Top Catholic and Orthodox church officials in
North America are calling on the Vatican to let married men become priests in
Eastern rite Catholic churches, another sign that optional celibacy could
become a front-burner issue under Pope Francis.
Eastern rite Catholic churches have a look and
feel similar to Eastern Orthodox churches but are loyal to Rome and fall under
the pope’s jurisdiction.
Like Eastern Orthodox churches, Eastern rite
Catholics tend to have more local autonomy than their Roman Catholic counterparts,
and they have particular liturgies and customs that date back to their origins
in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
One of those customs is optional celibacy. While
Eastern rite Catholic bishops cannot be married, the priesthood is open to married
The main exception has been in North America,
where a 1929 decree by the Vatican effectively barred married clergy in Eastern
rite churches. The move was spurred by concerns among leaders of the much
larger Roman Catholic church in the U.S. that having married priests in Eastern
Catholic churches would prompt Roman Catholics to demand a similar practice.
The decision was controversial even back then. A
century ago, Eastern Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe and the
Middle East brought with them the tradition of a married priesthood, and the
Vatican decree “resulted in divisions in Eastern Catholic communities and even
in families,” leaders of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological
Consultation said in a statement issued on Friday (June 6).
The rationale for maintaining the U.S. ban has
been losing ground in recent years as Rome introduced exceptions into its
own laws to allow married converts from some Protestant churches to be ordained
In calling on Rome to reverse the 1929 policy,
leaders of the Catholic-Orthodox group from the U.S. and
Canada highlighted the ecumenical implications of the ban, noting that the
Eastern Orthodox churches also allow married clergy.
“This action would affirm the ancient and
legitimate Eastern Christian tradition and would assure the Orthodox that, in
the event of the restoration of full communion between the two churches, the
traditions of the Orthodox Church would not be questioned,” the group said.
There are about 500,000 Eastern rite Catholics in
the U.S. and nearly 70 million Roman Catholics. Eastern Catholics worship in
more than a dozen different churches, such as the Maronite, Armenian, Chaldean,
Syriac and Ukrainian traditions. There are about 750 Eastern Catholic priests
compared with just under 40,000 Roman Catholic clergy in the U.S.