This story, posted last Friday on the USCCB site, doesn’t appear to be getting much attention, but it is a significant bit of news, not only for those who attend Eastern Catholic parishes in North America, but also for all those involved in and supporting Catholic-Orthodox dialogue:
The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation voted in early June to encourage the “lifting of the restrictions regarding the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Churches of North America.”
“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 consultation said in a statement released June 6.
“We are convinced that this action would enhance the spiritual lives of Eastern Catholics and would encourage the restoration of unity between Catholic and Orthodox Christians,” the statement said.
The timing of the vote has important historical roots:
The Theological Consultation issued the statement on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the promulgation of the 1929 decree Cum data fuerit from the Vatican Oriental Congregation, which oversees the Eastern Catholic churches.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Eastern Catholic immigrants to North America from Eastern Europe and the Middle East brought with them the tradition of a married priesthood. This Oriental Congregation decree effectively limited future ordinations to celibates, and resulted in divisions in Eastern Catholic communities and even families over this issue.
The 1929 decree (view online), which was approved by Pope Pius XI, stated that “priests of the Greek-Ruthenian Rite who wish to go to the United States of North America and stay there, must be celibates” (art. 12). But the difficulties and tensions had been around much longer. It is estimated that in the early years of the 20th century, up to 100,000 Eastern Catholics had left communion with the Catholic Church and become Eastern Orthodox, in large part because of the issue of married clergy. For an excellent and detailed overview of that history and this topic, see the 2011 article, “Can East & West Coexist With Married Priests?”, on the OrthoCath website.
For many Eastern Catholics, the inability to ordain married men in North America was, at best, a slight; it is seen by many as evidence that Eastern Catholicism in North America is viewed by many Western Catholics as either a nuisance or a curiosity—that is, when Western Catholics are even aware of Eastern Catholicism. As someone who has attended a Byzantine Catholic parish for almost fifteen years, I can report that the average Catholic is entirely clueless about the riches of Eastern Catholicism. Some of that, of course, is understandable: many Catholics don’t live near an Eastern Catholic parish and most Catholics never hear anything about Eastern Catholicism, either at church, in catechesis, or even in parochial schools.
The statement from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation highlights the Vatican II decree, Orientalium ecclesiarum, which is on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite; here is the full statement:
Statement of the North American Orthodox/Catholic Theological Consultation
On the Occasion of the Eighty-fifth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the decree Cum data fuerit
The year 2014 marks the eighty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the decree Cum data fuerit. In 1929, the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental [Eastern Catholic] Churches issued this document, which stated that “priests of the Greek-Ruthenian Rite who wish to go to the United States of North America [sic] and stay there must be celibates” (Article 12). This statement led to a general prohibition of the ordination of married Eastern Catholics to the priesthood in North America. This resulted in divisions in Eastern Catholic communities and even in families.
The Second Vatican Council spoke of the importance of preserving the legitimate traditions of the Eastern Churches. In the decree, Orientalium ecclesiarum, the Council emphasized the need to preserve the “legitimate liturgical rite and … established way of life” of Eastern Catholics. The Council continued, stating that Eastern Catholics “should attain to an even greater knowledge and a more exact use of [this rite and way of life] and if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions” (par. 6). Furthermore, the decree Presbyterorum ordinis states, “This holy synod, while it commends ecclesiastical celibacy, in no way intends to alter that different discipline which legitimately flourishes in the Eastern Churches. It permanently exhorts all those who have received the priesthood and marriage to persevere in their holy vocation” (sec. 16). Nevertheless, until recently, very few married Eastern Catholic men have been allowed to be ordained to the priesthood in North America.
With these things in mind, the North American Orthodox/Catholic Theological Consultation encourages the lifting of the restrictions regarding the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Churches of North America. 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. We are convinced that this action would enhance the spiritual lives of Eastern Catholics and would encourage the restoration of unity between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.