Last week we reflected on Jesus’ first public exorcism. In today’s passage from Mark we read that immediately after that exorcism, Jesus goes to the home of Simon Peter and ministers to his, Simon Peter’s, mother-in-law. It’s rather curious why this particular passage should be here and in the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, other than to make the point that Simon Peter was married. This is interesting to explore. We know from a comment that St. Paul made in I Corinthians 9 that Simon Peter was not a widower, that he actually took his wife with him when he went on his Apostolic travels.
As we unpack this, we see a tension developing in the early Church about celibacy; something that is playing out this very day. One might say it was the “St. Peter Camp” vs. the “St. Paul Camp.” We know that St. Peter and at least some of the other Apostles were married and St. Paul was not and as we read in last week’s epistle lesson from I Cor. 7, he, Paul, thought no Christian should be married at all. But ironically he defended his right to have a spouse. He writes in I Cor. 9:5—“Do [I] not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other Apostles and…Cephas?” –another name for Simon Peter.
Because St. Paul thought that Jesus would return at any second, he taught that every Christian should be celibate, especially those in positions of ministerial leadership because marriage and family distracted from being fully prepared for Christ’s return. But he did acknowledge that this was his own opinion and not a direct teaching from God.
The issue of celibacy was as contentious as the purpose and place of circumcision in the NT Church. Over the years other Apostolic Churches, including Orthodox and most Eastern Rite Catholic Churches who are in communion with the Pope, by the way there are some 23 of these fully Catholic Churches and most of them do allow married priests. Along with the Orthodox, these Churches have agreed that Bishops must be celibate but priests and deacons may be married prior to their ordination. But if the wife dies, the priest or deacon may not remarry.
Celibacy, of course, is the official position of the Latin or Roman or Western Rite Church to which we belong. Married clergy like me from other traditions are allowed to be priests as a special favor by the Holy Father in a case by case basis; our presence is not meant to challenge the status quo. Like those in Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, we may not be bishops and we may not remarry if our spouses die. I think I’m the only priest in the Archdiocese of Oregon who was personally “signed off” on by Pope Benedict XVI.
This brings up all kinds of questions. So I turn now to a little article written by Barbara Anne Cusak, Canon Lawyer and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
She writes that: Celibacy is a discipline of the Catholic Church practiced universally in the West. [It is not a doctrine.] Although it is highly valued, Pope Paul VI stated that celibacy “is not, of course, required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church and the traditions of the Eastern rite churches.”
Mrs. Cusak continues: Much has been said about practical reasons for celibacy, such as giving the parish priest more time to dedicate to the children of God, etc. When all is said and done, however, we must understand it as a powerful sign of the presence of the kingdom of God. It is not essential to the priesthood, but it is a radical witness to the reign of Christ in the world. In the West the church eventually adopted the practice of celibacy as a universal discipline. The East, however, never did…This historical situation opened the doors to the possibility of a married clergy in the West under certain circumstances—most notably for those whose lifelong traditions allow for a married clergy. This includes certain Protestant traditions.
Continuing on, Mrs. Cusak wrote: In his 1967 encyclical, “Of the Celibacy of the Priest,” Pope Paul VI called for a study of the circumstances of married ministers of churches or other Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church and of the possibility of admitting those who desire full communion to the Catholic priesthood and to continue to exercise ministry. Pope Pius XII had already granted special permission for some married Lutheran clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood shortly after the Second World War.
In a 1980 statement, Pope [Saint] John Paul II allowed an exception for married Episcopal clergy who wanted to become Catholic priests. As an aside, I am one of these guys. For almost 24 years I was the Rector (or Pastor) of the Episcopal Church up River Road. Several of you will remember the vacation Church schools we cooperated on during several summers back in the 1980s.
Moving on: Some may wonder if there will be a change of position on the ordination of married men becoming priests. Chancellor Cusak responds: The ordination of a married man remains an exception and one that is granted only in very specific cases involving men who had already been called to ministry in another church or Christian denomination and later came into full communion in the Catholic Church.
There are about 200 married Western Rite Catholic priests in the US at this time, including a group of organized formerly Anglican or Episcopalian parishes called the Ordinariate, it’s like a diocese without geographic boundaries. They make use of a modified Anglican liturgy and they have a bishop and a formal structural hierarchy. They function like the gathering of Catholics in the Armed Forces, who also have their own bishop and a diocesan structure. The rest of the clergy are like me, married men who were ordained and became diocesan priests.
So, how does the Church make sure that these men coming from other traditions will truly teach the Catholic Faith? Well, I’ll tell you it takes a lot of training. It was a really challenging experience for me to go back to school at age 60. I had to spend an academic year up at Mt. Angel and I had to pass exams in Ascetical Theology, Canon Law, Church History, Dogmatic Theology, Liturgical and Sacramental Theology, Moral Theology, and Sacred Scripture.
It was rather grueling, eventually taking two days to write out the supervised qualification exam and then I had to fly back to Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey to pass the oral exams. I will always be grateful to Fr. Tom Yurchak, pastor of St. Jude parish in the south hills who walked me through the process. He put in a lot of time and effort.
Formally, the diocesan bishop is required to present the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. A dossier of at least 13 required documents is submitted, including a petition for a dispensation from the impediment of marriage that stands in the way of the ordination. The actual dispensation can only be granted by the pope. That’s when Pope Benedict signed off on me.
One can ask: does this mean that the Catholic Church will now allow priests to marry or that priests who left ministry to marry will be able to return?
The answer is: no. Chancellor Cusak writes that: There is historical evidence and contemporary practice that demonstrates that married men may be ordained. However, there is no tradition in the Church of allowing someone to marry after ordination. These priests who left the priesthood to get married, have lost the opportunity to be reinstated. The rule is married first, and then ordained, with special permission from the Pope. One can’t be ordained and then married.
I hope this is helpful information. Our Gospel lesson for today clearly shows that St. Peter was married and the Epistle lesson from last week shows that St. Paul was not and believed that no Christian should be married. I don’t see the issue of married clergy being resolved in my lifetime and probably not yours either.