Eastern-Catholic Married Priesthood Authorized in North America

At Pope Francis’ direction, the Vatican has restored a faculty it suppressed 85 years ago.

Bishop Nicholas Samra, the Melkite eparch of Newton, Mass.
Bishop Nicholas Samra, the Melkite eparch of Newton, Mass. (photo: melkite.org)

WASHINGTON — Eastern-Catholic bishops in the U.S. and Canada can once more ordain married men to the priesthood, now that the Vatican has removed decades-long prohibitions that had prevented them from following the traditional practice of their patriarchal Churches.

The decree — signed by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches — was dated June 14, 2014, in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. It was published online in November and announced that Pope Francis restored the faculty of Eastern-Catholic bishops “outside of the traditional Eastern territories” to admit married men to the priesthood “according to the traditions of their respective Churches.”

According to the decree, Eastern-Catholic bishops all over the world may “ordain the Eastern-married candidates who come from their jurisdiction.” It adds they have the “obligation to inform beforehand” the local Latin-rite bishop in writing “in order to have his opinion regarding any useful information.”

The decree adds that ordinaries overseeing Eastern-Catholic ordinariates that lack their own hierarchs can ordain married men to the priesthood, “providing they notify the bishops’ conference of the specific cases in that area.”

The Congregation for Oriental Churches, however, reserves for itself the decision to ordain a married man in cases where Eastern-Catholic faithful are entrusted to the care of a Latin bishop or a bishops’ conference.

“It’s a very good move for us,” said Bishop Nicholas Samra, the Melkite eparch of Newton, Mass., in welcoming the decision. “We’ve been arguing and discussing this for quite a while.” Bishop Samra was among the more vocal advocates in the U.S. calling for a restoration of the faculties of Eastern-Catholic bishops outside of their patriarchal territories to ordain married men.

The Vatican decision affects the 15 eparchies and two archeparchies of the various Eastern-Catholic Churches in the U.S. and appears to bring the Church’s practice into line with the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that “each individual Church or rite should retain its traditions whole and entire,” adapting to the “different needs of time and place.”

The ability of Eastern-Catholic married clergy to serve in the U.S., Canada and Australia had been suppressed for more than 85 years, since a 1929 Vatican decree called Cum Datum Fuerit.

The 2014 decree signed by Cardinal Sandri related the history of the Eastern-Catholic married priesthood’s suppression, saying it had been granted at the behest of the Latin bishops in North America, who, at that time, believed Eastern married clergy posed a “grave scandal” to their faithful. The Vatican acknowledged that, in North America, as a result of this treatment, “an estimated 200,000 Ruthenian [Eastern-Catholic] faithful became Orthodox.”


Positive Ecumenical Signals

Pope Francis’ restoration of Eastern bishops’ faculty to ordain married men outside of their patriarchates has sent positive signals to the Orthodox, where the vast majority of diocesan clergy are married men.

“For the Catholics to show that there isn’t anything wrong with the married clergy is a very good thing — that there isn’t a ‘second tier’ or ‘sub-priesthood,’ so to speak, just because one is married,” said Father Nathaniel Symeonides, ‎director of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, Interfaith and Church-World Relations at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

He said this would help the dialogue move forward and added that the way the Church resolved the issue internally was encouraging.

“It does show an openness, absolutely, for changing a policy without the fear of changing doctrine or the teachings of the Church,” he said.

Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said resolving the issue was necessary to assure the Orthodox that the Catholic Church would respect their traditions in the event of a reconciliation between them.

“It would be a problem if, in the final stages of a theological dialogue with the Orthodox — and we were talking about the arrangements that would be made — [we were] to say, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t have married priests in North America,’” he said.

Father Roberson said the decision is about respecting traditions and not changing celibacy as the norm for priests in the Latin rite.

“It has been clear from the beginning that celibacy is a treasured tradition of the Latin rite, and that is the standard thing, and there can be exceptions,” he said, pointing out that the majority of married priests in the U.S. are Latin rite, such as those serving in the Anglican ordinariates established by Benedict XVI.

“This simply recognizes that the Eastern-Catholic Churches that are in communion with us have a different tradition, and the tradition of married priests and celibate priests live side-by-side with respect for one another.”

Most Eastern-Catholic Churches have a tradition of both a married and celibate priesthood, except the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, which have had priestly celibacy as their norm for quite some time. Traditionally, in the Eastern-Catholic Churches, celibate priests would live together as monastics, while married men would serve as diocesan clergy. Only celibate priests may be consecrated bishops.

But in all the Churches of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, once ordained, a priest cannot get married. A married priest must observe celibacy after the death of his wife.


Reviving Eastern Monasticism

In North America, most of the serving Eastern-Catholic diocesan clergy are celibate. Restoring the married priesthood could also help Eastern Churches restore their own tradition of living out celibate priesthood, in the form of monasticism, in North America.

“Monasticism and marriage are interwoven in Eastern spirituality,” said Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in the Chicago area and host of Light of the East radio program.

“This [decree] is about returning to an authentic experience of our spirituality,” he said, noting that, traditionally, in the Eastern Churches, most vocations to the celibate priesthood (as well as married priesthood) came from priests’ families.

While this restoration, he said, would help the bishops ordain a “more wholesome, more rounded individual” to the priesthood, many big questions have to now be constructively addressed, including what to do about rectories designed for celibates, not families; how to support the priest’s family financially; and how to allocate parish assignments between celibates and married priests.

Another aspect is forming the priest’s wife for her role in the parish. Father Loya said that while the Latin Church has developed a staff structure to support celibate parish priests in their ministry — from cooks and housekeepers to directors of religious education, etc. — in the Eastern Churches, many of these functions used to be filled by the priest’s wife and his family.

“There’s a lot more to it than ‘this is a priest who happens to be married,’” he said, explaining that the attitude cannot be that a priest’s wife is “a career woman who happens to be married to a priest.” He said the wives will “be expected to share in that life itself.”


Slow Restoration Begins

Bishop Samra said these questions are now being carefully examined by Eastern-Catholic bishops in North America.

“Each bishop is working on guidelines,” he said.

In his eparchy, he is looking for candidates with theology degrees who demonstrate a pastoral character. But he’s also looking at middle-aged men who have demonstrated they can care for their families.

“We’re looking at probably the age of 40” [for candidates], he said, pointing out that many parishes are not financially equipped to support married priests and their families. Right now, the candidates he’s looking for have to maintain a job to support their families and provide them insurance while the eparchy develops the resources to better support them.

“We’re also trying to do some [theological] programming for the priests’ wives,” he said. “They have to have a major role, and they have to consent [to church ministry].”

Bishop Samra said his own eparchy may see up to 10 more married priests over the next seven years. The increase will not solve his priest shortage, but he expects it will ease the strain. At least eight of his parishes are without a full-time pastor, and he has to staff two outreaches, in Houston and in Allentown, Pa., where Middle-Eastern Christians escaping violence have resettled.

“A lot of these people who are coming are very accustomed with married priests, and they feel comfortable with them.” When they see a married priest, “they know he has experienced the same life as them, with families and children.”



Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.