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.