Sunday, April 11, 2010

Marriage and Celibacy

I've been a member for many years (10?) of a very liberal Catholic discussion group online. Recently someone there asked me some questions about married Orthodox priests. So I answered, and for about 36 hours there was dead silence on the normally active list. When someone finally did reply, it was to ask, "How do you know Jesus was celibate? Scripture doesn't say anything about that."

And with that the debate was off and running, over, of all things, whether Jesus was really celibate! From there, all kinds of side trails opened up: how reliable are the Gospels anyway, as history? When Jesus "praised eunuchs," did that amount to endorsing celibacy? Surely St. Paul's preference for celibacy could be explained as a reaction to his mistaken idea that Christ would return any day or any moment now? (Implication: Christ didn't; hence we can dismiss the Apostle's advice.)

I didn't participate in any of this, wondering what was the point, why it was such a big deal to them. Then it occurred to me, "Well, it's because they're against priestly celibacy" so finally I wrote this, and now I think I'd like to share it with you:

Oh, goodness. A debate over whether Jesus was married is the last response I would ever have expected to my post. I suppose the argument arises because this impinges upon the hot-button issue of mandatory priestly celibacy. Perhaps it also has to do with other imposed sexual disciplines I've heard Catholics complain of, who call it oppression.

Well, we do not have anything we consider oppression coming from the Orthodox Church. Mandatory clerical celibacy is obviously a non-issue with us. The Christian ideals concerning divorce and contraception are applied to us by our priests and bishops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit on a case-by-case basis, more strictly or more leniently, according to what we are able to bear without being crushed; that is, the rules are applied according to what will best support each person's eventual salvation. So, unless you wish to engage in guilt-free fornication or adultery, there's nothing you'd be inclined to consider tyranny. The rest of us aren't fighting any sexual battles with our hierarchy.

For that reason, perhaps, we feel quite free and easy about accepting the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, which says Jesus was never married. (Note: we do not accept what Catholics call Tradition; that is something else.) Neither do we worry about what scholars say about the historicity of the Gospels; instead, we concern ourselves with what holy people (those in whom Christ is clearly manifest) have told us the Gospels mean for us, that same meaning also taught us from within our own hearts where the Holy Spirit dwells and teaches.

When we say celibacy is the higher life-style, we do not mean marriage is not holy! For the Orthodox, it most emphatically is. It is an exalted life-style. In fact, Christian celibacy itself is a kind of marriage, the most exalted form of marriage: taking Christ for ones Spouse.

Having no political stake in it, we also have no difficulty accepting what Jesus said about celibacy. He said it's for the sake of attaining salvation, implying it's a higher life-style. But He also stressed, it is NOT a discipline meant for everybody. (The Orthodox understand Jesus' remarks about people making themselves eunuchs to mean that they practice celibacy. Not that they literally castrate themselves.) After Jesus gave His teaching about divorce,

His disciples said to Him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." (Matthew 19:10-12)

St. Paul's teaching is in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. He also favors virginity over marriage, admitting that this is his own judgment and not a divine command. He also points out that it is not meant to fetter anyone, but to conduce toward their own happiness and spiritual advancement. The Orthodox still find his advice applicable and wise. Whether or not the time is short before the Lord's return – a thing nobody knows – we all ought to live as though it were very short indeed. And we for sure don't think it would be wise to pit our own "wisdom" against that of the Holy, Glorious Apostle. Or to accept anybody else's over his.

You are obviously free to disagree. I'm just explaining the Orthodox understanding, in response to some questions.


Spinneretta said...

If I had to guess, I would say that this stems a lot from the idea that some people have, that a married priesthood would prevent some of the scandals that are currently rocking the church.

That being said, I have to wonder at some of the questions that were coming up!!
I did appreciate your Orthodox view explanation though, I find it truly fascinating :)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Spinneretta, I expect you're right, but also, these people, by and large, were in favor of a married Catholic clergy long before these scandals arose. They are using the scandal to try to further their cause.

I personally don't think having a married priesthood has very much to do with with the current scandal.

I also think trying to devalue or discredit celibacy is not the right way to push for a married clergy.

Yes, I also wonder at some of the questions that were coming up! But then again, I often do. These seem to be people who often toss around ideas just for the enjoyment of tossing around ideas.

Spinneretta said...

No, I don't think the married clergy would have done much either... there *might* have been fewer cases... but who knows.
And yes indeed, I don't think devaluing celibacy is the way to go... it *is* a valid option :)

Obviously they like to debate LOL

It is often quite interesting to sit back and see how things like this will swing... :)