An influential group of Catholics and Orthodox has called for an end to restrictions on married priests in Eastern Catholic churches in North America -- an issue that has long vexed church relations in Pennsylvania and beyond, and that resonates in the wider debate over the potential for married Catholic priests.
The statement came from the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, an official ecumenical body that has been meeting since the 1960s, holding dialogues, issuing statements and studying relations between the two ancient church groups.
Eastern Catholics occupy a middle place between their two worlds -- following Orthodox-style liturgy and devotion but loyal to papal authority and Catholic dogma. As with Orthodox priests, their priests have been allowed to marry in the churches' Old World homelands, mainly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But tensions arose between immigrant Slavic and other Eastern Catholics and their Irish and other Roman Catholic neighbors in North America, and Latin rite bishops succeeded in persuading the Vatican in 1929 to rule that Eastern priests living permanently in North America must be celibate.
That decree prompted some to leave Eastern Catholicism for Orthodoxy. The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in Johnstown, Pa., traces its roots to that split. Eastern Catholic branches prominent in this region include the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh and numerous Ukrainian Catholic churches.
In more recent years, some married Eastern rite priests have received church approval to serve in North America on an individual basis.
The Consulation's statement, noting the 85th anniversary of the 1929 decree, cited documents of the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed the married priesthood in Eastern Catholic rites and the ability of such priests to fulfill vocations of both married and pastoral life.
"With these things in mind, the North American Orthodox/Catholic Theological Consultation encourages the lifting of the restrictions regarding the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Churches of North America. 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. 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."
The statement comes shortly after Pope Francis made news, when asked about the possibility of married priests filling the depleted ranks of clergy in Western clergy, by saying that celibacy is a church discipline that can be changed rather than an immutable dogma.
In addition to married Eastern Catholic priests, the Vatican has also allowed for married Anglican and some other Protestant clergy who convert to Catholicism to become priests while remaining married.