News flash! Eastern Rite priests get married

Every now and then it seems that a story in the mainstream press gets under the skin of GetReligion readers and quite a few drop us notes pointing toward the same URL. This time around, it was a story in the New York Times that ran under the headline, "A Flock Grows Right at Home for a Priest in Ukraine." At first glance, this appears to be yet another news feature in which professionals at a major newspaper are shocked to discover that there married priests in the wider world of Catholicism. One year, it's former Anglicans. Another, it's the odd former Lutheran, or two. Then again, these stories may focus on priests in Eastern Rite Catholic flocks. It's a subject that's evergreen.

But pay close attention to the rumblings down in the foundations, as you read the top of this report:

RUDNO, Ukraine -- Let the rest of Europe be convulsed by debates over whether the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests is causing sex abuse scandals like the one now unfolding in Germany. Here in western Ukraine, many Catholic priests are married, fruitful and multiplying -- with the Vatican's blessing.

The many feet scampering around the Volovetskiy home are testament to that. The family's six children range from Pavlina, 21, to Taras, 9. In the middle is Roman, 16, who wants to be a Catholic priest when he grows up. Just like his father.

Dad is the Rev. Yuriy Volovetskiy, who leads a small parish here and whose wife, Vera, teaches religious school. The Volovetskiys serve in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which believes that celibate priests are not necessarily better priests.

Ukrainian Greek Catholics represent a branch of Catholicism that is distinct from the far more prevalent Roman Catholic one. The Ukrainian church is loyal to the pope in Rome, and its leader is a cardinal and major archbishop. But it conducts services that resemble those in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In religious terms, it follows the Eastern Rite, not the Latin one that is customary in Roman Catholicism.

Historically, the Vatican appears to have tolerated the traditions and attitude toward celibacy of the so-called Eastern Rite Catholics in order to retain a foothold in regions where Orthodox Christianity has dominated. But this exception suggests that the Vatican view on celibacy is not as rigid or monolithic as it might otherwise appear.

All kinds of things are assumed in this prologue that are never really addressed in the story with attributed quotes, let alone facts. For example, we never really read any facts about links that do or do not exist between sexual-abuse statistics in the ranks of celibate priests, compared with those among married priests. And the story never addresses the evidence that pedophilia -- sex with children -- does not appear to be linked to sexual orientation. Then again, it also does not address the fact that, during the recent decades of scandal, high rates of ephebophilia -- sex with post-pubescent young people, almost always males -- may point to what conservative and some liberal Catholic activists have called a "gay subculture" in the celibate Catholic priesthood.

The story simply assumes that people are arguing about celibacy and that this is somehow linked to recent Catholic sex scandals and that's that. Move along.

Along the way, readers will be stunned to learn that these Eastern Rite churches also believe that "sexual relations outside marriage are not an option" and that, since they are using ancient Byzantine rites, their sanctuaries tend to look like Orthodox sanctuaries. You'll also be shocked to learn that married priests believe that their marriages help them related to married people and their families. Folks, we're not talking about breaking news, here.

Back to the issue of debates over the link between celibacy and the scandals:

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, is celibate, as is typical among the leadership of Eastern Rite Catholic churches. The cardinal has not spoken out in recent days on the issue of celibacy, though he has said that he does not think that ending the requirement would help the Vatican confront the declining number of men who want to become priests.

But Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, suggested this month that in response to the German abuse scandal, the Vatican should question its policies, including celibacy. His spokesman later clarified that Cardinal Schonborn was not calling for abolishing the requirement.

Actually, all Eastern bishops -- usually drawn from among monastics -- are celibates, an ancient tradition that is honored in the giant Orthodox churches of the East, as well. That word "typical" makes it sound as if this is common, but perhaps optional.

It's a strange story, all the way around. It's an interesting subject, but the Times then connects that subject to a hot-button controversy in ways that seem simplistic, at best. As one GetReligion reader noted, via email:

Is it just me, or does it seem that the reporter here is stretching to make a point? He raises the question of whether allowing Roman Rite Catholic Priests to marry would decrease the incidence of sexual abuse, and looks to the married clergy of the Eastern Rites as an example. But none of the Eastern Rite sources he interviewed offered an opinion on the issue. ...

Another thing that bothers me about this story is the complete absence of historical context. A little background on the origins of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and why their rules on celibacy differ from those of the Roman Rite Church would be useful for most readers.

Amen. And what is up with that phrase "so-called Eastern Rite Catholics"? Is there some controversy about their existence, in the context of the Roman Church? There is controversy among the Orthodox, but the Times never talks to the Orthodox.

Strange, strange, strange.

Photo: Worship in a Ukrainian Catholic church, with a bishop leading the Byzantine rite.

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