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”:
Marriage (including Fatherhood/Motherhood)
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.