Clerical marriage

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Eastern Catholic priest from Romania with his family.

Clerical marriage is the practice of allowing clergy (those who have already been ordained) to marry. It is a practice that must not to be confused with that of allowing married persons to become clergy. Clerical marriage is admitted in Protestantism, Anglicanism, Some Independent Catholic Churches (not in communion with Rome), Judaism, Islam, and the Japanese sects of Buddhism.

The Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches, while allowing married men to be ordained, have historically excluded clerical marriage after ordination. Their parish priests are most often married, having been married before becoming ordained as priests -- although they can get married while still attending the seminary.[1]

The Roman Catholic Church, in sharp contrast to others, not only forbids clerical marriage, it normally does not allow married men to be ordained either (though a very few exceptions are granted in its Western form and a few more exceptions in the Eastern Catholic Churches).

Present-day practice[edit]

Generally speaking, in modern Christianity, only Protestant and some independent Catholic churches allow for ordained clergy to marry after ordainment. However, in recent times, a few exceptional cases can be found in some Orthodox churches in which ordained clergy have been granted the right to marry after ordainment.

Protestant Churches[edit]

Following the example of Martin Luther, who, though an ordained priest, married in 1525, Protestant denominations permit an unmarried ordained pastor to marry. They thus admit clerical marriage, not merely the appointment of already married persons as pastors. But in view of 1 Timothy 3:2 and 3:12, some do not admit a second marriage by a widowed pastor.

In these denominations there is generally no requirement that a pastor be already married nor prohibition against marrying after "answering the call". Being married is commonly welcomed, in which case the pastor's marriage is expected to serve as a model of a functioning Christian marriage, and the pastor's spouse often serves an unofficial leadership role in the congregation. For this reason, some Protestant churches will not accept a divorced person for this position. In denominations that ordain both men and women, a married couple might serve as co-pastors.

Certain groups[who?] require a prospective pastor to be married before he can be ordained, based on the view (drawn from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) that a man must demonstrate the ability to run a household before he can be entrusted with the church. Even in these strictest groups, a widower may still serve. This again concerns marriage before appointment as pastor, not clerical marriage.

Married clergy in churches that exclude clerical marriage: The Orthodox Churches[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy permit married men to become clergymen. Traditionally however, they do not permit clergy to marry after ordination. From ancient times they have had both married and celibate clergy (see Monasticism). Those who opt for married life must marry before becoming priests, deacons (with a few exceptions), and, in some strict traditions, subdeacons.

It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of Orthodox parish clergy are married men. And this is one of the major differences it has with the Catholic Churches. Yet as stated above, their marriage must have occurred before ordination.[2] Since the marriage takes place when they are still laymen and not yet clergy, the marriage is not a clerical marriage, even if it occurs while they are attending the seminary. Clerical marriage is thus not admitted in the Orthodox Church -- unlike most Protestant Churches.

Traditionally, even if the wife of a married deacon or priest dies, he may not remarry but must remain celibate. However, in recent times, some Bishops have relaxed this tradition and allowed exceptions here. For one, a widowed priest may be granted relief from the obligation of celibacy through a process known as being laicized. Their subsequent marriage is thus seen as the marriage of a layman, and not clerical marriage. After the marriage, the former Priest may then apply for re-ordainment.

A subdeacon or hypodeacon is the highest of the minor orders of clergy in the Orthodox Church. This order is higher than a reader but lower than a deacon, the latter being a major order of clergy. Subdeacons are mentioned in canons with prohibitions on marriage after ordinations (like deacons and priests) - e.g., Apostolic canon 26. [3] Frequently today however, a variety of methods of dealing with these canons have been employed, therefore allowing subdeacons to marry.

One method has been to bless acolytes or readers to vest and act as a subdeacon temporarily or permanently. This creates a new distinction between a 'blessed subdeacon' and an 'ordained subdeacon'. It should be noted that a 'blessed subdeacon' may not touch the altar or assume other perogatives of ordained subdeacons outside services.

Another method is to reserve the formal ordination service to later. This situation often arises if there is a need for a subdeacon and a likely candidate has stated an intention to marry but has not yet done so, causing a delay in his ordination. Still in some cases today, the canons are simply ignored here, therefore permitting even formally ordained subdeacons to marry. [4]

Generally, if a deacon or priest divorces his wife, he may not continue in the ministry. Yet even here a few exceptions can be found. For one, if the divorce is deemed the fault of the spouse and occurs within the acceptable guidelines laid out in the new testament of the bible.

Bishops are elected from among those clergy who have chosen, usually by taking monastic vows, to remain celibate, or from widowed clergy. If a widowed priest is elected bishop, he must take monastic vows before he can be consecrated. Some Eastern Catholic Churches, in full communion with the Pope, have been permitted to follow much the same tradition as the Orthodox. Yet others, particularly in America, have been required to adapt mandatory celibacy like the dominant Latin Rite.

Lastly, it should be noted that the same policy of allowing married men to be ordained applies to all Orthodox Churches of all rites and traditions and in all parts of the world. This is in contrast to the Catholic Churches, where different rules apply to different rites and even different rules might be applied to the same rite in different parts of the world.

Nearly strict clerical celibacy (The Catholic Churches)[edit]

The Latin Church of the Roman Catholic Church follows the discipline of clerical celibacy: as a rule, only celibate men are allowed to be ordained, though in very rare cases married men who have been clergymen of other denominations are ordained after being received into the Roman Catholic Church. For example, occasionally some married Anglican priests who leave the Church of England are admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood.[5]

Like in the Orthodox Churches, occasionally Catholic priests are granted dispensation from the obligation of celibacy but only if they are laicized.[6] Their subsequent marriage is thus seen as the marriage of a layman, not clerical marriage. Yet, in sharp contrast to the Orthodox, this now married former Priest cannot apply to be re ordained to the Priesthood.

