ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Pearl Anniversary

On the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of some significant decrees of Vatican II, the author looks at the church of the past, the present and what is to come.

On 21 November 1994, the church marks the 30th anniversary of the promulgation, by the council fathers of Vatican II, of Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism) and Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches). Anniversaries are somewhat arbitrary, and a 30th enjoys no particular significance in today’s society (a pearl anniversary?). Nevertheless the occasion offers us the opportunity to look back, to reflect on the advances made and the opportunities lost, and to ponder the paths we must take in the future.

The council fathers made a statement about the church when they announced these documents on the same day. No longer would the church be identified solely as those faithful in communion with the Roman Pontiff. All baptized persons belong in varying degrees to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Lumen Gentium eloquently describes the church as the people of God. The remaining two decrees address issues relating to specific groups within the church. Unitatis Redintegratio treats all those believers who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, that church whose visible sign of unity is the Bishop of Rome. Orientalium Ecclesiarum has as its fundamental goal the protection and advancement of the Eastern Catholic Churches, that they “may fulfill with new apostolic strength the task entrusted to them.”

Despite the fact that its goals were praiseworthy and even noble, Orientalium Ecclesiarum was nearly shelved; the Eastern Catholic council fathers raised a few objections. Perhaps the cause for their concern can be traced to the opening statement:

The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and their ordering of Christian life.

One may ask why the Eastern Catholic prelates would have any objections to this beautiful statement about the Eastern patrimony of the church. However, with careful analysis, the statement may be interpreted to mean that the Eastern Churches, as recipients of this praise, were not a part of the Catholic Church, the source of praise. Understood in this manner, it was obvious that the Eastern Catholic communities, which had shed blood for their fidelity to the Catholic faith, were going to he offended. Eastern Catholics did not want any conciliar document intimating that they may be “less Catholic” than the members of the Western (Roman) Catholic Church.

Also, claims that the draft included incorrect and incomplete elements prompted a few council fathers to suggest they abandon a distinct decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches and incorporate its positive elements into other conciliar documents. One council father then spoke on behalf of the decree, stating that the project had been undertaken at the personal initiative of the late Pope John XXIII and the expression of esteem for the Eastern Catholic traditions should not be understood as separatism. The necessary corrections could be made, he said, adding that the decree was never intended to be a comprehensive treatment of all matters relating to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Instead it was to provide a set of principles for renewal; other matters would be left to the churches themselves and to the Apostolic See. After further deliberation, discussion and modification of the text, Orientalium Ecclesiarum was approved by the council.

Much has happened in the church since the council’s initiatives to bring the church into the modern world. In an attempt to renew discipline, Pope John Paul II has promulgated the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches for the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published as an up-to-date expression of the teachings of the church. These documents have been a great benefit to us all. Yet, with regard to the Eastern Churches, they are limited in some way.

The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church fails to dedicate any specific sections to ecumenism. The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches should be recognized as a great gift to all of the Eastern Churches because it comprehensively restores genuine Eastern canonical traditions. Yet the centralization of the Catholic Church as elaborated in the code will always present itself as unacceptable to the Eastern non-Catholic world. In the new catechism, one notes that the few references to the Eastern church fathers and liturgical texts, most of which are drawn from the tradition of Constantinople, are treated as alternatives and appear disparate to the essential Catholic tradition. The catechism also fails to articulate clearly the conciliar insight that the Catholic Church is actually a communion of Catholic Churches, Latin and Eastern, all sharing in the same faith, sacraments and recognition of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. The absence of a clear statement that the Latin and Eastern Catholic Churches all share in the same dignity, rights and obligations may reinforce the misconception that there is only one church, the Latin Church, and that the Eastern Catholic Churches are appendages to it.

There are 22 churches within the Catholic communion; these are identified in canon law as churches sui iuris (“of their own right,” i.e., autonomous), whereby they enjoy the power to govern themselves in all matters except those reserved to the Pope. One of these churches, the Roman Church, follows the Latin rite. Each of the Eastern Catholic Churches follows an Eastern rite or specific form of one of the five major Eastern traditions: Alexandrine, Antiochene, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean.

Space limitations do not permit us to examine each of the 30 articles of the decree. However, we can reflect upon a few of its more significant points and ascertain how this modest document affected all of Eastern Christianity.

Ecclesiastical Organization

The fourth article of Orientalium Ecclesiarum states:

Provision must be made therefore everywhere in the world to protect and advance all these individual churches. For this purpose, each should organize its own parishes and hierarchy, where the spiritual good of the faithful requires it.

