Vatican: Ban on Ordaining Eastern Married Clergy in Western Lands is Not Dead

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Eastern Congregation, greets Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the Secretary of that Congregation, at the Abp's episcopal ordination in 2009.

Catholic News Service is now reporting that the Vatican’s ban on Eastern Catholic Churches ordaining married men to the priesthood in areas outside their traditional homelands was “reconfirmed” in 2008. In an article published Nov. 16, 2011, reporting on recent statements by an American Melkite Catholic Bishop on married clergy, Catholic News Service quoted the current Secretary of the Eastern Congregation (a department of the Roman Curia):

Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, told CNS [Catholic News Service] in Rome that the Vatican reconfirmed the general ban in 2008, “but in individual cases, in consultation with the national bishops’ conference, a dispensation can be given” allowing the ordination.

This confirms a 2010 report by the Italian news service Adista:

On 20 February 2008, the regular meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the validity of the norm of a binding obligation of celibacy for priests of Eastern Catholic Churches who exercise the ministry outside the canonical territory. The pope, however, has given the Congregation for the Eastern Churches the authority to give a dispensation from this norm, with the approval of the Episcopal Conference in question. (Text here, translated from Italian.)

Based on this latest statement from Rome published by Catholic News Service, it appears that the occasional ordinations of married men to the priesthood by some Eastern Catholic Churches in the USA and Canada (by Ukrainian, Romanian and Ruthenian Catholic Bishops) were authorized by “individual” papal dispensations, granted through the Eastern Congregation. Prior to this, it was thought that only the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh had to get such dispensations as they were required to insert a canon requiring papal dispensations for ordaining married men  in their 1999 Particular Law. An earlier 2003 statement from a representative of the Eastern Congregation, published in America Magazine, similarly reconfirmed the Ban but did not specifically mention the dispensations.

It is also not known what the criteria would be that might result in a negative reply to a dispensation request. Some have speculated that one reason for the dispensations is to discourage married men from transferring from the Latin Rite who might also eventually seek ordination.

As Archbishop Cyril Vasil explained, these dispensations are given by the Eastern Congregation “in consultation with the [Latin Rite’s] national bishops’ conference.” In some countries (such as Canada and the USA), the national bishops’ conferences apparently do not object. The publication Program of Priestly Formation, published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains how this works in the USA:

An applicant for the priesthood must testify that he is not married or, if he is married, he has the approval of the Holy See. If an Eastern Catholic candidate is married, a certificate of marriage is required along with the written consent of his wife (CCEO, c. 769§1, 2°) and the approval of the Apostolic See…” (Program of Priestly Formation, 5th edition, 2006, paragraph 66)

However, the situation is different in other countries. For example, in Italy, the Italian Episcopal Conference has vetoed allowing married Eastern Catholic priests from serving in Romanian Catholic parishes there. The bottom line seems to be how the Latin Rite bishops’ conference in each country feels about the issue. It is believed that currently the only Western countries where Eastern Catholic Bishops are permitted to ordain married men to the priesthood with these dispensations from the Eastern Congregation are the USA, Canada and Australia.

This latest Catholic News Service report also noted that some Eastern Catholic bishops dispute the Ban:

Eastern Catholic bishops say the Second Vatican Council’s call to respect the traditions and disciplines of the Eastern churches, and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches affirmation of that call, in effect nullifies the ban, or at the very least makes the ban a “disputed question” and therefore not binding.

Cardinal Antonios Naguib has asked Pope Benedict XVI to remove the canonical ban forbidding Coptic Catholics from ordaining married priests in Western lands

However, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Antonios Naguib acknowledged the canonical restriction in a 2011 interview:

“We are one in the faith, one in the highest authority, the Holy Father,” Cardinal Naguib explained. As with other Eastern Rite churches, the Coptic Catholic Church has a different historical, spiritual and patristic heritage than the Latin Rite that leads to some differences in church tradition and law, Cardinal Naguib explained, including married priests. But canon law only allows married priests to serve in Egypt, and the priests serving the diaspora around the world must be celibate, he said.

The Coptic Catholic Church has appealed to Rome to lift that rule….

This echoed a request listed in the Final List of Propositions sent to Pope Benedict XVI from the Synod of Catholic Bishops for the Middle East (dated 23 October 2010) and published by the Holy See Press Office:

Propositio 23
Married Priests

Clerical celibacy has always and everywhere been respected and valued in the Catholic Churches, in the East as in the West. Nonetheless, with a view to the pastoral service of our faithful, wherever they are to be found, and to respect the traditions of the Eastern Churches, it would be desirable to study the possibility of having married priests outside the patriarchal territory.

