We are Non-Roman Catholics

The first reaction of visitors to my lovely parish church is generally one of bewilderment, as they anoint themselves with air after reaching out for a holy water font inside the door and coming up empty. No statues, either. No stations of the cross. No confessionals or Rosary group either, for that matter. The first question visitors usually ask is, “Is this a Catholic Church?” Why, yes, it is. But not in the way most Catholics would expect.

A young man in my parish once summed up the prevailing assumption when he told me that he hadn’t been able to make it to our place the previous Sunday, “so I went to the regular Catholic Church.” If the Roman Catholic Church is the Regular Catholic Church, that would make my Melkite Greek Catholic Church and its twenty-two sister Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome Irregular Catholics – and so, for many, we are.

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Most Catholics remain unaware that there are Eastern Churches in communion with Rome at all, or that there is any way to be Catholic other than in the Latin Roman tradition. When interacting with Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics often spend much of their time explaining that yes, we are Catholic; yes, we are “under the Pope”; yes, we share the same faith; yes, you can receive Holy Communion here; yes, coming here on Sunday fulfills your Sunday obligation; and so on. We don’t generally call ourselves “Roman Catholic” — not because we are not in communion with Rome (we are), but because we are not of the Roman Rite. Many (but by no means all) Eastern Churches are “Greek Catholic,” i.e., not ethnically Greek any more than all Roman Catholics are Italian, but Greek in taking our worship traditions from Constantinople.

The lack of awareness of the wondrous mysteries of the East is understandable: Eastern Catholics only constitute between one and two percent of the Catholic Church as a whole, such that the theologian Dr. Seuss expressed an overriding concern of Eastern Catholics vis-à-vis Roman Catholics in his renowned treatise on the Eastern Catholic Churches, Horton Hears A Who: “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

But just as God showered His mercy upon this present dust-speck among the galaxies, so the significance of the Eastern Churches is far greater than their minuscule numbers. The Eastern Catholic Churches stand as the chief expression of the Church’s kinship with over 300 million Orthodox Christians who share traditions of worship, spirituality and theology with those Eastern Catholics. They are also the only current manifestation of Pope Bl. John Paul II’s devout and winsomely expressed hope that one day the Church would again “breathe with both lungs.” As such, every Catholic who is aware of the potential of Irregulars to ride to the rescue should know about them and become familiar with some of their particularities.

The Eastern Catholic Churches, with the exception of the Maronite Church, were born out of the failure of the great reunion councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439-1445) to heal the Great Schism between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople. Giving up on attempts to unite the Western and Eastern Churches through an ecumenical council that would hammer out a theological agreement acceptable to all concerned parties, Counter-Reformation Rome began sending out missionaries to Orthodox lands (to the bitter resentment of the Orthodox), hoping to affect union with particular local churches. These efforts bore notable fruit with the Union of Brest in 1596 with large segments of the Ukrainian episcopate; the Union of Uzhorod in 1646 with a group of Ruthenian clergy; and the conversion to Catholicism of the Patriarch of Antioch, Cyril VI Tanas, in 1724.

All of these and other unions led to fresh schisms, so that almost all of the Eastern Catholic Churches (except, again, the Maronite) have Orthodox counterparts. But when these “uniate” Churches restored communion with the See of Rome, they were not required to give up their theological, liturgical, or spiritual traditions. After all, before the Great Schism the Church had featured a multiplicity of orthodox rites, devotional expressions, and approaches to spirituality, all with different emphases but no divergences on the substance of the faith; there was no reason why in the second millennium these would somehow have become illegitimate. Often, however, the adoption of Roman customs and practices became the most direct and visible way for Eastern Catholics to demonstrate their loyalties and identity – especially in areas where tensions ran high with the Orthodox.

This “Latinization,” however, hampered the Eastern Churches’ ability to bear witness to the catholicity of the Church to their Orthodox counterparts, who regarded the Eastern Churches’ adoption of Roman practices with contempt, as confirmation of what they regarded as Rome’s theological imperialism. The Second Vatican Council countered this directly, affirming that the various Churches and rites, including the Roman Church, are 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 (cf. Mark 16:15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff” (Orientalium Ecclesarium 3). The Eastern Churches were called upon to “preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life” (Orientalium Ecclesarium 6).

In most Eastern Catholic Churches there ensued a discarding of Latin practices and a recovery of their Eastern traditions. And that process, in turn, is what can lead these Churches to appear so irregular to their Latin brethren. Eastern Catholics sometimes appear indifferent to Latin practices that Roman Catholics can assume are basic to a faith rightly lived. This is not out of hostility to the West, although there is no doubt that at times Easterners do display such hostility as an unfortunate overreaction to Latinization and the incomprehension and often unconscious triumphalism of their Latin brethren. Easterners are more often jealous for their own traditions and less receptive to Latin ones out of an awareness that if they do not bear witness to their own traditions, the Eastern Catholic Churches have no reason to exist. There are already Roman Catholic churches in abundance; Eastern churches thus serve no purpose in becoming merely Roman churches with “a different mass.”

