In a step that is sure to fuel the debate over mandatory celibacy, a high-level group of Catholic and Orthodox officials is calling on the Vatican to allow married men to serve as Eastern Catholic priests in North America.
Married men are already allowed to serve as Eastern Catholic priests overseas, but not in North America, with limited exceptions. This year, a married man was ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest in St. Louis with the permission of Pope Francis. An unmarried man who becomes an Eastern Catholic priest overseas may not subsequently marry. The Vatican is being asked to endorse a similar practice for Eastern Catholic priests in North America.
The request carries significant weight because it comes from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, whose Catholic members are appointed by the conferences of bishops in the United States and Canada. The Catholic delegation was headed by Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis, who worked for several years as a high-level Vatican official.
“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 in a statement on Friday.
Eastern Catholic priests are affiliated with churches that trace their roots to Asia, Eastern Europe or North Africa, and that often have liturgical traditions resembling those of Orthodox churches. In the United States, there are about 500,000 Eastern Catholics worshiping in a variety of churches: Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites and Syro-Malabars; Armenian, Byzantine, Romanian, Syriac and Ukrainian Catholics; and others.
Eastern Catholic priests, but not bishops, are permitted to be married in Africa, Asia and Europe, and when Eastern Catholic immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, their priests were married. But in 1929, the Vatican issued a decree requiring that only celibate men be ordained as Eastern Catholic priests in the United States. It is that decree that the officials are now seeking to reverse.
There are about 39,000 Catholic priests in the United States, of whom about 750 are Eastern Rite priests. Some Eastern Rite priests are already married, in most cases because they were married and ordained overseas and then immigrated to the United States.
The move would not affect Roman Catholic priests, who make up a vast majority of Catholic priests in the United States. But there are already a few dozen married Roman Catholic priests in the country — onetime Protestant clergy members who were allowed to become Catholic priests even though they were married — and the presence of more married Eastern Catholic priests would inevitably intensify questions about why some priests are allowed to be married and others are not.
During a news conference last month, the pope said: “The Catholic Church has married priests, no? Greek Catholics, Coptic Catholics, no? They exist. In the Eastern Rites, there are married priests.” He called priestly celibacy “a rule of life which I highly esteem and I believe is a gift for the church,” but added, “Since it is not a dogma of faith, the door is always open.”
Correction: June 10, 2014
An article on Saturday about a high-level group of Catholic and Orthodox officials that called on the Vatican to allow married Eastern Catholic priests in North America referred incorrectly to marriage restrictions for the priests outside North America. A married man may become an Eastern Catholic priest in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, but once an unmarried man is ordained as a priest, he is not allowed to marry. It is not the case that Eastern Catholic priests are already allowed to marry overseas.