This March marks the eightieth anniversary of the Promulgation of the Vatican decree titled Cum Data Fuerit which would prove to be the
spark that would ignite a fire in the Byzantine-Rite Catholic Church in the United States and ultimately lead to the return of thousands of “Greek Catholics” as they were then called into returning to the Orthodox Faith of their ancestors through the creation of our diocese by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1938.
The decree itself was hardly remarkable; it was primarily intended to regulate relations between the members of the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church in such matters as intermarriage, baptisms and other such affairs. However, buried within it was this statement:
“In the meantime, as has already been several times provided, priests of the Greek-Ruthenian Rite who wish to go to the United States of North America and stay there must be celibates.”
This was not a new provision as the decree notes. As early as 1890 the Vatican called for priests who desired to go to America to be celibate. The provision was again restated in 1907 in the Ea Semper Decree which appointed Bishop Soter Ortinsky as the first Greek Catholic bishop in North America. Knowing that this celibacy decree was prompted by the “scandal” of married priests by the American Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy it was simply ignored. In 1929 however, the Greek Catholic Bishop Basil Takach, himself enamored of the power and status of the Roman Church in America, was charged with enforcing the celibacy decree and did so vigorously.
At this time there were several married Greek Catholic seminarians who were awaiting ordination. These men had the choice of giving up their vocations to the priesthood or permanently relocating to Eastern Europe where the Greek Catholic clergy could still be married (and in fact are still today). Many Greek Catholic priests in the New World resented the fact that their bishop refused to come to the defense of the traditional discipline of their church in regards not only to celibacy but to other matters as well – although forced celibacy was seen itself as being the most visible sign of the “Latinization” of the Eastern Church.
The real issue of 1929 is one that has plagued the Greek Catholic Church since its creation in 1595 at the Union of Brest and the 1646 Union of Uzhorod which marked the beginning of the entrance of the Carpatho-Rusin Church into “Union with Rome.” The issue at the heart of the conflict was what it meant to be a member of the Greek Catholic or as it is termed in the United States the Byzantine-Rite Catholic Church.
Simply put: Is a Byzantine-Rite Catholic a Roman Catholic who simply used the Byzantine-Rite Liturgies and other worship services instead of the Roman ones? Or is a Byzantine-Rite Catholic a member of an Eastern Church possessed of its own worship, spiritual traditions and unique disciple of which a married clergy is an integral part?
In 1934 the Vatican responded to the petitions of an “Anti-Latinization” National Religious Congress which among others things demanded that Rome rescind the celibacy restriction for the Church in America.
The Vatican’s response showed its inability to understand the mindset of the Eastern Christian… “(Celibacy) arose not now, but anew, from the particular conditions of the Ruthenian (i.e. the Vatican’s term for Carpatho-Rusins) population in the United States of America. There is represents an immigrant element and a minority, and it could not therefore, pretend to maintain there its own customs and traditions which are in contrast with those which are the legitimate customs and traditions of Catholicism in the United States, and much less to have there a clergy which could be a source of painful perplexity and scandal to the majority of American Catholics.”
Since the end of the Middle Ages and in the wake of the Protestant Reformation the Office of the Pope has become the final arbiter in all matters of disciple and faith in the Roman Church. The See of Peter in Rome has become for the vast majority of Roman Catholics the manifestation of union with and the focal point of the witness of the Holy Spirit within the Church historically. As evidence of this we have seen the almost total reformation of worship in the Roman Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council which with few exceptions has been accepted without questioning by the majority of Roman Catholics. Such a fast paced and complete reformation would be almost unthinkable in the Orthodox Church.
As a matter of geography in the Western part of the Old Roman Empire the only Church that could claim an intimate relationship with the Apostles was the Church in Rome. This gave it a unique position of leadership among Christians living in what would become the nations of Western Europe and a good deal of Eastern Europe.
In the Eastern part of the Old Roman Empire many if not most Churches could claim an Apostolic foundation and/or visitation. SS. Peter and Paul for example were in Antioch long before they were in Rome (cf. Galatians 2:11). As a result of this and other factors Orthodox Christians did not associate the responsibility for the guardianship of the faith with any particular Church or bishop but rather saw it as the responsibility of the whole church expressed in not only councils and canons but also in the worship and disciplines of the Church as well. Change takes place in such things in the Orthodox Church but only after time reveals it to be in harmony with the witness of the Holy Spirit in what has come before. For example the Patriarch of Constantinople could call for a Council of the Church but it could not be called an Ecumenical Council until generations had shown that its pronouncements were in harmony with the whole of the Church and were accepted by the whole Church.
Ironically the return of so many former “Greek Catholics” to the Orthodox Church under the leadership of Fr. Orestes Chornock, later Bishop and Metropolitan Orestes of blessed memory probably served to keep alive the Byzantine-Rite Church in America. The program of “Latinization” reached its peak in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the removal of iconscreens, abbreviated Liturgies, the removal of triple-barred crosses, the adoption of the Western date of Pascha and so forth.
Vatican II urged Eastern Rite Catholics to faithfully study their history and faithfully practice their “Rite.” Many Byzantine-Rite Catholics took the message seriously and began to think of themselves once again as members of Orthodox Church who were “united” with Rome.
The tragedy is that Rome, eighty years later, is still unwilling to regard the Byzantine-Rite Catholic Church in the United States as anything but a tolerated Church. In recent years the Byzantine-Rite Church attempted to secure the restoration of the married priesthood in the United States once again. The Vatican reaffirmed the celibacy provision of Cum Data Fuerit by its refusal to act on the request of the Byzantine Church.
If Pope Benedict really wanted to demonstrate his understanding of and regret for the divisions in families and the heartaches that Cum Data Fuerit had caused in the Byzantine Church since 1929 he could do two things. In the external forum he could rescind the excommunication of Metropolitan Orestes Chornock with the admission that his return to Orthodoxy was done out of the love of his Church and people which Rome, wittingly or unwittingly, was in the process of destroying.
Internally the Pope could rescind the celibacy provision of Cum Data Fuerit to demonstrate that Rome no longer regards our Eastern Rite brothers and sisters as unwanted and unloved, subject to the needs and prejudices of the American Roman Catholic Church. Until then we can only conclude that no matter how “Eastern” services appear in the Byzantine Church that it is still
fundamentally simply a group of Roman Catholics who have a “different Mass.”