A Preliminary Study Of Problems Facing The Married Priest In Contemporary Society And A Consideration Of Some Possible Aids In Solving Them
The title of this study paper may perhaps suggest the need for some new justification of the Orthodox Church’s traditional practice of ordaining men who are married to the diaconate and the priesthood. Such is not the case, since the propriety of this practice, by and large, has not been questioned. It is a well known fact that the Western Church discontinued the ordination of married men several centuries ago, long before the western schism. It is also a fact that in the derivative Protestant Churches the sacramental priesthood was suppressed and that ministers in these Churches may be married either before or after ordination.
Our purpose in this paper is to initiate discussion of certain problems faced by the married Orthodox priest in contemporary, primarily western, society and to propose the undertaking of concrete steps to contribute toward the solution of these problems. It may appear that we are implying that the problems facing the married clergy to which we shall address ourselves never existed before among Orthodox clerics and that they exist now as a direct consequence of our Church’s presence in non-orthodox, pluralistic societies. While all of these problems have existed to some degree even in the so-called homelands of Orthodoxy, we are convinced that in the West, especially in America, they have reached a certain intensity, and that the need for dealing with them has become urgent.
Since these concerns are no doubt common to all the Orthodox clergy in western societies, regardless of jurisdiction, it will be advisable to share our considerations and proposed ways of treating them with the other Churches. Since the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) has often served as a forum for the discussion of matters of interest to all the Churches represented there, we should ask our representative to bring our study to the attention of this body. We should know the reaction of the other Churches to our study and be made aware of ways in which they are dealing with the same concerns.
The areas to which we refer are: the priest and his family in the context of the parish community; difficulties and dangers faced by the priest and his family; marital problems between priests and their wives; the growing incidence of clergy divorce; pre-divorce procedures; problems facing widowed priests, especially those who are left with children; preparation of candidates for the priesthood for married life; and forums on the diocesan and regional levels for married clerics with special attention given to clergy wives and their needs. In connection with the preparation of candidates, it will be advisable to explore ways in which the bishop may ascertain whether the clergy wife-to-be is enthusiastic about her future husband’s calling, opposed to it, or simply passive in the matter. It is certainly appropriate to give consideration to some kind of preparation for the future clergy wife.
Scriptural and Canonical Insights
New Testament references to the presbyter/bishop and the deacon as married clerics are few. It is St. Paul’s two epistles, I Timothy and Titus, to which we must turn for the scriptural listing of qualifications for these offices, and for their role as husband and parent. The requirements are stated briefly, but they provide an insight into the Christian understanding of the whole complex of the husband/parent relationship in the priest’s family.
Both letters state that the bishop/presbyter must be
“the husband of one wife.”
Obviously, this expression implies a qualifier, “if married,” since the Apostle would hardly insist that marriage be a universal requisite for ordination. According to our canonical tradition, it has been understood to mean that neither can the priest have more than one wife nor can he have been previously married, divorced and remarried. (In recent times, there have been expressions of interest in allowing a second marriage for a widowed priest which you can read here. In addition, attempts have been made to justify the ordination of a convert who has been divorced and married a second time with the objection that the person involved “was not Orthodox” or “not even a Christian,” when these events happened. We must answer that the prospective presbyters/bishops that St. Paul had in mind were precisely converts from paganism.) The reason for this first requirement is obvious: the cleric cannot preach the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, and be himself an example of an exception to the rule. It should be pointed out, however, that canon law (Apost. Can. 17) does not take into account the marital situation prior to baptism.
With regard to the wives of clerics, what is stated in I Timothy 3:11 concerning a deacon’s wife is applicable equally to the wife of a presbyter. They must be
“grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”
That a cleric’s (priest’s) wife should be a serious person, not frivolous or unconcerned about her husband’s duties, is to be taken for granted. The canons insist upon this (e.g., Apost. Can. 18). It goes without saying that the second qualification for the wife, that of not being a slanderer, is of enormous importance to her husband’s work. Few things are more unfitting than for a cleric’s wife to be the parish gossip.
The priest must
“rule his own house well . . . for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God?” (I Timothy 3:4-5)
If the husband is the head of the family in all Christian families, it is even more important that this be so in the case of the priest or deacon.
