Can a Latin Catholic Man Enter an Eastern Catholic Seminary?

Q:  My 17-year-old son wishes to pursue his vocation to the priesthood in the Byzantine Rite (having been mostly raised in this rite) even though both of us parents are Roman Rite.

Our Byzantine pastor informs us that we parents will have to formally petition to change rites first, before our son can be admitted to an Eastern Rite seminary.  I am perfectly willing to take this step.  My wife, however, is unwilling to do so.

Although the rite of the father seems to have precedence in most cases, I cannot find any example in canon law that addresses the issue precisely like our situation.

So my question is, can my son change rites if only I change to Byzantine Rite? –Timothy

A: Readers may be surprised to hear that this issue is actually far more common than most Catholics realize!  When a young man wishes to become a priest, membership in his own Church sui iuris can sometimes create obstacles to his entry into the seminary.  Let’s look at the general rules first, and then we’ll be able to see the answer to Timothy’s question.

To begin with, we saw in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I” that not all Catholics are Roman Catholics.  The Catholic Church is comprised of over 20 different Catholic Churches sui iuris, of which the Latin Church is by far the largest.  Most (but not all) of the others were formed in relatively recent centuries, when various groupings of Orthodox faithful—who had been in schism with the Catholic Church—returned to full communion with Rome (cf. c. 205, and see “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church?’” for more on the issue of full communion).  They now acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the supreme earthly head of the Church.  The Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Romanian Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church are a few examples of these Churches sui iuris.

While members of these Churches sui iuris are fully Catholic, they have retained their own ceremonies and rituals.  On the surface these appear radically different from those of the Latin-rite Church, with which we are most familiar; but theologically, the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris are celebrating the same Mass and the same sacraments as Latin Catholics.

Speaking of which, there is chronic confusion among many Catholics about the difference between a Church sui iuris, and a rite.  As was discussed in “Adopting Children of Another Faith (Eastern Churches, Part II),” rite is a liturgical term, referring to the rituals that are used when celebrating Mass, the sacraments, and other liturgical functions.  Not every Catholic Church sui iuris has its own rite: for example, the Ukrainian, Ruthenian, and Romanian Catholic Churches sui iuris all use the Byzantine liturgical rite.  This is why it can create confusion to refer to a Church by the liturgical rite that it uses (as Timothy does in his question).

In “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic,” we saw that because we are all Catholics, there is absolutely no reason why (for example) a Latin Catholic can’t attend Sunday Mass—called “divine liturgy”—in an eastern Catholic parish church, such as a Maronite or a Greek Melkite Catholic parish.  The opposite is of course true as well: many thousands of eastern Catholics, who live in western countries where practically all the Catholic churches are Latin, routinely attend Mass and receive the sacraments from Latin Catholic priests.

But as was discussed in detail in “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? (Eastern Churches, Part I),” the mere fact that a Catholic regularly practices his faith at a parish of a particular Catholic Church sui iuris does not automatically make him a member of that Church (c. 112.2).  If you were baptized Catholic as a child, you are in fact a member of your parents’ Catholic Church sui iuris (c. 111.1), whether you know it or not!  If one parent is a Latin Catholic, and the other is (let’s say) a Chaldean Catholic from Iraq, the child will be a member of the father’s Church sui iuris, unless both parents agree that their baby will be a member of the Church sui iuris of the mother.

So if we apply all this to Timothy’s family, it is clear that because Timothy and his wife are both Latin Catholics, their son is too—even though they all routinely attend Mass and receive the sacraments at a different Catholic Church sui iuris.  (By the way, we don’t know which Church sui iuris that is, because Timothy tells us only that the parish is “Byzantine rite”; and as we’ve just seen there are a number of different Churches sui iuris which all use that liturgical rite.  Fortunately, since the law is the same for all these eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, we can apply the law even without knowing which eastern Church Timothy is talking about.)

In any event, Timothy’s 17-year-old son wants to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood.  Great!  But since he has “been mostly raised” in the eastern Church which the family attends, it is entirely understandable that the boy wants to become a priest of the Church sui iuris with which he is most familiar.  Can he do that?