The differences are far greater than that, even as the Faith remains common. Greek Catholic or Byzantine Catholic Churches, which include the Ukrainians, Ruthenians (who style themselves, confusingly “Byzantine Catholics,” as if they were the only ones), Melkites and others, are by far the most likely Eastern Churches that a Roman Catholic may run into in the U.S. The entire emphasis of Byzantine spirituality, upon the sinner as wounded and the Church as the source of his healing, rather than on juridical paradigms derived from Roman law, diverges sharply from Latin spirituality. Churches look like Orthodox churches, featuring an iconostasis, copious use of incense, usually a sung liturgy (most often the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), and – increasingly – married clergy.

It is the specter of a married priest that most often makes startled visitors ask, “Is this really a Catholic Church?” The Byzantine East, however, has ordained married men from the earliest period of the Church, and Eastern Catholic Churches were no different until 1929, when the Vatican decree Cum data fuerit stated that “priests of the Greek-Ruthenian rite, who wish to go to the United States of North America and stay there, must be celibates.” Although this referred explicitly only to the Ruthenian Church, it was always assumed to apply to the other Eastern Catholic Churches as well – a reasonable surmise, since Pope St. Pius X’s 1907 apostolic letter Ea semper had called for celibacy for all Eastern Catholic priests in North America.

The 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, however, takes married clergy for granted, saying that “in leading family life and in educating children married clergy are to show an outstanding example to other Christian faithful (can. 375) and that “once this Code goes into effect…all common or particular laws are abrogated, which are contrary to the canons of the Code” (can. 6).

Does this mean that the Vatican ban on married clergy was lifted by the Code? Certainly some Eastern Catholic bishops have thought so, and have ordained married men in the U.S. In any case, Cum data fuerit’s stipulation that even immigrant priests in America must be celibate is a long-dead letter, as many married priests serve here after having been ordained elsewhere. The situation, however, is unclear: in the 1990s, one high-profile Eastern Catholic ordination to the priesthood of a married deacon aroused considerable fury among the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.; subsequent ordinations of married men have either taken place outside this country or with considerably less fanfare.

The ambiguity about the legitimacy needs to be resolved definitively, as it was the ban on the Eastern Churches’ age-old practice of ordaining married men that dealt the most serious blow of all to the Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S., and to the prospect that they would ever in significant numbers genuinely constitute the Church’s “second lung.” Those who believe that the Eastern Catholic Churches should rightly be compelled to follow Latin custom on this issue often assume that priestly celibacy is of divine origin, when in fact it is a matter of ecclesiastical discipline, or they believe that if the Eastern Churches ordain married men in the U.S., the Roman Catholic Church in this country will be bereft of young men with vocations, as all will join Eastern Churches in order to have both marriage and the priesthood.

Although that has never been true in countries where communities of Eastern and Roman Catholics live in close proximity, it was apparently the concern behind the ban in the first place. However, the obverse is actually true: the ban on married clergy certainly drives Eastern Catholics out of the Catholic Church. I will be happy to supply anyone who disputes this with an icon of St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

Fr. Alexis Toth (1853-1909) was a Ruthenian Catholic priest who came to the U.S. in 1889, settling in Minnesota. When he paid a courtesy call to the Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, John Ireland, Ireland treated him with breathtaking rudeness, denying Toth (who was a widower) permission to serve as a priest in his diocese, and doubting that Toth was really a Catholic at all. Finding that other Eastern Catholic priests in the U.S. had been treated in similar ways, Toth and several other priests contacted a Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco, who eventually received them all into the Orthodox Church.

With enormous energy, Toth then set out to convert Eastern Catholics in the U.S. to Orthodoxy, and was immensely successful: as many as 100,000 Eastern Catholics became Russian Orthodox in the first two decades of the twentieth century, largely because of the prohibition of married clergy, restrictions on other Eastern traditions and practices, and indifference or outright hostility from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. For his labors, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Toth in 1994 as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre. The kontakion (a thematic and often homiletic hymn) for his feast day exults that he “called back the sheep who had been led astray and brought them by his preaching to the Heavenly Kingdom!”

The life of Fr. Alexis Toth should serve as a cautionary tale for Roman and Eastern Catholics alike, that while there is one Faith, there is a legitimate and traditional multiplicity in its expression, and to insist on one expression of it to the expense of all the others does detriment to the Church and to the hope that Christians may one day all be one, as the Lord prayed (John 17:11). The Church will only be truly Catholic, truly universal, when the Council’s words are fully realized — that all the Churches and rites are 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.”

That goes even for us Irregular Catholics.


For an extended discussion of the role of married priests in the Church see this essay by Catholic journalist Sandro Magister.


  • Robert Spencer

    Robert Spencer is the author of several critically acclaimed books about Islam, including the New York Times bestsellers The Truth about Muhammad and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine and the director of Jihad Watch.

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