“Having his children in subjection with all gravity. . .”
does not mean that the priest is to be a tyrant in the family and have his children live in terror, but it does mean that he is responsible before God for his wife and children; he is their primary teacher and example; and he must be conscientious about their formation as Christians. If they are accused of riot or unruly, (Titus 1:6) the blame for their rebelliousness devolves upon the head of the family.
The priest’s family is the model for the whole parish. This fact can place a great deal of stress on the wife and children, but this is not necessarily inevitable if the atmosphere within the family is wisely shaped by the initiative of the head of the family. There is a tendency among priests’ wives and children to reject their role as models, but the fact remains that the average church member sees them as such. A very great danger to all Christians, individuals, families and priests’ families, is a fear of being different and a desire to be just like everybody else. Some go to great lengths to demonstrate their “averageness,” their normality. Conformity with society’s standards and prevailing trends cannot be the goals the priest sets for his own family and particularly for his own children, but, obviously, the priest’s family should not seek to be different for the sake of being different; they must, however, if following Christ and His Gospel demand it.
The family structure has been seriously eroded in American society, and the priest’s family is unfortunately not immune to this pernicious trend. Awareness of this danger is the first step in combating it. Pretending that is does not exist and refusing to be alarmed can only heighten the danger to one’s own family.
Within the family itself, the priest is no less the teacher and guide into the way of salvation than he is to his flock. The married priest cannot abdicate his position as father and head of his family, as is being done in a large segment of society. The priest, as the teacher of his children, cannot afford to be more lax with them than he is with the rest of the children of his flock.
It is necessary for the priest’s home to be the model home in the community. It is, as the laymen are often reminded by the priest, a “little church,” and therefore sacred, the place where all members pray together, eat together, dress decently, treat one another with love and respect. Love, indeed, is the force that binds it all together. On the other hand, it has become all too typical among modem American families for the home to be little more than a place to sleep, eat hurriedly, and change clothes. It is to be lamented that the family table is neglected, that in many homes the members eat “on the run,” whenever they feel like it, often on their laps in front of the television. Prayer, if practiced at all, has become strictly a private affair. Conformity to such trends as these, which are both the cause and the result of the breakdown of family consciousness, can well cause the breakdown of the priest’s family. In this atmosphere, it is common for parents to put their own happiness (really contentment and pleasure) above that of their children.
The result of the breakdown of the family is divorce. While it was not unheard of in former times for a priest and his wife to divorce on the basis of specific causes mentioned in canon law (cf. infra), the present increased divorce rate, society’s attitudes toward divorce and general acceptance of it as a fact of life, and a false, romantic idea of marital happiness, have come to influence Orthodox Christian husbands and wives. Marriages in our own churches often involve divorced persons, and there is a growing softness among us in approving marriages of such persons. We have become more and more tolerant of the causes that are written into the divorce decrees of secular courts, such as incompatibility (often after having had several children), and a cynical “intolerable cruelty” (usually psychological).
In this atmosphere, it has happened that priests’ families have sometimes been affected, and in some cases, divorce has been deemed the only solution to the problems that exist between the priest and his wife. It is not uncommon for them to have recourse to secular counselors in an attempt to save what appears to be a doomed relationship.
There is but one canon that deals specifically with a cleric’s divorce (Neo-caesarea, 8). It recognizes only one reason for his putting his wife away, the biblical one, adultery, and this action is not a matter of choice but of obligation.
If, on the other hand, it is the priest who commits adultery, he is to be degraded. The canon referred to reads:
“When the wife of a layman commits adultery, if she has been openly convicted of this offense, that layman cannot enter the service. If, on the other hand, she commits adultery after his ordination, he must divorce her. But if he continues to live with her, he cannot retain possession of the office which has been placed in his hands.”
Attention is called to the clause,
“if she has been convicted openly of this offense,”
because it could happen that she might be falsely accused as a pretext for divorce.
At the seminary candidates for the priesthood are instructed in the duties of the priest, and specifically of the married priest, in matters pertaining to headship of the family, and in the Christian upbringing of his children. The preparation seems to be adequate, but there is little, if any, attention given to the priest in his role as a married man after his ordination and after some experience in the pastoral life. It is advisable, in view of the condition of our society and of the fragile nature of the American family in our times, and, especially in view of the increased divorce rate and the problems encountered by children and young people, for the dioceses to provide means for filling this important need. These means might take various forms: forums, lectures, seminars, retreats, etc.
They could contribute greatly to mutual and brotherly assistance; they could provide ways for the sharing of concerns, encouragement for the combating of possible difficulties, and to the relief of stress. Pastoral conferences and retreats might be devoted to frank discussions of the difficulties faced by priests in their roles as heads of families and fathers of children. In view of the great distances between parishes and the large territory covered by our dioceses, these programs could be held in regions, deaneries, and where possible, in diocesan clerical gatherings.
For cases in which a priest and his wife are experiencing marital problems, they must be made aware of the fact that they should not seek the aid of a secular counselor who may know nothing of the Christian concept of marriage or may hold an unchristian view of the institution. Such counselors usually are of little help and in some cases can be harmful, being more concerned with psychological rather than spiritual causes of marital problems. In order to meet the needs of priests and wives in such situations, the dioceses should survey the resources they have among their own people, experienced priests and spiritual fathers, Orthodox counselors and psychologists.
In cases in which a separation is contemplated, the priest and his wife must seek first the counsel of their own bishop. The bishop must not be faced with a “fait accompli,” an already arrived at decision to separate or possibly divorce. He, on the other hand, must be ready to give all the time necessary to contribute to the healing of a potential rupture. In his capacity as the first teacher, he must not be reluctant to
“reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (II Timothy 4:2)
in this serious matter.
It has become obvious and must be recognized by us that the wife of a priest in our society faces a number of serious problems that must be confronted. In the first place, the very phenomenon of “priest’s wife” is not generally appreciated by our society as a whole. People are accustomed to ministers’ wives, but even among Protestants and the un-churched, the only priests they know are Roman Catholics and these are all celibates.
Priests’ wives have begun to hold retreats and other gatherings designed for mutual encouragement, support, the sharing of problems, and the relief of stress. These programs have been the result of the initiative of two or three well-known and dedicated priests’ wives. These efforts should, no doubt, be encouraged, since in all the reports of such activities that have come to us, the participants have derived a great benefit from them.
On the other hand, individual responses to such meetings should be respected: there may be priests’ wives who either feel no need for them or simply do not wish to participate. (It may be added that in these activities and gatherings there has been no hint of rebelliousness nor of demands of any kind. Neither have we seen in them the potential for the development of “hotbeds of feminism.” We believe that the time is right for the diocesan bishop to take an interest in these initiatives, perhaps even participate, so as to be able to guide them.)
Finally, it must be pointed out that among the factors that contribute to the eroding of family life, that of economics is a very serious one. It is generally true that our priests are underpaid. This is especially the case in small parishes and missions where the income is limited. It is unfortunately the case even in other parishes with large incomes. It is not uncommon for the priests of relatively prosperous churches to have to live on poverty-level salaries. Often this situation is the consequence of uncharitable or unrealistic attitudes toward the clergy: that there is to be found some anti-clericalism among our people is no secret. Some people feel that the priest and his family should be content with far less than the average family. Others imagine that the priests receive gifts and fees for services that more than compensate for their low salaries. Still others think that he and his family do not have the same economic needs as other families.
The psychological and spiritual strains that result from economic anxieties can contribute to the kind of dissatisfaction that produces marital problems. They have already caused an inordinate number of priests to request leaves of absence, in some cases to seek other employment, and in others, simply to seek relief from the stress related to this problem.
Clergy compensation has already received some attention in our Church. Some of the dioceses have set minimum standards for salaries, insurance, and various allowances. Yet, parishes do not always comply with diocesan requirements. Much remains to be done in this regard.
It is often necessary for the priest’s wife to be employed, with the result that the roles of husband and wife are reversed. Sometimes it is the priest who holds a full-time secular job. This latter has often been necessary in some of our missionary work, and we should be thankful to God for the willingness of some priests to do this. In many cases they have been admirable and dedicated pastors of their flocks, in spite of the fact that they spend so many hours in their secular jobs.
While there are many different situations that we must face, and while there is no one answer for them all, there will undoubtedly be some comfort in the fact that the hierarchy of our Church has taken seriously the problems that our priests and their families have and has begun to take steps to solve or alleviate them.