The Conflict of Sacred Trusts

How many of you have a “sacred trust”?

By “sacred trust”, I mean a godly duty to which you have publically bound yourself by an oath in the presence of God and in his name.

Off hand, I can think of several such “sacred trusts”:

Holy Orders
Marriage (including Fatherhood/Motherhood)
Religious Life
Military service
Apostolic consecration

Can you think of others? It should be obvious that I am not here thinking of a job, or a profession or a career, or even of a vocation in the general sense of what we aim to do with our lives. I am thinking of those sacred duties for the fulfillment of which a person will vow to sacrifice every other priority in life.

Thinking in these terms may help us to come to a deeper understanding of the issues involved in the debate about clerical celibacy.

There is nothing which essentially – that is, by the nature of these sacred trusts in themselves – excludes a person from holding more than one sacred trust at a time.

For instance, let us take the example of one who is under a military oath. Many military personnel are also husbands/wives and fathers/mothers. Some, such as chaplains, also have the sacred trust of holy orders, and, as we know from history, it is even possible for military oaths and oaths to religious life to be held at the same time. But the fact is that there are real conflicts in all of these cases. A soldier is called away from his family to fight, and knows that he may not come home. His duty as a soldier is in conflict with his sacred trust to his family. A military chaplain may have cases where his obligation to Caesar comes into conflict with his obligation to the Church. And indeed we know what happened to the military religious orders…

Some sacred trusts fit well together (eg. Holy Orders and Religious life – although there have been times in history when religious orders have recognised that priestly obligations can be in tension with the charism of the order); others don’t fit well together at all (for instance, no one is debating whether monks and nuns should be obligated to celibacy!). The difficulty is always in relation to the “to the exclusion of every other priority” clause in a sacred trust. When sacred trusts come into conflict, the result is failure to completely fulfil one or the other trust. In other words, one or the other must take priority at any given time.

In regard to the celibacy or marriage of Christian priests or ministers, there is nothing which in essence excludes those in the state of Holy Matrimony from also entering into Holy Orders. But the growing sense of the Church over the centuries has been that some forms of ordained ministry – in particular priesthood and especially episcopacy – demand such a sacred commitment above all other priorities that a real conflict of interest and priorities exists between this sacred duty and the sacred duty of Holy Matrimony (which is also a commitment above all other priorities).

As has been noted in the comments on an earlier posting, I was once in ordained ministry at the same time as being a husband and father. I therefore have some first hand experience of this conflict – although I hasten to add that my experience is exactly that: only my experience. I know that there are many married clergy out there who will say that by and large they have been able to balance the commitment to the sacred trust of ministry and the commitment to the sacred trust of marriage. But the operative word here is “balance”: it is a balancing game. A married minister must always prioritise between his double commitment. I am fairly certain that if you did a survey of all married ministers, whether priests or ministers or deacons, or Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, you would not find one person who would tell you that they had never experienced this conflict. AND in case you did find married priest/minister who said they had never experienced such a conflict between their ecclesiastical and domestic obligations, I would suggest you ask their wife or husband for a second opinion!

What this comes down to is this: How do we understand the sacred trust of priesthood? How do we understand the sacred trust of marriage (and family)? I have no hesitation in saying that I understand my sacred trust to my wife and family as being of such high priority that NOTHING should ever come before it. I would guess too that most of us would understand the sacred duty of priesthood to require a similar level of commitment. You can, of course, downgrade one or the other commitments to the level of functional operations; or (perhaps less harshly) at least to “priority no. 1” and “priority no.2”. But if the nature of both sacred trusts is that they require the highest prioritisation of that trust above all else, they cannot well co-exist.

I end with an anecdote that I never tire of repeating – as much for my sake as for anyone else’s. About a year after I left the Lutheran ministry, my four year old daughter came to me and said: “Daddy, you used to be a pastor, didn’t you?”. “Yes,” I replied, wondering where this was going. “But now you are my daddy, aren’t you?”. Yes, Maddy, yes I am, and I always will be.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Conflict of Sacred Trusts

  1. Louise says:

    Very well put, David.

