Signaling a possible shift in policy, Catholic News Service today reported the comments of the head of the papal office overseeing US Eastern Catholic Bishops that new vocations to the priesthood in US Eastern Catholic Churches should be “embracing celibacy” because “mandatory celibacy is the general rule for priests” in the US. For the past several years, Eastern Catholic Bishops in the US have had the option of requesting dispensations from the celibacy rule from Rome to allow for the ordination of married men to the priesthood. While it is not yet known if this signifies a change in policy on the issue, this is the first time in decades for a Vatican official to publicly encourage celibacy for Eastern Catholic clergy. It also contrasts with recent allowances of some ordinations of married men to the priesthood in the Latin Rite among clergy converts from Protestant churches.
The comments were made by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Vatican’s Eastern Congregation (which oversees the Vatican’s relationship with Eastern Catholic Churches), during the ad limina visit of 14 Eastern Catholic Bishops to Rome. Speaking to the assembled Bishops after Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on May 15, CNS reported the Cardinal’s comments on the clergy shortage among Eastern Catholics in the US:
All the churches are hurting for clergy, he said. Even those that have a relatively high proportion of clergy to faithful are stretched by the great distances those priests must travel to minister to the faithful.
The cardinal urged care in helping young people discern their vocation, “maintaining formation programs, integrating immigrant priests (and) embracing celibacy in respect of the ecclesial context” of the United States where mandatory celibacy is the general rule for priests.
Last August, the newly enthroned American Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Samra spoke to the need for increased vocations and indicated his desire to begin ordaining married men to the priesthood. When asked what his priorities were, he replied:
Vocations is number one! We are on a shoe-string of clergy to serve our Church as priests. We are grateful for our ancestors – priests and laity and bishops who came from the Middle East and brought us to where we are presently. But now we have come of age and we need priests from among our people in this American Melkite Church.
To fill this need, Bishop Nicholas announced his plans to eventually admit married men to seminary for future ordination to the priesthood:
God calls men and women to religious vocations. And I believe he also calls married men to priesthood. We need to study this situation in our country and develop the proper formation for men who are truly deemed worthy of this call….Married men who are called to priesthood need the same formation as those celibates who are called. I have already discussed this issue with those involved in priestly formation and hopefully soon we can see the growth of properly formed married clergy. (See the Summer, 2011 issue of Sophia, pp. 8-9)
It may well be that Cardinal Sandri’s statement to the US Eastern Catholic Bishops indicates Rome’s response to Bishop Nicholas’ plans to begin seminary training of married men. Importation of celibate immigrant priests and limiting ordinations of new priests to celibate men among Eastern Catholics in the US has been Vatican policy since the 1890s though the policies have not always been uniformly enforced. Tensions over enforced celibacy has over the years led to the loss of tens of thousands of Eastern Catholics to various Orthodox jurisdictions and still has significant ecumenical implications.
Writing in 1997, canonist Dr. Roman Cholij (Ukrainian Catholic) criticized the various bans on the ordaining of married men in the Eastern Catholic Churches by Rome as interference in the rights of a self-governing (sui iuris) Eastern Catholic Church:
Thus the ecclesiological suppositions of the times when the decrees prohibiting married clergy were issued must be seen to have been defective. It should also be stated that the constitutional rights of a Church sui iuris cannot be removed by an administrative decree of a Congregation of the Roman Curia. If a married clergy is such a right (which is what the Eastern Churches do consider it to be, and which the Vatican Council seems to implicitly affirm), as opposed to a privilege granted by Rome, then there is serious objection to the lawfulness of any action which restricts exercise of this right.
The issue of whether this right can only be exercised with impunity in the traditional home territory of the Eastern Church, as opposed to outside it in “Latin territory” such as America, is, in my opinion, a question already put within a framework of a faulty ecclesiology. Once again, if a married clergy were to be considered just a “privilege” granted by Rome then this could be revoked if a greater good, such as the avoidance of scandal, warranted it. But that is not the case. It is hard, then, to justify the curtailment of a right (as opposed to a favour or privilege) – a bishop’s right to ordain – on the sole basis of the criterion of territoriality. In recent times this has, of course, been the case. It is still the official view.
Cholij notes both the canonical contradiction and the ecumenical problem with the current official view:
Is not the universal territorial jurisdiction of the Latin Church the effect of the fusing and confusing of two very distinct concepts – that of Roman Primacy and that of Western patriarchal jurisdiction? On what theological grounds can the jurisdiction of the Eastern Churches be restricted to the “historical territories”, the same principle not being applied to the Roman Church? These are issues that require further serious research and discussion, not least because of the desire for Roman union with the present Orthodox Churches. (An Eastern Catholic Married Clergy in North America, Eastern Churches Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2)
These continued restrictions also appear to contradict the vision for a reunited Church from the current ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. In a 2010 agreed statement, Catholic and Orthodox leaders proposed these goals:
Accepted Diversity: different parts of this single Body of Christ, drawing on their different histories and different cultural and spiritual traditions, would live in full ecclesial communion with each other without requiring any of the parts to forego its own traditions and practices….
[The Bishop of Rome's] relationship to the Eastern Churches and their bishops, however, would have to be substantially different from the relationship now accepted in the Latin Church. The present Eastern Catholic Churches would relate to the bishop of Rome in the same way as the present Orthodox Churches would. The leadership of the pope would always be realized by way of a serious and practical commitment to synodality and collegiality. (See the 2010 Agreed Statement: Steps Towards A Reunited Church by the North American Orthodox Catholic Theological Consultation)
Note (added 5/18/12): Some have questioned the original Catholic News Service story for its accuracy or have suggested that Cardinal Sandri’s words were misinterpreted by Catholic News Service. Generally speaking, Catholic News Service has an excellent reputation. A bit about Catholic News Service can be read here:
While created in 1920 by the bishops of the United States, CNS is editorially independent and a financially self-sustaining division of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. CNS is staffed by trained, professional journalists; all eligible nonmanagement staffers are members of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America. The CNS Rome bureau, which provides what many regard as the best Vatican coverage available from any news agency, is one of the main reasons for its international appeal.
Since CNS is a trusted Catholic resource, their article was taken at face value. If there are corrections or further information on this matter, this article will either be updated or more details will be shared in another blog post.
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