While the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (the Eastern Catholic canon law) honors the Eastern tradition of a married clergy:

[T]he hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. Canon 373

Canon 758 §3 refers to “special norms” established by the “Apostolic See” (the Pope) for ordaining married men — a reference to the Ban:

The particular law of each Church sui iuris or special norms established by the Apostolic See are to be followed in admitting married men to sacred orders.

It is not known why the Coptic Catholic Church has not sought dispensations from Rome to ordain married men in the USA. This might be because they do not have their own hierarchy in the USA and their faithful are under the authority of the local Latin Rite Bishop.

Also this week, Italian news editor Sandro Magister wrote about tensions in the Catholic Church over married priests in an article entitled Married and Ordained: The Minor Leagues of the Catholic Clergy. In it, Magister noted comments made by Pope Benedict XVI at a general conference on November 9, 2011 about priestly celibacy. Commenting on Psalm 119, the Pope said:

Well, the Levites, mediators of the sacred and of the divine blessing, unlike the other Israelites could not own possessions, this external sign of blessing and source of subsistence. Totally dedicated to the Lord, they had to live on him alone, reliant on his provident love and on the generosity of their brethren without any other inheritance since God was their portion, God was the land that enabled them to live to the full….

Dear brothers and sisters, these verses are also of great importance for all of us. First of all for priests, who are called to live on the Lord and his word alone with no other means of security, with him as their one possession and as their only source of true life. In this light one understands the free choice of celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven in order to rediscover it in its beauty and power.

Magister observes:

If celibate priests have a theological foundation for their free choice, recalled so insistently by the pope, a theological foundation of equal power is nowhere in sight for the married priesthood, although its full validity and dignity have been recognized by Vatican Council II and by the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated in 1990.

This is the unresolved contradiction….

But pope Ratzinger has not yet produced an analogous teaching that would also provide a theological foundation for the other form of priesthood present with equal dignity in the Church: that of those who, before being ordained, have been united with their wives in a marriage that is itself a sacramental sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church, of which the priesthood is also a figure.

Magister also mentions the move by some Catholics to make mandatory priestly celibacy an “apostolic doctrine” by citing a “new historical reconstruction”  by writers such as Christian Cochini and Alfons M. Stickler.

The impact of such a development as this on Catholic theology would negatively effect the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, Orthodox author of the book His Broken Body, comments:

…If this position becomes dominant in Roman Catholic circles, the effect on Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation cannot be ignored.

Fr. Cleenewerck then quotes Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos, of blessed memory, on the importance of this issue:

Very recently, there are disturbing signs of a new effort in Rome itself to claim that sacerdotal celibacy is “an apostolic tradition,” and to suggest that the married priests of the Eastern Churches are not fully canonical. This seems to have begun with the book of Christian Cochini, Origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal and to have continued with special reference to the Eastern Churches in a tendentious book of Roman Cholij. The latter book carries a ringing endorsement from Alfons Cardinal Stickler, Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church. From such one-sided works, the attempt to present sacerdotal celibacy as an apostolic tradition then began to appear in Vatican documents, such as Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis of 25 March 1992 and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests issued January 1993 by the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy, which actually asserts that “the Church, from apostolic times, has wished to conserve the gift of perpetual continence of the clergy and choose the candidates for Holy Orders from among the celibate faithful.” If this attempt succeeds – and may God not permit it – it would have the gravest consequence for the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

For further reading:

Can East & West Coexist With Married Priests?

Italian Catholic Episcopal Conference Vetoes Married Priests

Clerical Celibacy: A Matter of Ecclesiastical Discipline or Apostolic Doctrine?

A Critical Consideration of The Case for Clerical Celibacy

The Orthodox Churches and Priestly Celibacy from the Vatican website

The Contribution of the Eastern Catholic tradition to the issue of Clerical Celibacy in the wider Roman Catholic Church

Fr. Touze and Roman Miopia

Romance Blooms in a Catholic Seminary for Fr. Roman

12 Responses to Vatican: Ban on Ordaining Eastern Married Clergy in Western Lands is Not Dead

  1. Adam DeVille says:

    Thanks for this comprehensive post with links to articles I’d not yet seen. The Roman attempts to prove “apostolicity” of celibacy are now giving way to even more alarming developments: claims that the priesthood “ontologically” requires celibacy. Basilio Petrà has been showing up the contradictions of that, as I note here:

  2. Mama says:

    Too late to close the barn door. Married Ukrainian Catholic priests have been serving for decades, and lightning has not struck.

