (Cephas) and the brothers of the Lord (James, Jude, etc.) “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:4,5)

Since then Paul’s words have been invoked many times in discussions about a married clergy, although Paul was neither defending nor opposing the practice. He was simply describing his own way of life without making it a norm for anyone else.

The early Church clearly had a married clergy. When St Paul instructed his disciple St Timothy on how to set up a local community he gave him a number of principles to follow, including the following: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.  A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach;  not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous;  one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

A bishop in the apostolic Church, as in any era, needed to be a man of virtue (temperate, sober-minded, etc.). But a bishop’s role was seen chiefly as the father of a family; hence he should have the qualities of a good family man, manifested in the way he brought up his children.

Later Developments

By the time of the First Ecumenical Council (325) there had been two major developments affecting the way clergy were chosen. As monasticism became more and more important in the life of the Church, the most committed Christians tended to be found among the monks. This led to the practice – and eventually the rule – that bishops be chosen from among the monks and later, by extension, the unmarried or widowed clergy. This remains the rule in all the historic Churches of East and West.

The second development, chiefly in the West, was that priests and bishops came to be seen more as servants of the altar than as fathers of the Christian family. It was natural then to require that they be “ritually pure,” as the priests of the Old Covenant had been.

As early as the fourth century councils in the West were requiring that “…the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence…” (Council of Carthage, Canon 3).

The Council of Elvira, Spain (c. 305) was even stricter: “It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office” (Canon 33).
An attempt was made to enact similar legislation at the Council of Nicaea, but it was not accepted. Nevertheless, the practice of mandatory clerical celibacy so spread in the West that Easterners felt the need to affirm the earlier tradition. By that time of the Quinisext Council of Constantinople (692) there was a direct contradiction between the ideas of East and West:

“Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time” (Canon 13).

To this day in all the Eastern Churches married men may be ordained as deacons and priests but bishops must be taken from the unmarried clergy.

The American Controversy

The two practices clashed when Greek Catholics from Eastern Europe began emigrating to America in the 1880s. They wanted their own Church and began bringing priests to serve them. Most of the Greek Catholic clergy on Europe were married and their presence here was opposed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The widely divergent Byzantine practices of the Greek Catholics were especially abhorrent to those bishops who wanted to eliminate all regional differences among the immigrants and Americanize the Church.

In accordance with the bishops’ wishes, Pope Pius X wrote an apostolic letter, Ea Semper, in 1907 governing the Greek Catholics in America. Chrismation was no longer to be conferred at baptism and could now only be given by a bishop. No new married priests were to be ordained in America or to be sent to America. The rule on chrismation was ignored but the controversy over married clergy drove thousands from their Churches. It is said that over 160 parishes in the Orthodox Church in America alone were formed by former Greek Catholics.

In 1929 Rome’s Oriental Congregation repeated the prohibition on married clergy in its decree Cum Data Fthuerit causing more to leave their Church. The “Independent Greek Catholic Church” (now the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese) was formed as a result.

After Vatican II some Eastern Catholic bishops in America began ordaining married clergy, but these actions were considered “irregular” until 2014, when Pope Francis abrogated these prohibitions.

Celibacy in the Church Today

Celibacy has always been honored in the East where monasticism is so highly regarded. It is considered, however, as a grace, a charism given by God to some rather than mandated for all its clergy. Thus not only bishops but other clergy as well have been unmarried.

Many proponents of clerical celibacy see unmarried clergy as more suited to ministry, citing St. Paul: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:32–33).

This has not been the experience in the Eastern Churches. For stable communities in traditional societies the married priest has always functioned as St. Paul envisioned him, as the father of the Christian family. His wife, the khouriyye or matushka, is his invaluable helpmate in ministry as in life. Particularly in the smaller Eastern communities in our country this model is certainly the most suitable.