A Lebanese archbishop’s practical argument for married priests

Archbishop George Bakhouni of Tyre. (Nancy Wiechec/CNS)

TYRE, Lebanon — Heading a southern Lebanese diocese that goes from the sea then east two-thirds of the way along the border with Israel, the one problem Melkite Archbishop George Bakhouni of Tyre says he doesn’t have is finding priests.

In fact, the archbishop said, he’s surprised bishops and other leaders of the Latin-rite church aren’t more interested in the Eastern Catholic churches’ experience with ordaining married men.

“Christianity survived in the Middle East because of the married priests,” the bishop said. Because they are married with families and homes, they tend to stay even when conflicts and hardship send many celibate priests fleeing to safety.

The archbishop met Saturday with a small group of Catholic journalists visiting Lebanon with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a North American agency supporting Christians in the region.

For the archdiocese’s 10 parishes, “I have 12 priests. Eight of them are married and four are single, but two of the singles are serving in Italy,” the archbishop said.

“We always propose this to the Latin church because you are Catholic and we are Catholic, but we always feel a lot of reticence when we mention this issue to the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t know, but I think it could be helpful to allow a married person to be a priest.”

A cross at the Melkite church in Yaroun, less than a mile from the Israeli border. (Nancy Wiechec/CNS)

The celibacy rule for priests in the Latin-rite church has always been defined as a church discipline, not a theologically or scripturally based dogma that is unchangeable.

The archbishop knows all the arguments against relaxing the celibacy requirement in the Latin church, but in his experience, ordaining married men is the most naturally pastoral response to every Catholic’s need for regular access to the sacraments.

In little villages where there may be only 20 or 30 families, he said, it would be hard to find a single, celibate priest who would be happy to live and minister there. And that handful of families would not be able to support him.

The Eastern tradition, he said, is “to choose someone who has his own work in the particular village, a good man, a faithful man, a Christian man. He will study a little bit, some theology and philosophy, and he will be ordained.”

The archbishop said it doesn’t matter that it’s impractical to send a married man to the seminary for six years. “We don’t want all of them to be doctors or theologians,” but witnesses. Priests don’t all have to be well spoken orators; they could even be fishermen, like the Apostles, he said.

The important thing, he said, is that they live exemplary lives among their fellow villagers, know a bit of theology and the Bible and that they are available to celebrate the sacraments.

9 Responses

  1. It’s a great idea…after all our chanceries, seminaries, and episcopal sees are purged. Otherwise it’s just going to be another half century of similar decline as CERTAIN seminaries get packed with liberals. BOOM, more crappy catechesis and anemic liturgy for everyone.

  2. I would agree with Geoff that we would certainly need a reform of the Church in America before implementing such things.

    Of course, once such a reform happened, perhaps we would find we didn’t need to implement the married priesthood.

    While what the Archbishop says may have something to consider, I am struck by the thought that perhaps the situations are not equal. His archdiocese has 10 parishes and 12 priests. My own diocese (Sacramento) has at least 90 parishes for example.

    I think we need to see if the situations (demographic, cultural etc) are similar before trying to apply the solution of one region to another.

  3. I believe the time has arrived to accept married priests. It seems to me that the first group of married priests would be our married Deacons, as they already administer many of the sacraments of the church in our parishes, from baptisms to weddings.
    So the next step, need not be so divisive among parishoners or clergy.

  4. I can’t help but think that the divisiveness alluded to by Mr. Mrkonjic is centered in the hierarchy, more specifically that part of it resident at the Vatican and environs. I doubt seriously that the people in the pews would be concerned.
    We must remember what we have here: an established mileau into which enter those who would be priests.
    Interesting, too: Perhaps still alive- a married man secretly ordained a priest and then a bishop in the old days of Communist Czechoslovakia. He was authorized to ordain priests and, perhaps, bishops. He was not allowed to continue to function as a bishop or even as a priest once the Red menace began to disappear.
    What Rome will permit when it is convenient! The shortage of priests and the decline in Church participation by the laity is not serious enough yet to bring Rome to entertain some very old ideas.

  5. I am glad that the archbishop knows the argument for retaining the discipline of celibacy. It is unfortunate that neither he nor the author share those arguments with the reader.

  6. Why can Eastern Catholic married men can be ordained as priests, but Latin Rite Catholic married men cannot? I think the Church should allow it. More vocations may take place.

  7. It is my prayer and hope the Church of the West will stop thinking in “either/or” terms and begin thinking in Gospel and Primitive Church terms of “both/and”. We ought to treasure the tradition of celibacy freely chosen for the sake of the Kingdom AND the Gospel and Primitive Church tradition of ordaining qualified and worthy married men. The reality is we already have many ordained married men in the West, all coming to us from Protestant traditions. One reality will have to undergo development in this process of re-thinking, namely, the need to have our people learn more about biblical tithing in order to support such a change. Another reality which will have to be carefully looked at are those men already ordained who chose to leave ministry, licitly or illicitly, and marry. Is there room for Gospel Mercy, Forgiveness and Discernment to bring worthy, holy and wholesome ones back into service. Once a priest, always a priest, the saying goes, and I have a hunch there are thousands of our brothers out there who would like to “come back to ministry”. Given the critical shortage of ordained presbyters all options should be looked at by those in Apostolic Servant/Leadership under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe unordained parish leadership by generous and well meaning women or men is the answer. It is indeed for collaboration, co-ministry and cooperation. Nevertheless, I believe ordained male servant headshhip is an infallible biblical principle for a well ordered family of God.

  8. I’m in doubt if married priest would be a solution or a problem.
    If we were to adopt ordained married priest I would suggest
    the experience of the Anglican Church in this matter. It’s
    closer to our way of life than the Eastern rite.

  9. Joe, how is the experience of the Anglican Church any similar? How is invalid sacraments, invalid apostolic succession, and denial of fundamental beliefs of faith any closer to the way of life of the Catholic Church?

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