  3. Of course now with a number of married priests entering through the new Ordinariates it presents a sign of contradiction to claim priestly celibacy as an ontological and of Apostolic origins. Not only that, but as protestants love to point out that Paul claims he could be married as all the other Apostles were and even Peter!
    I think the Pope Benedict will ‘produce an analogous teaching that would also provide a theological foundation for the other form of priesthood present with equal dignity in the Church’ now that it may be necessary to justify have so many married priests in the Roman/Latin Rite. I have no problem with the guidelines set forth in
    Anglicanorum Coetibus for the Ordinariate.
    They also have to explain why their were married priests all the way into the 12th century in the west.
    Such a silly think to get all worked up about though.

  4. priestswife says:

    prayers and fasting……if the Church is to be one- legitimate traditions MUST be respected

  5. In short…

    This “ban” is really a joke. Eastern bishops go forth anyway, and individual dispensations have been granted as well. Not much of a “ban” – I’d say!

    CathApol Blog

    • orthocath says:

      On the contrary, it’s treated quite seriously. As the document (Program of Priestly Formation) cited states, dispensations from Rome can be obtained. Eastern Catholic bishops in North America follow this procedure when ordaining a married man to the priesthood. As far as I know, the only countries where these dispensations are allowed are the US, Canada, and Australia. In other countries, the Ban is rigid — as in Italy, where married Romanian Catholic priests are not even allowed to serve in Romanian Catholic parishes in Italy. From an Orthodox point of view, it’s very problematic to base the allowance (by dispensation) of married clergy in the Eastern Churches on whether the Latin Rite bishops want to allow that practice or not.

      • Well, from THAT perspective – a bishop should have some say on what happens in his jurisdiction. No less would be expected of a Latin Rite bishop or priest operating in the jurisdiction of an Eastern Rite bishop. My point about the “ban” being a “joke” is because if there are exceptions – it’s not really a “ban” is it?

        CathApol Blog

        • orthocath says:


          These are overlapping jurisdictions. No Eastern Catholic bishop operates under the jurisdiction of a Latin Rite bishop or vice versa. Nor do Latin Rite bishops ever have to seek permission from Eastern Catholic bishops to practice their traditions. The restrictions operate one way towards Eastern Catholics.

          The Ban is no joke. The whole concept that the Eastern tradition of a married clergy is subject to papal regulation and that Eastern Catholic bishops have jurisdiction over their flocks EXCEPT for having to get permission from the Latin Rite bishops to ordain married men to the priesthood (in those few countries where such permission can be obtained!) would be quite problematic for any possible future reunion between our Churches. Would Orthodox bishops in the US in a future reunited Church need to get papal approval to ordain married men to the priesthood? Or, would Orthodox bishops in Italy, for example, in a reunited Church have to get papal permission to ordain married men also?

  6. Elias says:

    Your response is excellent and I applaud the extensive research for other documents and exchanges.
    I wanted to point out just a little trivial item that the top photo in the article showing Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ (who is the son of a priest and whose brother is a married priest)….the cardinal he is embracing is not Sandri, rather it is Jozef Tomko, (retired) who is from Slovakia as is the archbishop.

  7. David Meyer says:

    A couple questions from a Catholic:

    1. If this issue was the last barrier between Catholic and Orthodox being in a reunited Church, would it prevent you, as an Orthodox from reuniting?

    2. Is there ANY problems with having married priests at all? Or is it just always a good thing?

    3. Is it possible for both practices (east/west) concerning celibacy to be part of Apostolic Tradition? Could Orthodoxy concede celibacy to be ontological, but yet we can still bypass it through exceptions? (oikonomia) After all, Orthodox priests may not be currently celibate, but they certainly commit themselves to future celibacy should their wife die. So in that way, they do, even now, accept priestly celibacy in a very real way compared to a married layman.

    A couple points that I keep in mind when thinking about clerical celibacy:

    -No one needs to be married!
    -No one needs to be married!
    -No one needs to be married!
    -A man insisting on being married and being a priest, to the point of argument with a superior is an outrage. Let it go and submit.
    -We all must agree marriage is a hindrance to a priests life, St. Paul says as much, Jesus shows us as much.
    -Orthodox and Eastern Catholic clergy may not marry once a priest, or remary if their wife dies (as far as I know) and their bishops may never be married. To me this shows that ordaining married men is already a sort of exception/indult. Else why not allow marriage/remarriage? If marriage is good to begin with, why not after a wife dies? If she dies a week after his ordination *what* is the big deal about him remarrying? I would love an answer to this question from an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic. But at the very least this fact of Orthodox practice gives us a common ground to approach the topic of celibacy. We both have celibate priests!

    Having said all this, for the sake of unity, I would encourage the pope to FORCE all priests everywhere to be married if it would help advance the cause of unity. 😉
    Seriously, Rome needs to back off of this completely for the sake of unity. Too much damage could be caused if they push this. But the fact it is such a big deal is telling of the state of things. As far as I am concerned, we can view the priesthood from slightly different angles and still be in communion. Love can cover over this.

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