About that NYTimes hint at the future of married priests

A long, long time ago, a Catholic leader gave me a tip as a young reporter. He told me to keep my eye on the Eastern-Rite Catholic churches and their potential for growth in Northern America.

Why? First of all, because the ancient beauty of their liturgies in a post-Vatican II world would be pleasing to many small-o orthodox Catholics. Second, the Eastern Rites would offer a setting in which married priests could serve, while framed in traditions acceptable to small-o orthodox Catholics.

How would bishops handle that?

I thought of those questions when reading an important, but rather overlooked, New York Times piece addressing a crucial piece of this puzzle. I apologize (to several readers in particular) that this article has been in the tmatt Folder Of Guilt for quite some time.

The headline: “Group of Catholic and Orthodox Officials Endorses Marriage for Some Priests.” And here’s the lede:

In a step that is sure to fuel the debate over mandatory celibacy, a high-level group of Catholic and Orthodox officials is calling on the Vatican to allow Eastern Catholic priests serving in North America to marry.

Eastern Catholic priests are already allowed to marry overseas, but not in North America, with limited exceptions. This year, a married man was ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest in St. Louis with the permission of Pope Francis.

In terms of this story, why is this important? The key is that it came from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation and that includes major Catholic bishops. It is an important nod to the Eastern Orthodox churches (including my own).

“This action would affirm the ancient and legitimate Eastern Christian tradition and would assure the Orthodox that, in the event of the restoration of full communion between the two churches, the traditions of the Orthodox Church would not be questioned,” the group said in a statement on Friday.

So what does this short report either miss or downplay?

That’s where my source decades ago was raising important issues. Why have bishops in North America been rather resistant to Eastern Rite married priests?

The story waits until the very last paragraph to note that Pope Francis — again — is hinting at chances in a major hot-button Catholic small-t tradition.

The move would not affect Roman Catholic priests, who make up a vast majority of Catholic priests in the United States. But there are already a few dozen married Roman Catholic priests in the country — onetime Protestant clergy members who were allowed to become Catholic priests even though they were married — and the presence of more married Eastern Catholic priests would inevitably intensify questions about why some priests are allowed to marry and others are not.

During a news conference last month, the pope said: “The Catholic Church has married priests, no? Greek Catholics, Coptic Catholics, no? They exist. In the Eastern Rites, there are married priests.” He called priestly celibacy “a rule of life which I highly esteem and I believe is a gift for the church,” but added, “Since it is not a dogma of faith, the door is always open.”

Very well stated. Why isn’t that much, much higher in the report?

I also wondered why the report lacked the perspective of Eastern Orthodox sources or, for that matter, Eastern Rite Catholic sources.

This is a good report. In a way, I want to stress that it is a more important topic — for traditional, small-o orthodox Catholics — than the editors realized.

Keep digging.

IMAGE: Eastern Rite Catholic bishops.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Conchúr

    Well the opening line of the article is totally inaccurate for starters. Priests will never be allowed marry, period; which is a totally separate matter to ordaining married men.

    • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com/ Joel

      It looks like someone must have pointed that out to them; it’s been corrected in the web edition.

    • helen

      Never say “never”. There is excellent precedent. Peter was a married man. Priests were commonly married for a thousand years of Roman Catholic church life.

      Now if you want to say most men will marry before they are ordained, that’s good Lutheran practice, at least in the last generation or two. :)

      I remember a college pastor telling us that his generation weren’t supposed to know women existed till graduation from seminary, but the first congregation (where they were ordained and installed) assumed they would bring a wife along. ;)

      • Conchúr

        Read what I actually wrote before replying.

        • helen

          Actually, I did.

          • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com/ Joel

            Helen, it’s been established for enough centuries that marriage must take place before ordination or not at all that I think we can call it an entrenched tradition. The Protestant Reformation was the first time since antiquity that ordained men were allowed to marry. And for the most part, it also repudiated apostolic succession, which seriously degraded the significance of ordination and allowed for a lot more… flexibility in the lifestyles of the clergy.

            In any case, the celibacy rule is unlikely to be changed in the Latin Rite simply for reasons of logistics. Parishes are not set up for family men and changing that would engender a lot of chaos and expense.

      • http://acatholicviewoftheworld.wordpress.com/ Roki

        My understanding – and I would welcome input from TMatt or any other big-O Orthodox (or other Eastern) readers – is that none of the apostolic churches has ever allowed ordained men to marry after ordination; all married clergy had to marry prior to ordination.

        Now, although I’m not aware of a dogmatic statement from any Catholic authority on the reasoning for this, my sense is that the burden of proof would be on whomever argues that the ordained could marry. It would take, probably, an ecumenical council to make a change in this tradition – and it seems just as likely to me that a council (or a pope speaking ex cathedra) would make a magisterial dogmatic declaration that marriage after ordination is impossible.

        (An aside: I have often wondered about the theological nature of marriages of laicized priests who marry after leaving ministry. This would have to be a part of the theological discussion.)

        All this to say that the relationship between matrimony and holy orders is complex and nuanced and not 100% settled, at least in the Catholic Church. While it’s not surprising that many reporters don’t “get” it, I am very grateful to those who do – or at least acknowledge the complexity. I’m glad to see that the NYT seems to have corrected their error.

  • Julia B

    In the correction: “A married man may become an Eastern Catholic priest in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, but once an unmarried man is ordained as a priest, he is not allowed to marry. It is not the case that Eastern Catholic priests are already allowed to marry overseas.”

    This is still fuzzy. The original article implied that married men in the world outside North America/overseas can be ordained. But the correction says it’s only parts of Europe and doesn’t mention South America. Are married men allowed to be ordained in Argentina and France, for example? Or is the article referring to Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine or maybe Greece? It’s still confusing.

  • Julia B

    I noticed in Wikipedia’s entry on Francis it lists that he was the Ordinary of the Eastern Catholics in Argentina until 2013.

    Here’s the Wiki explanation of that position which exists in countries where an Eparchy for the particular Eastern Church has not been established.

    Info from the Annuario published by the Vatican: “Of these ordinariates, four (in Argentina, Brazil, France and Poland) are generically for all Eastern Catholics who lack a diocesan jurisdiction of their own rite in the particular country and who are therefore entrusted to the care of a Latin archbishop in the country.”


    That was Francis until he became Pope. No wonder he has such a good working relationship with Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox. He knows a lot more about them than most other prelates. I wonder why this is not well-known or did I miss the bulletin that everybody else read?

    By the way, in Poland it would not have been John Paul II; the ordinary is the archbishop of Warsaw, not Krakow.