Here is an email (slightly redacted to protect the identity of the sender) which is fairly typical of the questions I have fielded on this topic:
Thank you for your interesting blog posts that you have been writing. I am studying Orthodox Christian Theology and I have been sober for a number of years. One thing is a big question for me: Is it possible to be an Orthodox Priest and a recovering alcoholic? I know that in communion wine and bread are transformed into Blood and Body of Christ. But if priest is an alcoholic and he has to empty the chalice after the Communion: Is there any risk that he starts to drink again? What is your experience on this subject?
I’m going to go through this entire subject just so you can all see how this has worked in the past. There are a number of Orthodox Priests that I know that are in recovery both from alcoholism and other addictions. Yes, clergy get addicted… we are fallen humans and share the same problems with our people.
You may say, “But, isn’t that hypocritical for a priest, who is supposed to preach about belief in God and maintaining morality, to fail on both accounts and become an addict?” That’s because you’ve missed the real point: Christianity is about repentance, not about perfect keeping of the Law. You want law-keeping, become a Jew or a Moslem. Christians know the Law, but repent for their violations of it.
Priests, therefore, are called to preach repentance. Therefore, their real role is to demonstrate repentance. If the priest can’t repent, he is a failure.
Repentance is an ongoing process, and there are plenty of people who start off on the right track, but lose sight of God along the way. This happens to priests, and then they run the risk of becoming addicted. After all, the job is emotionally taxing… you never really go home from the work and leave it all behind. It is part of your every waking hour, and if you don’t have a solid spiritual life, the stress will crush the priest and his family. I’ve seen that happen more times than I care to count.
So, what about the priest who becomes an alcoholic, or the man who is considering the priesthood and is an addict. Is being an alcoholic an impediment?
I’ve posted elsewhere that my views of addiction have changed in recent years. I’ve come to believe that the reason that the Fathers don’t discuss addiction as we do is because they see what we call ‘addiction’ as part of a whole spectrum of disorders they call the passions. Addiction is the ‘final stage’ of the Passions, when the human will is utterly compromised.
Sin compromises our will, and the temptation of sin has varying degrees of attractiveness which can compromise our resistance. Think of magnets: some are stronger than others. When you think of addiction, think of metals: some are more prone to being magnetized than others.
The priest who is addicted ‘dies’ as a priest when his God shifts from the Trinity to the bottle. That’s it. A drinking priest is a dead priest. However, when he repents and makes those first steps out of the pig-pen of addiction towards God and recovery, his priesthood is restored like the son-ship of the Prodigal Son. He becomes alive. This does happen, and most recovering priests actually come away as better servants: they are more empathetic and can relate better to the suffering of others.
The seminarian in recovery is in much the same boat. He knows the struggles of his people because he himself has had to struggle with the worst. He has been humiliated and shamed by his disease. If he is honest, then this experience with strengthen and enliven his ministry.
There are a few practical matters:
1) The Bishop must know
A seminarian and an addicted priest must be forthright with the Bishop about the disease and what he is doing to maintain his sobriety. This will help one be on one’s best behavior… because we always act better when someone else is watching. If there is a relapse, the Bishop will understand.
Some may say, “But, my Bishop is close-minded and won’t understand.” My advice: get another Bishop. Here in the US, that’s easy. The thing is that if you relapse and he does not know about your disease, then you have defrauded him into ordaining you and you don’t deserve to be a priest. Don’t live in fear, and never let fear dictate your decisions.
Besides, do you really want to work for a Bishop who looks at his people with addictions as being so ‘horrible’ that they cannot serve God? Canonical impediments are about the things one has actually done, whereas addiction is about disposition. If the Bishop has an allergic reaction to the topic, go elsewhere. There are plenty of Bishops who will gladly bring on board a sober man who can help him with the many addicts that are part of diocesan communities.
2) Communion wine isn’t the problem, spirituality is
There are alcoholic priests who abuse communion wine. I’ve seen it with my own eyes: I watched a senior priest down two glasses of strong red wine before liturgy and perfectly serve without any indication he was even buzzed.
There are also lay people who are afraid of even the tiny amount of alcohol in the communion spoon. The allergy to alcohol in alcoholism is not like going into anaphylactic shock from peanuts. One drop is not going to send you over the edge. Otherwise, you’d never be able to drink a glass of orange juice (it has alcohol because it is made from spoiled oranges that have begun to ferment).
The allergy of alcoholism really requires enough alcohol to register on the central nervous system. This means that consuming a large chalice full of the typical communion wine is problematic.
The solution: who says you need to pour 500mL of wine into the chalice every liturgy? If you know how many people will take communion, then pour just enough. By the time you add water and distribute communion (not to mention leaving it out during that time for some of the alcohol to evaporate), most of the alcohol will be gone.
If you cannot avoid pouring a great deal, then get the Bishop’s blessing to have a pious lay person who can drink off the wine. I’ve used that solution, and I can finish consuming without any worries.
Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that the Anaphora somehow mystically whisks away the alcohol from the wine. It does not.
3) Alcoholism as a disease is not a canonical impediment
Being a sober alcoholic is not a canonical impediment, but drinking and refusing treatment is. I have even visited dioceses where the Bishop admitted that almost a quarter of his priests are chronic problemed drinkers, yet he cannot remove them until he has enough canonical evidence that the priest is no longer functional.
A sober alcoholic Priest is not obligated to tell everyone in his parish that he is an alcoholic. Most people would not even know how to react, unless they themselves are struggling with addiction, in which case such a revelation would be a relief and a hope. But, being an addict is not something to put on your business card or publish in the bulletin.
So long as the disease is being treated and relapses are not an ongoing event, a Bishop will likely not remove a talented (and recovering) alcoholic priest. To be honest, I have seen Bishops excuse priests who not only had public and private alcohol episodes, but even cheated on their wives, stole money, violated confessions, divorced… Yes, Bishops do let priests ‘get away’ with these kinds of sins, but so long as the priest can continue to be an effective tool of the Church.
If he repents, and can continue to serve, then very often a Bishop will keep a good priest who fails.
The Church does not condone the immorality of anyone, but let’s look at it this way: if the Bishop determines that this priest will never transgress that way again, then why should he not do as the Lord did to the woman caught in adultery: go and sin no more! Was Christ being cruel, or did He expect the woman to not sin anymore?
This is not a ticket to hedonism, but a tool: the Church preaches forgiveness, and sometimes even exercises it with clergy. So long as the priest’s continued service is not a disruptive source of scandal, it does no good to throw out an experienced clergyman for the sake of keeping the Law.
How this is done is best left to the Bishops.
But, do not think that alcoholism or addiction is a blockage to ministry in the Church. It can be, in fact, a powerful tool in helping others, so long and there is honesty and openness.