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.
“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:
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.
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.
…If this position becomes dominant in Roman Catholic circles, the effect on Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation cannot be ignored.
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:
The Orthodox Churches and Priestly Celibacy from the Vatican website