Married priests may soon proliferate

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More married men may be serving as Catholic priests in the United States and Canada soon, but not because Pope Francis is about to relax the requirement that Latin Rite priests be celibate.

Earlier this month the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation called on the Vatican to lift restrictions on the ordination of married men to serve as priests in Eastern Rite Catholic churches in the United States and Canada. Eastern Rite Catholic churches recognize the authority of the pope in Rome but share their history, liturgy and traditions with Eastern churches that do not. One such tradition is the admission of married men to the priesthood (but not to the office of bishop).

Growing up as a Roman Catholic in Pittsburgh, I was familiar with Eastern Rite churches. Congregations of those churches were founded by Eastern Europeans who migrated to Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry, and their legacy is a landscape dotted by churches with onion domes.

Boys from my Catholic high school would often attend Mass (or the Divine Liturgy, as Eastern Christians call it) at the Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church across the street. The liturgy, mostly indistinguishable from what you’d find at a Russian Orthodox Church, was an exotic experience for us. At that time, Roman Catholics received only the consecrated bread at Communion, but at Holy Spirit, we also got a taste of wine. (The women of Holy Spirit also sold unconsecrated pierogis to athletes from our school who worked up an appetite at after-school practice.)

We were told that in Europe a married man could be ordained as a priest in the Byzantine Catholic Church but that clergy in the U.S. branch of the church had to be celibate.

Thereby hangs a tale of intra-Catholic religious prejudice: When Eastern Rite Catholics flowed into the United States, Roman Catholic priests (which usually meant Irish Catholic priests) feared that their flocks would be confused and even scandalized if they saw a married priest ministering to their Slavic or Lebanese neighbors.

In 1929 the Vatican promulgated a decree saying that Greek Catholic priests “who wish to go to the United States of North America and stay there, must be celibates.” That’s the decree that the Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation wants the Vatican to revoke, partly as a way to promote the reunification of Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The odds are good that the pope will agree. As The New York Times noted in its story about the theologians’ recommendation, Pope Francis recently agreed to the ordination of a married man as a Maronite Catholic priest in St. Louis. And allowing married Eastern Rites priests in North America would be consistent with the Vatican’s general policy of encouraging Eastern Catholics to adhere to ancient traditions that distinguish them from the Latin Rite.

Strictly speaking, permission for Eastern Catholic churches in the United States to ordain married men as priests would have no effect on the Latin Rite church. But the rationale for allowing the practice — respect for cultural diversity — could easily be extended to a recognition that the Roman Catholic Church in North America is as distinct from the Roman Catholic Church in other parts of the world where the celibacy requirement is more widely accepted.

Another complication is Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to allow Anglican and Episcopal priests and their congregations to enter the Roman Catholic Church under special provisions that preserve the “Anglican heritage,” including the use of sections of the Book of Common Prayer. As part of that express-aisle process, married Anglican priests have been able to be re-ordained as Roman Catholic priests without having to forsake their wives and children.

So married Catholic priests aren’t an abstraction. They exist and their number may be growing.

Those Irish Catholic priests in the 1920s were on to something when they worried about what their parishioners would think when they saw a Greek Catholic priest with his wife and kids. But perhaps the way to avoid “scandal” today is to make celibacy optional for all Catholic priests in the United States. As Francis recently acknowledged, celibacy for Latin Rite priests is “not a dogma of faith.” Therefore, he said, “the door is always open” to change.

Michael McGough, senior editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, worked at the Post-Gazette for 30 years as a reporter, editorial writer, editorial page editor and Washington correspondent.


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