For the record, there is no direct prohibition in the Code of Canon Law against a member of the Latin Catholic Church sui iuris entering the seminary of an eastern Catholic Church sui iuris.  But it is nonetheless quite clear that practically speaking, this is impossible.  Latin Catholics are all bound by the Code of Canon Law (c. 1), while all the eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris are not.  Instead, eastern Catholics actually have their own canon law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1990.  The eastern seminary where Timothy’s son wants to study for the priesthood is thus bound by this other body of canon law.  It would be unworkable for a man who is not bound by the same church laws to become a priest in an eastern Church sui iuris where everyone else is obliged to follow different laws.  While it’s not a perfect analogy, this would perhaps be somewhat like commissioning an officer in the US military, who isn’t a US citizen and thus hasn’t sworn allegiance to that nation.

At the same time, Timothy’s Latin Catholic son is not subject to a bishop of any eastern Catholic Church sui iuris; and so without an identifiable superior, it’s pretty hard to envision how he could be fitted into the hierarchical system that governs all Catholic clergy.  It would be rather like trying to force-fit a square peg into a round hole!  That’s why if Timothy’s son wants to study for the priesthood in an eastern Catholic seminary, it makes total sense that he will have to become an eastern Catholic first.  So the next logical question is, how does he do that?  Timothy says that “Our Byzantine (sic) pastor informs us that we parents will have to formally petition to change rites first, before our son can be admitted to an Eastern Rite seminary.”  But what exactly does canon law say?

Canon 112 provides a number of different ways that a Catholic can officially switch membership from one Catholic Church sui iuris to another, and they were discussed in detail in “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic.”  In short, a Catholic can petition the Vatican for the change (c. 112.1 n.1); or a Catholic who marries another Catholic of a different Church sui iuris can make a declaration that he/she is changing to the spouse’s Church sui iuris (c. 112.1 n. 2).  The same canon 112 also makes provision for the children of Catholic parents who switch Churches sui iuris: children under the age of 14 switch too, regardless of how they might feel about it—but when they reach the age of 14, they are free to return to their original Church sui iuris if they want to (c. 112.1 n. 3).

Let’s look more closely at that last sentence, and we’ll see that it obliquely provides the answer in the case of Timothy’s son, who is 17 years old.  Canon 112.1 n. 3 states that if parents switch to a different Church sui iuris, their children automatically switch with them, if the children are under the age of 14.  That means that if the children are over 14 years old, they do not automatically switch together with their parents.

Therefore if Timothy and his wife both changed to a different Church sui iuris, this wouldn’t affect the status of their 17-year-old son at all.  The pastor of the eastern Catholic parish which they attend thus gave them incorrect information.

It could be that the eastern pastor was thinking that Timothy’s son couldn’t make this switch on his own, because at the age of 17 he is still canonically considered a minor.  Canon 97.1 notes that a person is canonically considered a minor if he or she is not yet 18 years old (see “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” for more on this topic).  And the following canon observes that only a person who has attained majority—i.e., has reached his 18th birthday—has the full exercise of his rights (c. 98.1).  The second paragraph explains that in exercising his rights, a minor remains subject to parents or guardians, except for those matters in which minors are exempt from such authority (c. 98.2).

It’s possible that the pastor of the eastern Catholic parish which Timothy attends was thinking along these lines.  But if he (wrongly) thinks that Timothy’s son can’t switch by himself until he’s turned 18 and is canonically considered an adult, wouldn’t it be infinitely easier to just wait until his 18th birthday?  In any case, as we’ve just seen above, canon 112 clearly indicates that when it comes to changing one’s Church sui iuris, Catholics over the age of 14 make their own decision—their parents don’t make it for them.  Timothy’s son is old enough to do this already.

Unfortunately, it’s also quite possible that Timothy’s eastern pastor thinks that as the head of a parish, he may simply make up the rules as he goes along.  As we saw in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest” and “Excommunication and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” there are a surprising number of parish clergy around the world who think that their arbitrary decisions constitute laws.  Imagine what could have happened in this case, if Timothy and his son had coerced their wife/mother into unwillingly agreeing to switch to a different Church sui iuris—all to no effect!  Universal laws are not optional, and our parish clergy are expected to know what they are (and if they don’t, it is their responsibility to find out).

Now the answer to Timothy’s question should be clear.  If his son wishes to enter an eastern Catholic seminary and study for the priesthood there, he will have to petition for a change of membership from the Latin Church to the relevant eastern Church sui iuris.  Timothy and his wife, in contrast, don’t need to do a thing, which presumably will please his wife and resolve any tension among the family on this subject.

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