Rome (AP). His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has made a historic ecumenical bid to woo Eastern Rite Catholics and stop treating them as second class citizens. Eastern Rite Catholics are essentially Eastern Orthodox Christians who were received into full communion with the Catholic Church under an an agreement intended to let them to preserve their Orthodox liturgy and faith. In the centuries since this historic agreement, Eastern Rite Catholics have found themselves not exactly treated as first-class citizens by the Roman Catholic Church.
In the nineteenth century, the Eastern Rite Catholic priest Alexis Toth entered the U.S. and found that Archbishop Ireland rejected him as a Catholic, not recognizing his Orthodox rite nor even recognizing him or his bishop as clergy, but demanding Roman behavior and Roman rites, nor accepting that Toth quoted chapter and verse demonstrating that he was allowed to continue his traditional practices as an Eastern Rite Catholic priest. Alexis Toth, regarded today as a saint by the Orthodox Church, was a leader among those moving from being treated as second-class citizens by Rome to come home to the Orthodox Church.
Today, Eastern Rite Catholics enjoy somewhat better treatment, but it is a matter of some debate how much better today’s treatment really is. In Rome, priests are basically required to be celibate; in Orthodoxy, prospective priests are usually expected to be married before they are ordained to the priesthood, and Rome respects this by allowing married Eastern Rite Catholics to be ordained priests. However, given the state of U.S. Catholic church politics, Rome is very reluctant to let married men be ordained priest on U.S. soil: Eastern Rite Catholic bishops from the U.S. may only ordain married men to the priesthood if they have special, case-by-case permission to ordain that particular man, and this is actually an improvement: not long ago, Eastern Rite Catholics had to be flown be flown to another continent entirely if married men were to be ordained to the priesthood. This is how Rome allows Eastern Rite Catholics to preserve their Orthodox tradition and practices. (Rumor has it this is not the only rough point of how Rome treats its Eastern Rite Catholics today.)
But the Pope is very keen on restoring communion and seeing that all Eastern Orthodox become Eastern Rite Catholics, or rather restore communion with Rome, if that is really any different. Now that Anglicans have been offered full communion with Rome while keeping a great deal of their liturgy and faith, the Pope is now tackling the ambitious task of allowing Eastern Rite Catholics to keep their liturgy and faith as first-class members within the Roman communion. Some sources suggest the move may be intended to ease Eastern Orthodox apprehensions about being under papal authority implied in restoring communion with Rome.
At present, details remain sketchy about how the Pope intends to improve Eastern Rite Catholics’ standing. Perhaps only time will tell what it is like to be in full communion with Rome while preserving your tradition’s liturgy and faith.