15 March 2023

The Eastern Rite -- a Catholic paradox

A few days ago pope Francis ruffled some feathers by suggesting that the Catholic Church's long-standing requirement that its priests be celibate might be reconsidered.  This idea has been floating around liberal Catholic circles for decades, but has always been firmly rejected by the upper hierarchy, including -- until now -- by Francis himself.

It's not surprising that the idea keeps coming up.  Priestly celibacy is not an immutable Church dogma -- it's more of an administrative rule, first established in the eleventh century, though one which is now very entrenched in tradition.  In today's world it's a disincentive to join the priesthood (in general, men are not noted for their enthusiasm for sexual abstinence), contributing to the worsening shortage of priests.  And as we now know, completely suppressing the sex drive is quite unhealthy -- often, like a river dammed up and allowed no outlet, it bursts forth in some unexpected and disastrous direction, notably in the pervasive problem of priestly sexual abuse of boys, which anecdotal evidence suggests has been going on for centuries.  But the Catholic Church is very strict in the application of its intricate rules.

The real paradox here, though, is that there are already some Catholic priests who are exempt from the celibacy requirement.

Within the vast Catholic Church there is a category of small churches known as "Eastern Rite" or "Eastern Catholic".  (Historically they were called "uniate churches", but this term has been abandoned since many consider it derogatory.)  These are churches, mostly in eastern Europe or the Middle East, which historically belonged to Eastern Orthodoxy but at some point became administratively part of the Catholic Church.  They maintain all their Eastern Orthodox rituals, traditions, vestments, etc, but they accept the authority of the pope, they are recognized as being fully Catholic, and their priests are recognized as legitimate Catholic priests.

The reason this matters is that in most Eastern Orthodox churches, as in most non-Catholic sects of Christianity, the clergy are commonly married.  When the Eastern Rite churches joined the Catholic Church, those that had this practice kept it, along with their other traditions.  To this day, they continue to ordain married men as priests -- who are accepted as legitimate Catholic priests.

So if these legitimate Catholic priests are exempt from the celibacy rule, and God is apparently cool with that, why on Earth is it so important that priests in the mainstream Catholic Church abide by the rule?  I know that religious logic can be bizarre, and there is doubtless some contrived religio-bureaucratic justification for the difference, but it still defies common sense.  The Eastern Rite churches aren't even really geographically segregated any more, since the Vatican has allowed them to extend their operations to Western countries to serve their members among the eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants to the West, and since 2014 explicitly allows them to ordain married priests even in the West.

In practice, it's probably mostly a matter of traditional inertia.  The eleventh century was a long time ago, and a tradition that has stood for a thousand years becomes so entrenched that changing it, especially in a massively conservative organization like the Catholic Church, just feels wrong.

Many liberal Catholics (including clergy), who are concentrated in the rich Western countries where most of the donation money comes from, support ending the celibacy rule or would at least accept doing so.  And it would probably help with that problem of too few men signing up to become priests.  But more traditional Catholics would be shocked at such an innovation.  Francis and his hierarchy will increasingly be under pressure from both directions, stirring up a hornet's nest of controversy and even threats of schism -- the inevitable fate of such a large and tradition-bound entity in a rapidly-changing world.


Blogger Lady M said...

Religion is so f-ing arbitrary isn't it? Priests might be celibate because the church did not want to have to pay them enough to support a family or because it was assumed (without proof) that jesus was celibate. Who knows?!

15 March, 2023 15:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It is arbitrary, which is why religion fails as a source of morality. It's just a matter of what arbitrary taboos happen to get included in the sacred texts. Why does the Old Testament forbid beard-trimming, wearing mixed fabrics, homosexuality, and working on a specific day of the week? It's just random.

Supposedly the reason the Church imposed celibacy in the eleventh century was to be able to take priests' property when they died, since they wouldn't have any children to inherit it. If true, certainly not a high moral basis for the taboo.

16 March, 2023 03:43  
Blogger Jack said...

My guess is that there isn't a high moral basis for most religious taboos. Those that seem arbitrary probably have origins like the one you mentioned that most of us aren't aware of. Gaining more land sounds like a good reason for a power-hungry crime syndicate to demand celibacy.

16 March, 2023 03:54  
Blogger Lady M said...

Jack is probably right - greed, power, control and self preservation are probably the motivations for most of their "rules" not any high moral or ethical standards.

16 March, 2023 07:41  
Anonymous spirilis said...

In the beginning humans were illiterate, impoverished and gathering into herds to capture and distribute the rewards of agriculture. Some person (probably a woman) observed that seeds planted in a relationship with the cosmos did better and religions were born worshiping the "sun" god that give increased prosperity. Evolution took over and management ensconced itself in a fortified structure like the way nature does putting the actual work into hands and safety onto the feet and a new organization took off and today we see the incredible innovations of beliefs, we call religion if god is concrete and philosophy if abstract.
Atheists are worthy subjects for study because of a belief that nothing is something. This is very interesting to those who seek the concrete in the abstract.
I read the "The Selfish Gene" and "The Virtue of Selfishness" for the same philosophy class. Richard Dawkins wore a wedding ring for most of his life and practiced serial matrimony. I would love to actually meet an Athiest because all I ever find is Agnostics just like myself. Catholicism is a perfect religion for masochists' in that physical pain is the price of sin and the suffering of pain is it's own reward. We are all he same only different.

16 March, 2023 08:23  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jack: It would be fascinating to know the true origins of some of the taboos. Maybe three thousand years ago somebody the priests didn't like had a monopoly on beard trimmers?

One thing that happens in some Eastern Orthodox churches is that sons of priests often become priests, to the point where they become almost a hereditary caste. If the Catholic Church dropped the celibacy requirement, that could eventually happen there too, though I imagine it would take a few generations.

Lady M: I'm sure greed plays a role in this case. The Catholic hierarchy controls vast wealth. The Vatican has more treasure than some palaces. I wonder what Jesus would think.

Spirilis: I'm as solid of an atheist as you're ever likely to meet. I put God in the same category as unicorns and dragons -- you can't absolutely prove it doesn't exist, but it's so unlikely that it's not worth putting any mental effort into the question.

16 March, 2023 11:33  
Anonymous spirilis said...

Do you not wonder if the myth of the unicorn arose from an overheard conversation discussing a rhinoceros seen for the first time? We stand in complete agreement that the existence of gods as they are described is ludicrous. Pythagoras, Darwin and Einstein have all proposed theories that have engaged thoughtful minds in a relentless pursuit of falsifying them for fun and a little notoriety.
I find that clip from "The Watchmen" endlessly fascinating. I am not trying to make YOU understand, I am trying to make me understand. In the search for an AI we are looking for a machine that thinks there is something more in the duality of ON/OFF or all/nothing. Imagine that god is really just time. What you offer is a glimpse of an answer to the Dickerson question of "what would you do with a moment of no time?" I guess what I don't understand is why you, who prints a remarkable list of visited sites weekly, thinks it's not worth putting any mental effort into the question. Have a great day.

17 March, 2023 08:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

what I don't understand is why you, who prints a remarkable list of visited sites weekly, thinks it's not worth putting any mental effort into the question

The number of imaginable things that have no realistic chance of existing is essentially infinite. Deities fall into that category, along with unicorns, mermaids, Spider-Man, etc, etc, etc. There's no reason to prioritize any one of them over any of the others. I have better things to do with my time and energy than wasting it on such nonsense. I don't bother thinking seriously about whether God exists for the same reason I don't bother thinking seriously about whether Darth Vader or Santa Claus really exists.

17 March, 2023 10:25  
Blogger NickM said...

"Atheists are worthy subjects for study because of a belief that nothing is something"

What about zero? That exists. So at least as far as pretty much any mathematics that goes much beyond the "some beans" stage there's a nothing that has an existence.

But what does that mean? Well, it's a concept with definable characteristics. Now, here's a puzzle... The same can be said about merfolk (they/them) or unicorns. I mean something that definitely doesn't exist is a unicorn without a horn because that would be a horse - the horn being a critical part of the definition of a unicorn. In much the same way you can't have a positive zero or a merperson with no tail.

The thing is existence can mean different things. Whether an equation has solutions (and a lot don't - or at least don't have closed-form solutions* or solutions in integers** or whatever) is an existential question but it is not the same kind of existential question as whether unicorns exist. The existence of mathematical entities is a rather different thing from the existence of cute horny horses. At the risk of sounding flippant the existence of the former doesn't raise the secondary questions that the existence of the latter does... What is the unicorns' geographical range? What do they eat? Can you ride them? How much will Hasbro pay for the rights***?

*n-body problems for example (for n>2).
**Fermat's last theorem is about this.
***Especially if you can get them into a bidding war with Mattel...

18 March, 2023 05:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

There's a broad general consensus about what a "god" is, and the plain everyday meaning of "exist" is straightforward enough. When I say I see no reason to believe any gods exist, it's perfectly clear what I mean, whether someone agrees with it or not.

18 March, 2023 05:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

This thread isn't the place for debates about atheism. That's not what the post is about.

18 March, 2023 05:45  

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