Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NYT discovers Eastern Catholics.

Father Yuriy Volovetskiy distributes communion in his parish (source).

Father Yuriy Volovetskiy at home with his wife and children (source).

First off, my apologies for the paucity of recent posts - the last few weeks have been very busy, both on account of my current work and planning for the summer and the fall. Even so, I'm managing to keep my head above water.
Let the rest of Europe be convulsed by debates over whether the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests is causing sex abuse scandals like the one now unfolding in Germany. Here in western Ukraine, many Catholic priests are married, fruitful, and multiplying - with the Vatican's blessing.

The many feet scampering around the Volovetskiy home are testament to that.

The family's six children range from Pavlina, 21, to Taras, 9. In the middle is Roman, 16, who wants to be a Catholic priest when he grows up. Just like his father.

Dad is the Rev. Yuriy Volovetskiy, who leads a small parish here and whose wife, Vera, teaches religious school. The Volovetskiys serve in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which believes that celibate priests are not necessarily better priests.

Ukrainian Greek Catholics represent a branch of Catholicism that is distinct from the far more prevalent Roman Catholic one. The Ukrainian church is loyal to the pope in Rome, and its leader is a cardinal and major archbishop.

But it conducts services that resemble those in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In religious terms, it follows the Eastern Rite, not the Latin one that is customary in Roman Catholicism.
To read the rest, click here. Grateful for small favors, I'm pleased to see the NYT acknowledge that the Catholic Church is a much broader and more complex reality than the newspaper's religion coverage would typically suggest. That said, there is a lot wrong with the article. I agree with Josephus Flavius at Byzantine, Texas when he says that this is "more of a 'tear down clerical celibacy' piece than it is a look into the life of a Greek Catholic priest." I urge you to read the complete fisking of the article that Josephus Flavius offers on his blog, as his critique largely mirrors my own.

The key problem with the NYT article is that it misrepresents the Eastern tradition of ordaining married men to the priesthood as a sign of hostility toward clerical celibacy. In truth, celibate monastic clergy are greatly revered in the Eastern churches; even if "celibate priests are not necessarily better priests," their celibacy is embraced not as prerequisite for priesthood but rather as an essential part of their commitment to the monastic life. The ministry of married priests in the Eastern churches is certainly enriched by their experience as husbands and fathers, but the ministry of celibate monastic priests is just as deeply enriched by their experience as men who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to following Christ as monks. From an Eastern perspective, the Christian faithful benefit from the ministry of both married and celibate priests.

It strikes me that one problem with a lot of the debate about clerical celibacy in Western Europe and North America is that the disputants don't recognize the cultural and historical prejudices that lurk behind their positions. Sadly, some defenders of the Latin tradition of clerical celibacy ignore, dismiss or mischaracterize Eastern traditions. Meanwhile, many who argue for a greater relaxation of Roman Catholic discipline on clerical celibacy seem to presume a post-Reformation view of ordained ministry. For Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation, the institution of married clergy offered a rejection of clerical celibacy; this dichotomy is simply not present in the Christian East. For the Protestant reformers, ordination was also not a barrier to future marriage; once again, the Eastern view on this question is quite different: though one may be ordained after marriage, one cannot marry after ordination (which means, among other things, that a widowed priest is not free to remarry).

Thus, people on both sides of debates about celibacy are prone to make mistakes. Those who categorically state that "married priests aren't allowed in the Catholic Church" or "the only married priests are converts from Protestantism" ignore the traditions of Eastern Catholics and the ministry of Father Yuriy Volovetskiy and many others like him. Those who ask "why Catholic priests can't get married" frame the question in misleading terms, though I suspect that many do so unintentionally (that is, without an awareness of the historical and theological presuppositions that such a question relies upon). If one altered that question somewhat and asked "why married men can't become Catholic priests," the answer would have to be "some can - and do." (Of course, that would probably be a surprising answer to anyone who had to ask such a question in the first place.)

My concern about articles like the one that the NYT devotes to Father Yuriy is that people will merely take them as evidence to support their own preconceived notions, and I fear that the mistakes that the NYT reporter made in the story will make it easier for many to do so. My hope is that some readers will take another approach, viewing stories like this one as an invitation to a more serious and thoughtful investigation into the differences between East and West. Well, here's hoping. AMDG.


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