Catholics Look East!

20 Dec

Eastern Catholic hierarchyToday we continue our series on the sixteen documents of Vatican II with a consideration of the 1964 decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite.

When we think of the Catholic Church, we tend to think exclusively of the Latin rite. There’s some justification for this, as in the United States there are tens of millions of Latin rite Catholics, and just a few hundred thousand combined in the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches (sometimes called “Uniate” Churches) with ancient liturgies and traditions tracing back to places like Antioch, Alexandria, and Byzantium.

Further, some Latin rite Catholics hear “Eastern Church” and instantly think of the Eastern Orthodox Churches that broke away from the Church in Rome in 1054 and still are not in full communion today, despite ongoing ecumenical efforts.

Make no mistake, Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion with the Holy Father. They were founded by the apostles and have their own their own rightful existence. They show forth the catholicity of the Church.

As  presently defined, there are 24 Catholic Churches that can be grouped into eight  different rites. A rite is a liturgical, theological, spiritual, and disciplinary  patrimony of a distinct people manifested in a Church. While each Catholic Church  may have its own rite or customs, in general, there are only eight major rites.  History, language, misunderstandings, nationalism, and basic human weakness have  resulted in the current communion of 24 Churches, counting the Latin rite.

With only a few exceptions,  the Eastern Catholic Churches result from incomplete reunions with the Orthodox  Churches. In those instances, large numbers of bishops and faithful of the Orthodox  mother Churches either held back or later rejected union with Rome. One could see how this could create tensions with the Orthodox, who  are fearful of losing their distinct traditions in a world dominated  by the Latin Church.

So in this context, I chose for our consideration the following paragraph from Orientalium Ecclesiarum, which sets forth the equal dignity and legitimacy of the Eastern Churches:

“These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently 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” (no. 3).

One related point:

In her official documents, the Church usually avoids the expression “Roman Catholic.” “Catholic,” yes. “Roman or Latin rite,” yes. “Church of Rome,” as meaning either the Diocese of Rome or that body which submits to the Bishop of Rome, yes. But not “Roman Catholic.” Why? Because the term was coined by 19th-century Anglicans as a term of opprobrium, to assert that those who accepted the authority of the Bishop of Rome were, in fact, not true Englishmen. Further, the Anglo-Catholic party endeavored to advance its “branch theory” of the Church, which erroneously asserts that the Catholic Church exists in three forms: Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican.

Even more, we’ve seen that the Catholic Church is composed of a variety of rites and particular Churches, only one of which is—strictly speaking—Roman—although all acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their visible head. The indiscriminate, ambiguous use of the term “Roman Catholic” can have the (unwitting) twofold effect of (a) marginalizing all the non-Roman ritual Churches; and (b) making Catholicism much more particular—and thus idiosyncratic—than it truly is.

For more on Eastern Christianity, check out Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”) by Blessed John Paul II. For what is likely the most authoritative treatment of the fascinating history of Eastern Churches–both Orthodox and Catholic–from the Catholic perspective, check out the books by my friend and former colleague, James Likoudis on the subject, especially Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism and The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church

One Response to “Catholics Look East!”

  1. James LIkoudis December 21, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    Dear Leon,
    Thank you!
    If you have the Website of any Eastern Catholic Church in your area, why not send your commentary to them. It would be wonderful if the Archbishop might promote an Eastern Catholic Day to have more personal contact with Eastern Catholic clergy or a Catholic Catechesis Day featuring how the Liturgy (especially the Eastern Liturgies) have kept the Faith alive in he hearts of the faithful.
    -JIm

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