Reversing a century’s worth of precedents, forged in disputes that split immigrant churches in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the Vatican has granted most of the world’s Eastern Catholic bishops authority to ordain married priests.
The new rules — formalized months ago but only announced in recent days — will give the Eastern bishops in the Americas and Australia the same discretion to ordain married priests that their Old World counterparts have had for centuries. That includes dozens of Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic churches in the Tri-State Area.
The decree doesn’t affect rules for the vastly larger numbers of Roman-rite Catholic churches, but it could affect ongoing debate over its own historic requirement for celibate clergy.
Eastern Catholic churches outside of their ancestral homelands in Eastern Europe and the Middle East could only obtain married priests — by ordination or immigration — with case-by-case Vatican approval. The new decree by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches now lets bishops make the call themselves.
“It’s kind of a momentous day,” said Archbishop William Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh — a diocese with parishes from Pennsylvania to Texas and the organizational descendant of ethnic Ruthenian churches that were in the thick of historic controversies over married priests.
Archbishop Skurla said the church still encourages prospective priests to consider celibacy as the best choice given the commitments required of priests.
But he said that with “about 30 years of experience” fielding queries from young men who want both to marry and be priests, he now can tell them that it’s an option. “It does kind of relieve the pressure, that we don’t have to pick and choose,” he said.
Most priests in the Byzantine Archeparchy are celibate, but it has received permission to have a small number of married priests, he said.
Eastern Catholics follow liturgies and rules similar to Orthodox and other Eastern churches — most of which allow married priests — while submitting to papal authority and Catholic dogma.
But when Ruthenian immigrants — Slavs from the present-day borderlands of Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary — began arriving in large numbers in the late 19th century, Roman Catholic bishops protested that the presence of married priests was causing a “most grave scandal,” the Vatican decree recounted.
An 1890 Vatican ban on married priests among Ruthenians in the United States was later expanded to much of the global Eastern Catholic diaspora.
Some Eastern Catholics embraced Orthodoxy in reaction. The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in Johnstown, Pa., traces its 1938 origins to the issue.
Eastern Catholic branches prominent in this region include the Byzantine and Ukrainian churches, with similar Slavic roots but distinct structures, as well as Maronite parishes with Middle Eastern roots.
The decree is “restoring the tradition which was already ours, which should never have been taken away,” said the Rev. Thomas Schaefer, pastor of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Greenfield and a board member of Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Perry North.
Rev. Schaefer said he doesn’t expect the decree to signal a change in the standard requirement of celibacy among Roman-rite priests.
“If it does, it will be for different reasons, that the Roman bishops feel it’s something that should be looked at,” he said.
The Vatican does allow for Roman dioceses to ordain married, formerly Protestant clergy who convert to Catholicism.
He said the most likely first married candidates for priesthood would be deacons, with years of experience in ministry.
He said the church needs to prepare for the complications that a married priesthood could bring — from rules about seminarians and dating; to fears of what happens if a priest’s marriage fails; to questions of how small, struggling parishes can afford a priest with a family to feed.
The only exceptions to the current decree are Eastern churches in India, which already require priests to be celibate.
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.