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Vatican lifts ban on married priests for Eastern Catholic churches in US, Canada, Australia

November 17, 2014

The Vatican has lifted a longstanding ban on the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic churches.

The tradition and discipline of the Eastern churches allows for the ordination of married men to the priesthood. (Bishops must be unmarried, however, and once ordained, a priest cannot marry.) The Vatican has repeatedly approved this tradition, while insisting on the importance of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite.

However, in the late 19th century, with the arrival of many Byzantine Catholic immigrants in Canada, Latin-rite prelates complained that the presence of married Catholic priests could create a “grave scandal.” The Vatican eventually ruled that the Eastern churches could not ordain married men in the countries where their communities form a minority of the Catholic population. The rule has historically applied primarily to Canada, the US, and Australia.

With a decree approved by Pope Francis, and signed on June 14 by Cardinal Leonard Sandri, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches has now rescinded that ban. Catholic bishops of the Eastern churches serving in eparchies (dioceses) in the West are explicitly authorized to ordain married men.

The decree requires a bishop of the Eastern Catholic Church to “give prior notice, in writing, to the Latin Bishop of the candidate’s place of residence, so as to obtain his opinion and any relevant information [regarding the candidate].” An Eastern-rite bishop who ordained a married man for service in another country is directed to inform the episcopal conference of that country, and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, of this action.

In practice, the ban on married priests had been relaxed in recent years, with the tacit acceptance of the Holy See. Some married priests from the East have been assigned to serve parishes in the West, and some men from the West have traveled to the East to be ordained before returning to serve at home. In a few cases, bishops of the Eastern churches have simply ignored the ban, ordaining married American men to serve in American parishes.

The new Vatican document allowing for the ordination of married men notes that when the ban was originally imposed, thousands of Catholics of the Ruthenian Catholic community in Canada left to join the Orthodox Church. The document also notes that when Pope Benedict XVI issued Anglicanorum Coetibus, allowing for the reception of Anglican communities into the Catholic Church, he explicitly provided for the presence of married Catholic priests. In 2012, Pope Benedict remarked that “the ministry of married priests is a component of the ancient Eastern traditions,” which he encouraged the Eastern Catholic churches to maintain.


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