The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Catholic Eastern Churches

The split between the Latin and Byzantine churches, which had been symbolized by the mutual excommunications of Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Ugo da Silva Candida in 1054, became definitive in the minds of the common people in the east after the Crusades and the sacking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204. Attempts at reunion took place at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-1439, but neither was successful.

Subsequently, a Roman Catholic theology of the Church continued to develop which vigorously emphasized the necessity of the direct jurisdiction of the Pope over all the local churches. This implied that churches not under the Pope’s jurisdiction could be considered objects of missionary activity for the purpose of bringing them into communion with the Catholic Church. At the same time, the notion of “rite” developed, according to which groups of eastern Christians who came into union with Rome would be absorbed into the single Church, but allowed to maintain their own liturgical tradition and canonical discipline.

This missionary activity, which was sometimes carried out with the support of Catholic governments of countries with Orthodox minorities, was directed towards all the eastern churches. Eventually segments of virtually all of these churches came into union with Rome. It should be recognized, however, that not all these unions were the result of the activity of Catholic missionaries. The Bulgarian Byzantine Catholic Church, for example, was the direct result of a spontaneous movement of Orthodox towards Rome. And the Maronites in Lebanon claim never to have been out of communion with the Roman Church.

Inevitably, these unions resulted in a process of latinization, or the adoption of certain practices and attitudes proper to the Latin Church, to a certain degree, depending on the circumstances of the group. As a result, these churches sometimes lost contact with their spiritual roots. The monastic tradition, so central to Orthodox spirituality, died out in most of the Eastern Catholic churches, although religious life often continued in the form of congregations modeled on Latin apostolic communities. Since the Second Vatican Council, efforts have been made to reverse this process.

All of these churches come under the jurisdiction of the Pope through the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, one of the offices of the Roman Curia. It was created in 1862 as part of the Propaganda Fide (which oversaw the church’s missionary activity), and was made an autonomous Congregation by Benedict XV in 1917. It has the same role with regard to bishops, clergy, religious, and the faithful in the Eastern Catholic churches that other offices of the Curia have in relation to the Latin church.

The Oriental Congregation also oversees the prestigious Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, which is under the direction of the Jesuits and has one of the best libraries for eastern Christian studies in the world.

It should be mentioned that in the past the Eastern Catholic churches were often referred to as “Uniate” churches. Since the term is now considered derogatory, it is no longer used.

Most Orthodox view these churches as an obstacle in the way of reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. They feel that their very existence constitutes a denial by Catholics of the ecclesial reality of the Orthodox Church, and that these unions grew from efforts to split local Orthodox communities. They tend to consider Eastern Catholics either as Orthodox whose presence in the Catholic Church is an abnormal situation brought about by coercive measures, or even as Roman Catholics pretending to be Orthodox for the purpose of proselytism.

One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, dealt with the Eastern Catholic churches. It affirmed their equality with the Latin church and called upon Eastern Catholics to rediscover their authentic traditions. It also affirmed that Eastern Catholics have a special vocation to foster ecumenical relations with the Orthodox.

The ecclesial life of the Eastern Catholic churches is governed in accordance with the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1990, and had the force of law as of October 1, 1991. According to the new Eastern Code, the Eastern Catholic churches fall into four categories: (1) Patriarchal (the Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Maronite, and Melkite churches), (2) Major Archepiscopal (Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar, Romanian and Syro-Malankara churches), (3) Metropolitan sui iuris (the Ethiopian, American Ruthenian, Hungarian, Eritrean and Slovak churches), and (4) other churches sui iuris (Bulgarian, Greek, Italo-Albanian, Russian, Belarusan, and Albanian churches, as well as the Ruthennian eparchy of Mukačevo and apostolic exarchate in Prague, and the three Greek Catholic jurisdictions in former Yugoslavia).

Each Eastern Catholic patriarchal church has the right to choose its own Patriarch. He is elected by the Synod of Bishops and is immediately proclaimed and enthroned. He subsequently requests ecclesiastical communion from the Pope. The synods of patriarchal churches also elect bishops for dioceses within the patriarchal territory from a list of candidates that have been approved by the Holy See. If the one elected has not been previously approved, he must obtain the consent of the Pope before ordination as bishop. A Major Archbishop is elected in the same manner as a Patriarch, but his election must be confirmed by the Roman Pontiff before he can be enthroned. Metropolitans are named by the Pope on the basis of a list of at least three candidates submitted by the church’ council of bishops.

A number of technical terms appear in this section. The term “eparchy” is the word used for “diocese” in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. The two terms are used here interchangeably. An “Apostolic Exarchate” is the eastern equivalent of an Apostolic Vicariate in the Latin Church. It is a group of Eastern Catholic faithful that, because of special circumstances, has not been fully established as an eparchy. It is located in an area outside the territory of an Eastern Catholic Patriarch or Major Archbishop, and is headed by an Exarch (bishop). An “Ordinariate” is an ecclesiastical structure established for small groups of Eastern Catholic faithful, perhaps of more than one church sui iuris, in an area where they do not have a hierarchy of their own. In these cases the Ordinary will often be the bishop of a local Latin diocese. An “Apostolic Administration” is similar to an Ordinariate, but in this case the Apostolic Administrator governs vicariously in the Pope’s name.

In the following presentation, the Eastern Catholic churches are grouped according to their provenance. It begins with those that have no direct non-Catholic counterpart, and then considers the Eastern Catholic churches that correspond to the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox, and, finally, the Orthodox churches.

The Congregation for the Oriental Churches
Prefect: Archbishop Leonardo Sandri (born 1943, appointed 2007)
Secretary: Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ
Via della Conciliazione, 34
00120 Vatican City State

Last Modified: 25 March 2015

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