  2. Matthias says:

    Very well put. Here ‘s anothe perspective
    When Modern nursing started and I am here not including nuns or brothers-such as the Order of St Joseph,but Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, there was a belief that nursing care was a sacred trust. The Florence Nightingale pledge-first recited at a US hospital nursing graduation ceremony in 1893 contains that belief:
    “I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician, in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” When I graduated as a nurseI had to recite the International Council of Nursing Pledge- a weak,culturally relevant piece even in 1977. So I read the Nightingale Pledge afterwards.
    Think of Edith Cavell helping allied soldiers to escape German occupied Brussels and of her words to the german army chaplain-her spiritual advisor through her trial and up to her execution-whilst waiting for the CofE Chaplain in Brussels to bring her her last Holy communion:
    ‘Standing as I do in the sight of God ,and in view of Eternity,I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” Perhaps duty and a sense of vocation in nursing in years past was a sacred trust,now undone by the heavily post Christian culture prevalent in nursing academia

    • Schütz says:

      Thank you for that reminder, Matthias. Nursing was indeed once understood as a sacred trust as you demonstrate. Interestingly, this gives us an instance of two sacred trusts that can well co-exist, namely nursing and religious life.

      I wonder too, given that it once required celibacy, whether the task of teacher – particularly teacher in a university – might not have once been regarded in the same light.

      Which leads me to think that we have been steadily “whittling down” the category of sacred trust – making them into “professions” and “occupations”.

      Which in turn leads me to think that there may be an element of this in the current debate – and which definitely can be seen if one compares the Protestant and Catholic perspectives on the ontological and personal nature of ordained ministry – redefining ordained ministry as an “occupation” or even a “job” rather than a “sacred trust”.

      • Louise says:

        I have always believed that nursing and teaching in particular were vocations. That they are considered as “careers” appals me.

  3. Tony says:

    When sacred trusts come into conflict, the result is failure to completely fulfil one or the other trust. In other words, one or the other must take priority at any given time.

    What concerns me about this approach is a kind of quantitative notion of ‘fulfillment’ as if having two commitments or ‘trusts’ compete with each other in terms of fulfilment.

    To me it’s a little like saying you have one child and having another compromises your love of or committment to that first child.

    Again with my disclaimer: I believe there is a place — an important place — for celibacy in the church. My problem is with mandatory celibacy which in my life time is, in effect, ‘not quite’ mandatory.

    If the church, in it’s wisdom, says there is a place for married priests and that they can be accommodated with their ‘compromised’ committment (if that’s how it is viewed) and, despite that, they add value to the life of the church, then let’s extend that to other men who are married.

    If the church says that a priestly life and a married life are, for whatever reason, incompatible, then be consistent.

    • Schütz says:

      The conflict of sacred trusts sounds high and lofty, but happens in very real situations, such as: when a domestic crisis arises at the same time as a pastoral crisis, and one must chose which of the two to address at that given moment. It is not quite the same thing as the committment to love more than one child. The sacred trust of marriage and family embraces love for each child in a domestic economy of love. Thus, in any given household, it would be unreasonable for one child to complain that their sibling is “loved more” simply because the parent is prioritising the attention necessary to a particular child at any given moment.

      You could possibly apply this thinking to the situation of parish ministry – ie. the priest has many children, some parochial and some domestic, and that sometime his parochial children need attention at the expense of his domestic children – but I don’t think that would actually cut the ice with his family! Marriages and families in the manse often break down precisely because the spouse and children perceive their husband/father to be giving more priority to his spiritual children than to his children “according to the flesh”! And indeed this is often the case – because there can be a certain “affirmation” of identity and importance that a pastor receives from his parish that he may not be receiving from his family… It becomes a nasty spiral.

