Over five months ago, without announcement and with almost as little notice, a Vatican reform was published in the official directory of the Holy See: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis, CVI:6 (June 2014), pp. 496-499. On Friday (November 14) an Italian blog had noticed the appearance of the act and published the text, and the link was circulated in various online forums and discussion groups (see an English translation here). That’s how I heard of it.
A decree of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the act has far reaching importance for church discipline within the Catholic communion and perhaps for ecumenical relations too. Dated June 14, it was signed by both the Prefect of the Congregation and Pope Francis. It plainly states that the Eastern churches in communion with Rome are free to follow their own tradition of a married presbyterate anywhere and everywhere in the world that they happen to be. Commenting on the Catholic Church’s existing Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, the act explains that “this allows that each church sui juris is able to decide about the admission of married men to holy orders.”
This move concludes a long and painful history and definitively sets aside a series of earlier Vatican decrees. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the (Latin) bishops of the United States protested that the presence of married Eastern priests in their territories constituted a “most grave scandal” to their faithful. In a series of decisions, culminating with the 1929 decree Cum data fuerit, Rome heeded their protests, and married Greek Catholic priests were excluded from ministry in North America and then seemingly everywhere else but their “traditional territories.” It would be hard to overstate the importance of this story to the memory and self-understanding of Eastern Catholics in the United States. Many believe that their churches have never recovered completely from it. They may be right.
According to the American bishops of the time (mostly Irish and all Latin), the Eastern Christian tradition of a married priesthood was scandalous and offensive to their flocks. And, while Rome protected the Greek Catholics from very real attempts to suppress them altogether in the United States, it effectively granted the Latin hierarchy in America a veto power over Greek Catholic difference. Rome accordingly conceded the whole world to Roman Catholicism and conceded too that, within the Catholic communion, the Eastern tradition represented a sort of tolerated deviance, only to be preserved within certain limits because it was potentially offensive to everyone else. By imposing priestly celibacy on Greek Catholics outside of their “traditional territories,” Rome relegated them to a second-class status of merely tolerated difference and particularity. At any rate, the text of the act does not avoid this story but summarizes it rather directly: “Deprived of ministers of their own rite, an estimated number of 200,000 Ruthenian faithful went over to Orthodoxy.”
The Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of authentic Eastern liturgical and ecclesial life. Speaking of the diversity of churches and their traditions, the Decree on the Eastern Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, rejected any notion that the Latin rite possessed a superior or normative status and underlined the basic equality of all the distinctive traditions of the Catholic Church:
They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (OE, 3.)
Moreover, the decree explicitly underwrote a large scale retrieval of the Eastern tradition by Eastern Catholics:
Besides, they should attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions (OE, 6, my emphasis.)
Most readers—then and since—have understood the words to support the restoration of Eastern ordination rules, but that didn’t turn out to be the last word, at least not until now. Until now, it was simply never the right time; whenever they had the opportunity, Roman bureaucrats applied the brakes. What is true everywhere else seems to be true in the Catholic Church too. The program of retrieval proceeded furthest where bishops implemented it without asking or receiving approval from Rome or anyone else.
The ban also cast a shadow on Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. Clearly, it seemed to contradict the Catholic Church’s ecumenical commitments and motivations. The Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregory III drew the connection with particular force in his 2010 address to the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for the Middle East: “Treat us as a real Eastern Church, just as you would the Orthodox on the day when the much longed for union takes place!”
Everything the Catholic Church said to the Orthodox Churches about respect for the Eastern tradition, not to mention what it had to say about primacy and collegiality, seemed to overthrow this ban. And yet Rome did not overturn it, thickening and concentrating the whole mess with an occasional pinch of obstructionism. Accordingly, when the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation addressed the matter earlier this year, on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of Cum data fuerit, it simply voiced a longstanding concern. The Commission called on Rome to remove definitively any remaining restriction on the Eastern Catholic Churches’ ability to restore and preserve their own traditional discipline of a married priesthood.
And finally, for whatever reason, it is now the right time.
Perhaps things were heading this way under Pope Benedict. Perhaps Pope Francis’s personal experience with Eastern Catholics “outside of their traditional territory” added some impetus to the drift. But, whatever the reason, to many Eastern Catholics this decision is nothing less than a bombshell, and the relative quiet of the news left many doubtful. For many this decision represented the news of several lifetimes’ waiting. That it might have been reached quietly and uneventfully five months ago without any acknowledgement at all seemed hard to believe.
“Then why haven’t we heard anything about it yet?” Wary and incredulous, this question framed the usual response. Only on Monday (November 17) did the story begin to appear in Catholic news sources and elicit some commentary from ecumenists and bishops.I am eager to read the Orthodox responses that will shortly begin to appear.
When it issued its call in June, the North American Dialogue said, “We are convinced that this action would enhance the spiritual lives of Eastern Catholics and would encourage the restoration of unity between Catholic and Orthodox Christians.” I hope they’re right, on both counts. Let us pray that it may be so.