Shedding light on priests and their families

Shedding light on priests and their families Pope Francis walks with Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel during a meeting with members of the Orthodox synod at the patriarchal palace in Bucharest, Romania in 2019. Photo: CNS.
For better discussions on married priests we would do well to look to the Eastern Rite Christians, writes Peadar Laighleis

Debates on married clergy have gone on as long as I can remember. Most people used the Protestant denominations as examples. Few referred to Eastern Churches – Catholic or Orthodox – though Catholic theology of holy orders and marriage is much closer to the Orthodoxy. Irish Catholics may find the Eastern Churches exotic, but they are consistently the fastest growing religious body in the Irish State in recent censuses, so Ruadhán Jones’ article on the Romanian Catholic clerical couple he knows (Irish Catholic, January 14) is timely.


In brief, a candidate for either the priesthood or diaconate in the Eastern Churches who wishes to marry must do so before ordination to the sub-diaconate. This must be both his and his wife’s first marriage. If the priest or deacon is widowed afterwards, he may not remarry. For this reason, the expression ‘as precious as a priest’s wife’ is common in Slavic languages. A married priest may never become a bishop. Widowed priests have served as bishops, but this is rare as most Eastern bishops are monks. It is also almost unknown for a priest’s widow to re-marry, though this may be tradition rather than law. This is broadly the regime for married deacons in the West and convert marrieded Anglican and Lutheran ministers who become Catholic priests, though their widows are not forbidden to re-marry.

As Ruadhán Jones points out, to be a priest’s wife is a vocation in its own right and there was once privilege attached. Seminary rectors would interview their students’ girlfriends. One of the questions is whether she has priests in her family. The reason is someone from a priest’s family understands what the life involves. Though a negative answer does not disqualify the young lady, most clerical wives are daughters, nieces or sisters of priests. Clerical couples can be descendants of several generations of priests. In many of these societies, the seminarians’ parents traditionally engage in matchmaking among other clerical families on their sons’ behalf.

This is also true of deacons’ families – the Eastern permanent diaconate is a parallel ministry. In many instances, the deacon acts as a sacristan and parish administrator in addition to his major role in the Sunday liturgy. In the West, the deacon’s function at the extraordinary form High Mass gives a better clue to what the Eastern deacon does than a typical Sunday Mass would. Unlike in the west, Eastern priests never act liturgically as deacons after priestly ordination which gives the deacon an importance we are not familiar with. Remarkably, this role is liturgical rather than sacramental.

If the priesthood is now less prestigious in the world, few regard a priest’s wife’s position as a prize. Both in North America and in Eastern Europe, there is a growing tendency for priests’ wives to work and it is usually her income which supports the family. Wives tend to hold down nine-five jobs and as the priest is at his busiest on evenings and weekends, it has not been unknown for priests’ wives to write appointments for themselves into their husbands’ diaries to discuss important family matters. This is an unenviable position which few understand better than priests’ daughters. The children of the clergy grumble at some problems – mainly their fathers’ absence at weekends and the fact they are held up to a higher standard of conduct than other parishioners.


If many readers are now puzzled and wondering how this evolved, the answer is that it developed parallel to the celibate priesthood in the apostolic period, taking much of its reasoning from the regulations of the Aaronic priesthood in the Old Testament. The seriousness with which the Catholic Church takes her relationship with the Eastern Churches is illustrated by the dialogue with the Polish National Catholic Church in America which has no doctrinal difference with the Catholic Church. This ethnic Polish group broke away from the Catholic Church in the late 19th Century and St John Paul II prioritised its reconciliation. He didn’t succeed. The stumbling block was disciplinary.

The Polish National Catholics allowed their clergy marry after serving two years as celibate priests and also ordain married men. Most of the Polish National Catholic bishops are married and many of their priests and bishops are Catholic seminarians or priests originally. Married bishops, priests married after ordination and former Catholics serving in the higher clergy was too much of an obstacle to heal the schism. The problem is that small, schismatic groups of recent origin lack the authority to make unilateral innovations on key disciplines such as celibacy while disregarding canons in existence since apostolic times. The presence of former Catholics among their clergy indicates allowing priests to marry did not draw sufficient vocations from within their own flock.

I have heard many arguments in favour of married priests, but few consider the Eastern Churches, even less think of clerical families. The situation is far from simple.