      What I am saying, Tony, is that in reality real and practical and often quite simply conflicts of interest occur. Any married minister worth his salt as a husband and wife will not hesitate to demonstrate to his family that they come before all else. He will do this by consistently – and as a rule – putting his responsibilities to them ahead of his responsibilities to his parish – not just “on balance”, but ALWAYS. Wives do not generally take kindly to divided loyalties in this department! AND HENCE, a married priest simply cannot guarentee to his parish that they will always, ALWAYS be the first priority in his life. Because they aren’t. And never will be.

      • Tony says:

        What I am saying, Tony, is that in reality real and practical and often quite simply conflicts of interest occur. Any married minister worth his salt as a husband and wife will not hesitate to demonstrate to his family that they come before all else. He will do this by consistently – and as a rule – putting his responsibilities to them ahead of his responsibilities to his parish – not just “on balance”, but ALWAYS. Wives do not generally take kindly to divided loyalties in this department! AND HENCE, a married priest simply cannot guarentee to his parish that they will always, ALWAYS be the first priority in his life. Because they aren’t. And never will be.

        No individual can, David. We all juggle priorities. Even celibate priests have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. A priest may be an only child or he may be the only sibling not interstate or overseas.

        Even with his normal role, a priest may take on a particular pastoral project within his parish that will mean his capacity to spend time on other things is lessened.

        (We find this more and more with the dwindling number of priests.)

        I don’t dismiss the particular difficulty that a married priesthood would bring, but this is a problem of management not philosophy or theology.

        Again, we can wax lyrical about this all we want but the church has spoken: we have married priests (former Anglicans and those in other rites). So, in principle, the church is saying that marriage and priesthood are not mutually exclusive. They present particular difficulties and will require particular forms of support.

        In a neighbouring parish we have a deacon who has a young family and who runs a business to earn income. That means his time spent on ‘parish’ work is more of a juggle, more of a negotiation, than an unmarried priest or deacon with no income/family constraints. BUT, the time he gives is a valuable contribution to the life of the parish and, to the extent that he does contribute, frees the PP to do his job better.

  4. Jim Ryland says:


    When I received my doctoral degree in sacred music and liturgy, the ceremony included a public group acceptance of vows to promote the highest standards of our calling and to always serve the Lord worthily with our talents. In the struggle to honor those vows, few of us thought that our greatest adversary would often be the Church. Those vows were frequently in conflict with the implied and expected practice of obedience to the local clergy and episcopacy.

  5. Gareth says:

    I am not sure if this post was meant to be on the topic of priest celibacy but someone mentioned that the Church has said there is a place for married priests within a compromised position.

    With all due respects, whilst the Church has made some very, very rare exceptions to the rule of clerical celibacy, I am not sure if I would then take the rare ‘exceptions’ and argue that the Church has made a ‘place’ for married priests when 99 per cent of priests at least in Australia are still single.

    • Louise says:

      Indeed. While there are exceptions, I would think that the Church does not yet wish for anything but celibate priesthood to be normative.

  6. joyfulpapist says:

    Excellent post, David. One of the many reasons I respect, cherish, and admire my husband is that he has twice left a job he loved and was good at because the demands of the job conflicted with his duty to his family.

    I have often heard men (and more recently women) say that their travelling, their study, their overtime, is for the good of their family. What spouses need from each other; what children need from their parents; is time – not time later, but time in the eternal now, which is the only moment we have.

    I agree with Tony that we all juggle priorities; but I think that misses David’s point. When the priorities from one part of our life consistently conflict with the priorities from another part of our life, the fact that we are vowed to one and not to the other makes it (or should make it) easy to decide. But what if we are vowed to both?

  7. PM says:

    For what it is worh, a (Catholic convert) fellow parishioner of mine who is the son of a German Lutheran pastor agrees that celibacy is a practical necessity. He and his brothers and sisters know that their father was doing his duty, but say the result was that ‘in effect, we grew up without a father’.

