The Orthodox position on marriage and clerical celibacy has been fixed by the long patristic tradition and practice of the Church as regards the profound theological content of the sacrament of marriage and the eminently personal spirituality of the discipline of celibacy. Marriage according to the Lord and celibacy for the Lord’s sake are two different spiritual paths, it is true, but both are incontestably valid for a true living of the content of the faith.
Of these paths, anyone is free to follow either the one or the other in accordance with his own vocation and particular charisms. The Church equally blesses the two manifestations of the Christian’s spiritual combat, and Orthodox Churches show no preference for one at the expense of the other, preferring not to advance theological reasons in justification of one option rather than another. The choice lies with individual Christians, who thus make themselves responsible for the consequences of their own spiritual combat.
This awareness on the Church’s part was fixed in patristic tradition from earliest times, with special reference to the personal freedom of the faithful in choosing what spiritual combat they would undertake. According to Clement of Alexandria, «celibacy and marriage each have their own functions and specific services to the Lord.»1 Because of this, «we pay homage to those whom the Lord has favoured with the gift of celibacy and admire monogamy and its dignity.»2
In the same spirit and context, Clement censured the Gnostics who considered marriage to be a sin: «If lawful marriage is a sin, I do not see how anyone can claim to know God while saying the Lord’s commandment is a sin; indeed, the law being sacred, marriage is too. Hence the Apostle relates this sacrament to Christ and the Church.»3
Putting the personal charism of celibacy ii1to practice, the apostolic and patristic tradition regard as a personal gift from God. Those, therefore, who have chosen the celibate life have no right to pride themselves over the superiority of their spiritual combat: «If anyone can persevere in chastity in honour of the Lord’s flesh, let him do so without boasting about it. If he prides himself in this, he is lost; and if he tells anyone else about it except his own bishop, he is corrupt.»4 This personal charism is freely received and this spiritual combat is freely chosen. It cannot be imposed. It is not demanded by the nature of priesthood. The Church may require it for certain ministries. The Western Church requires it for those who are called to be priests and bishops. The Orthodox Church requires it, for pastoral reasons, for those who are called to be bishops.
Thus Orthodox tradition and practice honour and respect the celibacy of priests and praise their service in the body of the Church; at the same time, they honour and respect the married clergy since, they too, serve the same sacrament of the Church and salvation. The Orthodox Church thus accepts these two forms of service equally and leaves the choice of which it is to be to the individual member, in accordance with his own vocation and particular charisms. For pastoral reasons however, the Church has favoured the institution of celibacy for the order of bishops, and these are chosen exclusively from the celibate priesthood.
Until the schism between the two Churches, the Latin discipline concerning obligatory clerical celibacy was not regarded as a serious theological or ecclesiastical divergence, since neither of the two forms of service seemed to run counter to the tradition of the Church. This positive attitude on the part of the Eastern Church is clearly seen in canon 3 of the Council in Trullo, which underscores the need to make «pure and blameless ministers, worthy of the spiritual sacrifice of the Great God at once Victim and Priest, out of all those inscribed in the ranks of the clergy and through whom the graces of the sacraments pass to men, and the need to purge them of the filthiness of their illicit marriages; since, however, those of the most holy Roman Church propose to follow the discipline very strictly, while those of this imperial and God-protected city prefer the rule of humanity and indulgence, we have fused the two tendencies into one, lest mildness degenerate into licentiousness or austerity into bitterness...»
The combination of these two free spiritual choices constitutes the absolute theological criterion of the Orthodox tradition which, though susceptible to differing pastoral adaptations in local Churches between ‘severity’ and ‘indulgence’, cannot be invalidated by these adaptations. On the other hand, the theological principle that no sacrament of the Church can exclude the believer from participating in another sacrament of the Church is constant and incontestable, except where a personal spiritual choice on the part of the individual is concerned, or a particular charism is given the individual by God. Nonetheless, the theological or moral censure of the one or other form of ecclesiastical service, as has occurred since the Great Schism (1054), gives a theological content to legitimate differences of pastoral practice between ‘mildness’ and ‘austerity’.
It should be noted that the second pre-conciliar, pan-Orthodox conference, which met in Chambesy at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from 3 September to 12 September 1982, took the following decisions on the topic of impediments to marriage (decisions having no canonical force until the Great and Holy Synod has pronounced on them): «With regard to monks, who by virtue of the religious tonsure may not marry, the possibility is suggested that they may enter into marriage if, having resigned their religious identity whether willingly or unwillingly in the case of force majeure, they have been reduced to the lay state.»
«Priesthood, in all three of its degrees, according to the canonical tradition in force (canon 3 of the Council in Trullo), constitutes an impediment to marriage.»
1. Strom., III, 12.
3. Ibid., III, 12.
4. Letter of Ignatius to Polycarp, V. 1, 2.