In the debate over clerical celibacy, the Eastern Catholic Churches are often raised as an example of a successful married clergy. In the East, married men are ordained and permitted to continue conjugal relations with their spouses. Why, then, should the Western Church cling so determinedly to the tradition of an unmarried priesthood? Isn’t it just a discipline?

Many Westerners, myself included, have experienced the powerful witness and pastoral charity of the married Eastern clergy. It helps us to realise that the Eastern and Western traditions are not at odds: they complement each other, since both retain part of the most ancient practice. And yet there is something even more precious – and more fragile – about the West’s achievement in preserving the perfect continence of the priesthood.

The original discipline, referred to in the New Testament itself (Titus 1:8), is priestly continence: that is, priests were often married, but once ordained would totally abstain from sexual relations. As Pope St Leo I would put it: “In order for the union [of bishops, priests, deacons] to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity cease.”

This practice must be understood in its historical context. It was extremely rare in the ancient world for a man to reach his majority without already being married. It would thus have been very difficult to supply the Church of the first three centuries with an unmarried clergy.

This is not to demean marriage which is, as the early Church knew, a natural blessing which has been raised to the dignity of a sacrament. Nevertheless, as Our Lord teaches us, those in heaven “neither marry nor are given in marriage”, and considered in itself (as the Council of Trent solemnly defined) the state of virginity is something even better. So much did the Christians of the second century assume continence was the proper state of Christians that St Pinytus, bishop of Knossos, mistakenly thought this a requirement of the Gospel for all the faithful. (St Dionysius of Corinth had to remind him that this not actually the case.)

In the East, where the original requirement would eventually be relaxed, the superiority of continence is clearly recognised. Those who have already been ordained cannot contract marriage. And the clergy of the Eastern Rites observe temporary continence prior to offering the Divine Liturgy. In accordance with the teaching of St Paul, second and third marriages (if a spouse has died) are discouraged; a fourth marriage is forbidden altogether. To end one’s life as a monk has been the ideal sought even by emperors. According to a longstanding canonical tradition – in both East and West – a man who has married twice cannot be ordained (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:12).

Over time the practice of married continence became unenforceable. The East reacted by abandoning its enforcement; the West reacted by ceasing to ordain married men. East and West have both preserved something precious from antiquity: the East has preserved a married presbyterate and a stronger sense of continence as the ideal for all the baptised, while the West has preserved the perfect continence of the priesthood.

Immensely valuable though the witness of the married Byzantine clergy is, Catholics have always held continence to be more precious than marriage. It is also more fragile. It will never be difficult to establish a married clergy, but if the ancient Latin discipline were to lapse it is hard to imagine it being restored without immense conflict and bitterness. Nor would such a surrender change matters for anyone now ordained, as the marriage of those already in the clerical state has been rejected in East and West from immemorial antiquity.

Both traditions are good – but only one is necessary. The Latins “have chosen the better part”: it will not be taken from them.

The above comes from a Mar. 11 story in the Catholic Herald (U.K.)