    The only way that could change would be if we adopted the system some Annglican dioceses us of a two-track ministry: stipendiary priests and ‘local’ or ‘Corinthian’ priests – part-time Mass-priests who would not be financially maintained by the church. But that could create all sorts of other problems….

  8. Peregrinus says:

    My apologies for coming to this discussion late; I’ve been taken up with family commitments.

    I’m a little leery of your concept of “sacred trust”, David.

    First, there’s a basic contradiction between . . .

    “those sacred duties for the fulfillment of which a person will vow to sacrifice every other priority in life”

    and . . .

    “There is nothing which essentially . . . excludes a person from holding more than one sacred trust at a time.”

    Yes, there is. Unless you are prepared to sacrifice “every other priority” for Something, then that Something is not a “sacred trust” as you explain it. And, if that Something truly [i]is[/i] a “sacred trust”, then [i]nothing else is[/i] because, if push came to shove, you would sacrifice everything else for Something.

    To be honest, I think you are using emotive language without any real meaning here. There is nothing particularly “sacred” about your “sacred trusts”; I think you are employing the term “sacred” in – ironically – a secular sense, to mean “very important” or “of paramount importance”. And I don’t think the word “trust” is particularly enlightening either.

    I suggest, though, that there is – for a Christian, at any rate – one true “sacred trust” in the sense that you suggest; something for which we should, if necessary, sacrifice every other objective, but it is not on your list. The only true “sacred trust” is to follow Jesus. Everything else – including ordained ministry – must if necessary be sacrificed to follow Jesus. (And I’m conscious that you are the last person that I need to remind of this.) Nothing else is a “sacred trust”.

    That’s not to say that other things cannot be of great importance, and cannot represent commitments which, if undertaken, required sacrifices to be made, and which are not lightly to be abandoned. And we can certainly have more than one of those commitments.

    Those commitments we must abandon if they conflict with our call to follow Christ. And we may have to abandon, modify or compromise them if they conflict with one another.

    Marriage is such a commitment, and as you point it can conflict with the requirements of ordained ministry, or of military service, and it is radically inconsistent with the religious life. Where there isn’t a radical inconsistency, these tensions have to be recognised and managed. (That may mean that we forbid people from taking on two such commitments, or discourage it, or permit it only in special circumstances, or develop some modified version of the commitment, or whatever. These are matters for prudential judgment.)

    But, of course, vowed celibacy is also such a commitment, and it too can give rise to tensions.

    You rightly point out that the demands of marriage and the demands of pastoral ministry can come into tension, but I think we also have to acknowledge that the demands of celibacy and of pastoral ministry can come into tension.

    As a (young) single man, I thought that the big thing that celibates gave up was sex. As a married man, I know that what celibates give up is intimacy, emotional closeness, mutuality, support and progeny. Oh, and sex. And when we consider the demands that pastoral ministry places on someone – moving from the parents who are grieving their dying child to the couple who are excitedly planning their wedding in a single afternoon – it seems to me that there is clearly a possibility, to put it no higher, that the alone-ness of celibacy is not always going to be a support to the pastoral minister.

    The truth is that there isn’t a radical inconsistency between marriage and priesthood. There can be tensions, which may best be managed by forbidding or discouraging both commitments, or which may be managed in other ways. And in so far as we associate priesthood with celibacy, that too can create tensions that I think we need to recognise and think about how to manage. But I don’t see anything to indicate that priesthood and celibacy need to be more or less joined at the hip.

    I’m a little bothered by the some of the comments above to the effect that celibacy for the priesthood is “normative”, or that the “sense of the church” is that marriage and holy orders fundamentally conflict. This is the discipline which has emerged in the Latin church. The Eastern churches, as we know, find a different balance, and it is just as “normative”, just as authentic an expression of the “sense of the church”, as the Latin tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *