This past week, responding to a request from Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches, Pope Francis gave permission that Eastern Catholic rite bishops in the Western world may ordain married men in their home territory.
This may seem very confusing, as a number of questions arise from this statement. First, what’s an Eastern Catholic? Second, why are they ordaining married men priests? Third, why weren’t these Eastern Catholic Bishops allowed to ordain married men in the Western world? And fourth, and finally, where does this leave celibacy for the Latin-rite Catholic priest?
First, let’s look at what an Eastern-rite Catholic is. Simply put, these are Catholics who are living in the eastern part of the globe, in places like Eastern Europe, India, the Middle East and North Africa. These churches are autonomous, self-governing and in union with the pope in Rome, in full communion with him, recognizing him as the Holy Father. These Eastern Catholics have kept their own way of worshipping, their own way of celebrating the Mass (which they call the Divine Liturgy). They are as Catholic as we are in the Latin rite, and we in the Brooklyn Diocese are blessed with the presence of many Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, like the Maronites at Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn Heights, the Melkites at Virgin Mary Church in Park Slope and the Ukrainians at St. Mary’s in Ozone Park.
Looking at the traditions of these Eastern Catholic Churches, men have always been allowed to marry, and they had to have been married before they were ordained to the priesthood. They make a distinction between “monastic” and “non-monastic” clergy. Monastic clergy take a vow of celibacy, and bishops are normally selected from the monastic clergy. Many priests and deacons in the Eastern Catholic churches are celibate; however, some priests are married. These priests (and deacons, just like our permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church), take a promise of constancy, meaning that if his wife dies, he must remain celibate. The India-based Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Coptic Catholic Church adopted mandatory clerical celibacy, as we do in the Roman Catholic Church, for their priests.
When Eastern rite Catholics began to immigrate to places where Latin-rite Catholics were, having a married priesthood caused some controversy, so some Roman Catholic bishops petitioned Rome and only men who were celibate were permitted to be ordained to the Eastern rite priesthood in many parts of the Western world. Now, with this decree from the Holy Father, this is no longer necessary.
So, what does this mean for the celibacy of the Latin-rite Catholic priest, for instance, the priests that serve us in the Diocese of Brooklyn? Is it the beginning of the end of priestly celibacy? No, it is not the end of priestly celibacy at all. It would not affect our priests in the slightest, and that’s not a bad thing. Priestly celibacy is a gift. It is a true gift of one’s self to Christ and His Church. Christ Himself, the model and example of all priests, was celibate and unmarried. Celibacy, if lived correctly, permits priests not to be bachelors but to be who they are truly called to be – fathers to the people they are called to serve in their ministries and to be husbands to Christ’s Bride, the Church.
Pray for our celibate priests that they may remain available for service of the People of God. Pray, too, for the priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches and from among the convert Protestant clergy, like those in the Anglican Ordinariate.
Pray for us, God’s People, that we will always be able to view celibacy as what it is: a beautiful witness to the love of God and of God’s people, the Church – a reminder of the things of the world to come.