The 20th century, with its wars and regional conflicts, rise and fall of dictatorships and resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, has witnessed massive emigration of Eastern Catholics to all parts of the world. However, it was only as an exception that bishops were appointed to care for these faithful in diaspora. At the time of promulgation of the decree, only bishops for the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Churches had been appointed for the United States and Canada. Today there are hierarchies established throughout North and South America representing not only the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Churches, but the Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, and Romanian Catholic Churches as well. One author exclaimed that the Eastern Churches are now at home everywhere!

The population shifts and consequent establishment of bishops have greatly altered the configuration of many of the Eastern Catholic Churches. No longer can these churches be characterized exclusively as representatives of an individual nationality and culture. Now each of these churches comprises a multiplicity of cultural and historical experiences.

It was natural that the expansion of these churches would also give rise to questions about who would govern them. The question of the authority of the patriarchs and synods of bishops was a hotly disputed issue after the council. The issue was only mentioned in the decree, clarified in 1971, and eventually incorporated into the Eastern code in 1990. At this time, direct patriarchal or synodal authority over the faithful residing outside historical boundaries is restricted to liturgical matters. Immediately prior to the promulgation of the Eastern code, Pope John Paul II indicated his willingness to consider any specific requests on the part of any Eastern Catholic hierarchy for an expansion of its authority. As of this writing, no specific arrangements have been issued for any Eastern Catholic Church.


Whenever the Eastern Churches are mentioned, questions of ecumenism usually arise. This became crucial during the council and in the years subsequent to it. So pressing was it in the heart of Pope Paul VI that he questioned whether we Christians had the right to remain divided.

We are able to appreciate Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Unitatis Redintegratio as real milestones on the path to unity when we recall how aloof we were about things non-Catholic. Catholics were permitted to enter into dialogue with non-Catholics, but shared prayer was restricted to a recitation of the Our Father.

The encounters between the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople and the Roman Pontiffs have been much publicized. Some progress has been made in the relations between our churches. However most Catholics are unaware that Pope John Paul II has made good use of the decree to build bridges between the Catholic Church and some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches that refused to accept the Christological formulations of the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. Discussions between the theologians of these churches have revealed that the differences were in the realm of terminology and not substance. Therefore, the Pope was able to sign common declarations with the patriarchs of the Coptic, Ethiopian, Malabar Syrian and Syrian Orthodox Churches and with the Armenian Apostolic Church. These declarations have removed any Christological obstacles from the path to unity. These churches have yet to recognize the primatial power of the Pope as it is defined and exercised in the Catholic Church, but in the veneration of our Lord, nothing separates us.

Vatican II has brought about tremendous change, which has now been accepted as commonplace. Under certain circumstances, Catholics may occasionally participate in the services of non-Catholic communities and receive the sacraments from Orthodox priests. Orthodox faithful may receive the sacraments from Catholic clergy to avoid difficulties in marriage and the marriage of a Catholic with an Orthodox in the presence of an Orthodox priest is recognized by the Catholic Church. The unburdening of ourselves of many marginal restrictions has created an atmosphere of understanding and love for our fellow Christians, although we remain separated from one another.

Although the Catholic Church continues to affirm the Orthodox as our “sister church” and takes concrete steps to put this recognition into practice, the ecumenical approach of the council and the current legislation of the church is still that of “come back to us.” Perhaps this method will meet with success; perhaps not.

Future Prospects

In the life of the church, 30 years is not long. The conciliar innovations need time to be digested and diffused throughout the Body of Christ. Much progress has been made, but the future of the Eastern Catholic Churches is tenuous.

In the land of their origin, some of these churches were forced by communist regimes to go underground. Only recently have they emerged; the consequences of years of atheism and materialism remain to be seen. In another part of the world, the Near East, radicals opposed to Christianity continue their assault. Through the support of charitable agencies such as CNEWA, Christians have been able to survive in the land where our Lord walked.

In the diaspora there are numerous adverse factors inhibiting the growth of the Eastern Catholic communities. Within the Catholic communion itself, there is the temptation for Eastern Catholics to abandon their Eastern traditions and involve themselves in local Latin parishes. Other immigrants are lost to the Orthodox Church, Protestant communions or to the secular world. To survive, Eastern Catholics must live with one foot in the East and another in the West – a precarious stance indeed!

We live in a world that has developed a concern for the survival of tiny plants and animals, fearing the loss of such creatures would be to the detriment of the world’s environment. Can we not feel the same concern for the Eastern Catholic Churches, who have preserved an ancient patrimony handed down to us from the Apostles? We are only stewards of a treasure that has produced saints and martyrs. To allow these churches and their spiritual heritage to disappear would be contrary to the plan of our Savior.

Chorbishop John D. Faris is Vicar General of the Maronite Catholic Diocese of St. Maron.

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