Last Friday, a German synod of Roman Catholics doubled down on a list of progressive demands for church reform. In Church tradition, synods are usually a group of bishops and lay people who discuss the teachings and leadership of the Church. the Wall Street Newspaper reported:
Meeting in Frankfurt, the German Synod voted 159 to 26, with seven abstentions, to adopt a draft declaration calling on the pope to allow Catholic bishops around the world to ordain married men and give priests already ordained permission to marry without having to leave the priesthood. He then voted 163 to 42, with six abstentions, to seek permission for bishops to ordain female deacons, a lower rank of clergy capable of preaching and officiating at baptisms, weddings and funerals, such as intermediate step towards the appointment of women bishops. and priests.
While the marriage of priests is an item on the progressive agenda of the Synodal Way, the practice actually exists in a more conservative and ancient part of the Catholic Church: the Eastern Rite churches.
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Growing up, I went to a Catholic school but attended Melkite (and sometimes Maronite) masses on Sundays with my family. Most Lebanese Christian families, like mine, are Melkite, Maronite, Orthodox, or most often a mixture of the three. The Melkite and Maronite rites are part of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, a set of 23 rites that report to the Pope but retain some of their own cultural practices and traditions.
For example, when I was a baby, I was baptized, made my first communion and was confirmed at the same time. In the Roman Catholic Church, although it is common for baptism to occur during infancy, First Communion and Confirmation generally occur during childhood and adolescence, respectively.
The Melkite Mass is also markedly different and, in my experience, more conservative. Many parts of the Mass are said in Greek and Arabic, only incorporating English during the readings and homilies to accommodate non-Arabic speakers. The mass includes processions of the clergy and the (heavy) use of incense. Women are not allowed in the altar area and cannot be altar servers. It sounds ancient, and for good reason: the Melkites trace their roots to first-century Antioch, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter.
However, perhaps the most striking difference with the Roman Catholic Church is the presence of married priests.
While my Boston-based parish is not served by married priests, many other Melkite churches in America have married clergy. In the American diocese alone, 16 out of 50 ordained priests are married. My priest, Father Philip Raczka, shared that in the Middle East, where most Melkites live, almost half of the clergy are married.
The presence of married priests goes back to apostolic times. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, dating from the first or second century, includes the following instructions on “qualifications for overseers and deacons”:
1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Anyone who aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer should be blameless, faithful to his wife, moderate, self-possessed, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not drunken, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, who does not love silver. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of all respect. 5 (If someone doesn’t know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment than the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with foreigners, so that he does not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
Paul’s epistle to Titus, also dated to the same period, reads similarly:
6 An elder should be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not liable to be accused of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer rules the house of God, he must be blameless—not bossy, not angry, not prone to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 On the contrary, he must be hospitable, loving what is good, self-controlling, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold fast to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others with sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:6-9)
Fr. Raczka went on to share that men who are already ordained priests or deacons cannot marry, but those who are married in good standing with the Church, as noted above, can pursue the priesthood or the diaconate.
Roman Catholic priests, on the other hand, must respect total celibacy. Father Raczka explained that in the 11th century the The Latin church eradicated the practice of married priests due to conflicting interests when it came to passing church lands to family members. Another factor was the emphasis on monastic practices, which grew in popularity and esteem.
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The Synodal Way hopes that the proposed change in the rules of celibacy can stem the decline of those seeking a vocation and tackle the causes of sex scandals among priests.
The push for priestly marriage could indeed be a quick fix and indeed has tangible roots in the history of the Church. While I myself haven’t made up my mind on the matter yet, there are a few immediate points of caution.
For one thing, while the practice of clergy marriage is successful in the Eastern Rite, it has been institutionalized and standardized over the centuries in a set of churches that are culturally distinct from the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the Synodal Path goes so far as to suggest that priests who have already received ordination can be married. This is not the case in the Eastern Rite, even if a married priest becomes a widower. Pursuing a partner during the priesthood could divert attention from vocation as marriage to the Church itself.
Moreover, the push for married priests is part of the Synodal Way’s radical proposal for a reorganization of the hierarchy of the Church. Writing for NR in June, Father Goran Jovicic, a Roman Catholic priest from the Diocese of Subotica, wrote that the synodal way creates a risk of schism within the Church. Along with its progressive demands, the group is pursuing a new form of hierarchy that replaces the old structure of the magisterium – bishops and pope – with a “network of synods” that would operate in a “quasi-democratic” manner, electing bishops and other heads of ‘church.