Some Eastern Catholic Churches allow ordination of married men as priests -- yet only in their traditional homelands and not in America. Within the lands of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church, priests' children often became priests and married within their social group, establishing a tightly-knit hereditary caste.[7] This system mirrors the tradition found among Orthodox Priests and their families around the world.

Celibate clergy who convert to churches that allow married clergy but not clerical marriages[edit]

A unique question arises when celibate Catholic Priests have converted to become Orthodox Priests. This situation is increasing in parts of the world, particularly in America. Do the Orthodox believe that Roman Catholic priests have the grace of the priesthood (and thus RC priests who convert are not “re-ordained”)? Or must they be ordained again? Simply speaking: can they marry or must they remain celibate?

There is no single answer to this question and it is usually handled on a local level. That is, it depends at least upon the archdiocese, and in some cases on a local bishop or diocese. This issue depends in part on the greater issue of how much validity that bishop or archbishop might assign to Roman Catholic orders? The practice of the Orthodox on this issue has even been subject to change from time to time as well as place to place, often depending on situations appropriate to the setting.

The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) is the offspring of the church in Russia and thus it has inherited much of its traditions from practices in Russia. In the OCA, Roman Catholic clergy generally are received into the Orthodox Church through “vesting”; that is, they are not ordained anew. There is evidence that this was in fact the practice in Russia several centuries ago. Thus the OCA at least prefers them to remain celibate and take monastic vows. [8]


Marriage reform: cleric Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora in 1525
One of the final drafts of the Six articles (1539), reaffirming clerical celibacy in England

There is no dispute that at least some of the apostles were married or had been married: a mother-in-law of Peter is mentioned in the account in Matthew 8:14, Mark 1:29-34, Luke 4:38-41 of the beginning of Jesus' ministry. 1 Timothy 3:2 says: "an overseer (Greek ἐπίσκοπος) must be ... the husband of one wife". This has been interpreted in various ways, including that the overseer was not allowed to remarry even if his wife died.[9]

Some scholars hold that a tradition of clerical continence existed in early Christianity, whereby married men who became priests were expected to abstain from sexual relations with their wives.[10][11] In this view, the early Church did not consider legitimate marriage by those who were already priests. The Council of Elvira, a local synod held in Hispania Baetica (part of modern Andalusia) in 306, before Constantine had legitimized Christianity, made it an explicit law that bishops and other clergy should not have sexual relations with their wives. The church canons known as the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Holy Apostles, which appear to have been composed in Syria or Egypt slightly earlier have also been interpreted as imposing a similar obligation.[12]

Evidence for the view that continence was expected of clergy in the early Church is given by the Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who points out that all marriages contracted by clerics in Holy Orders were declared null and void in 530 by Emperor Justinian I, who also declared the children of such marriages illegitimate.[13]

Schaff also quotes the account that "In the Fifth and Sixth Centuries the law of the celibate was observed by all the Churches of the West, thanks to the Councils and to the Popes. In the Seventh and down to the end of the Tenth Century, as a matter of fact the law of celibacy was little observed in a great part of the Western Church, but as a matter of law the Roman Pontiffs and the Councils were constant in their proclamation of its obligation." This report is confirmed by others too. "Despite six hundred years of decrees, canons, and increasingly harsh penalties, the Latin clergy still did, more or less illegally, what their Greek counterparts were encouraged to do by law—they lived with their wives and raised families. In practice, ordination was not an impediment to marriage; therefore some priests did marry even after ordination."[14] "The tenth century is claimed to be the high point of clerical marriage in the Latin communion. Most rural priests were married and many urban clergy and bishops had wives and children."[15] Then at the Second Lateran Council of 1139 the Western Church declared that Holy Orders were not merely a prohibitive but a diriment canonical impediment to marriage, making a marriage by priests invalid and not merely forbidden.[16][17]

The practice of clerical marriage was initiated in the West by the followers of Martin Luther, who himself, a former priest and monk, married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. It has not been introduced in the East. In the Church of England, however, the Catholic tradition of clerical celibacy continued after the Break with Rome. Under King Henry VIII, the 6 Articles prohibited the marriage of clergy and this continued until the Articles were repealed by Edward VI in 1547, thus opening the way for Anglican priests to marry for the first time.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Apostolic Canon 26, Canons 3 and 6 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
  3. ^ Apostolic Canon 26, Canons 3 and 6 of the 6th Ecumenical Council
  4. ^
  5. ^ Father William P. Saunders, Straight Answers.
  6. ^ Encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus; Procurator General.
  7. ^ Orest Subtelny. (1988). Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp.214-219.
  8. ^
  9. ^ While rejecting this interpretation, Baptist scholar Benjamin L. Merkle considers it a possible interpretation, one that has several strengths and fits in with the value that the early church attached to celibacy after the divorce or death of a spouse (Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Kregel 2008 ISBN 978-0-8254-3364-1), 126).
  10. ^ Roman Cholij, Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and in the History of the Church.
  11. ^ Cesare Bonivento, Priestly Celibacy — Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition?; Thomas McGovern,Priestly Celibacy Today; Alfons Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations; Anthony Zimmerman, Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles
  12. ^ Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church (Ignatius Press 2004 ISBN 978-0-89870-800-4), p. 105
  13. ^ Excursus on the Marriage of the Clergy
  14. ^ Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy. NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982, p. 45
  15. ^ Lea, Henry C. History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church. Philadelphia: University Books. 1966, pp. 118, 126.
  16. ^ New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 1967, p366
  17. ^ Herbert Thurston, "Celibacy of the Clergy" in Catholic Encyclopedia 1908
  18. ^ Ridley, Jasper (1962). "Thomas Cranmer". Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 398369. .

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