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New Challenges for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

Still reeling from persecution, Eastern Europe’s Latin Catholic and Orthodox churches inch cautiously toward mutual understanding.




In late 1989, Christians throughout the world were astonished at events that dramatically changed the face of central and eastern Europe. With the demise of communism, Christians eagerly awaited the revitalization of the long-suffering Soviet bloc churches.

After the fall of the Soviet empire, it became clear that the communist persecutions made it difficult for the various Christian bodies to live together peacefully – communism homogenized and suppressed in order to conquer.

The re-emergence of the Byzantine (also known as Greek) Catholic churches witnessed the renewal of age-old disputes with the larger Orthodox Church; disputes formerly suppressed by the communists. These feuds remain unresolved.

The contemporary Eastern Catholic churches were formed after the collapse of the “union” achieved between the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the Council of Florence in 1439.

During the Catholic Reformation (formerly called the Counter-Reformation) in the 16th century, the Catholic Church developed a vigorous theology of the papacy that questioned the ecclesial reality of those churches not in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

This provided the basis for sending Catholic missionaries to convert the Orthodox. Upon conversion, the neophytes would be allowed to retain their liturgy and other traditions on the condition that they accepted the agreement signed at Florence.

Some individuals were persuaded. Once these converts formed a community of sufficient size, a Catholic bishop would be provided. More often than not, entire Orthodox eparchies (dioceses) were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. This method of achieving union between Catholics and Orthodox is known today as uniatism.

The two largest churches that resulted from this policy are in modern Ukraine and Romania. These two churches were formed when unions were agreed upon between Rome and the Orthodox ecclesiastical provinces of Brest in 1595-6 (modern Ukraine) and Alba Iulia, Transylvania, in 1700 (modern Romania).




These two union movements have striking similarities: they took place in areas under the control of the Catholic Austrian Empire, whose leaders provided political and economic incentives for their Orthodox subjects to convert; the Orthodox sought to buttress themselves against the spread of the Protestant Reformation; and Catholic missionaries (primarily Jesuit) had labored for some time before the unions were consummated. In both cases there was violent resistance to the unions.

Subsequently the Russian tsars – staunch defenders of Orthodoxy – reasserted their control of what is now Ukraine. All forms of Eastern Catholicism within the Russian Empire were suppressed. The Ukrainian Catholic Church survived only in the province of Galicia, which had never been under Russian control (it passed from Polish to Austrian hands in 1772, and back to Poland at the end of World War I). After World War II, the province was annexed by the Soviet Union.

The Romanian Catholic Church had existed only in the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania until it was unified with Romania at the end of World War I. After the war Romania’s Byzantine Catholics found themselves within a predominantly Orthodox state for the first time.

Byzantine Catholics have traditionally emphasized the religious factors in the formation of these unions. The Orthodox have focused on the political motivations of the Catholic governments who supported the reunion movements.

As a result, many Orthodox believed that the Catholic Church’s intentions were permanently hostile and that they were victims of Catholic aggression – a conviction that remains a fundamental aspect of many Orthodox Christians’ identity.

Many Orthodox continue to believe that these unions are denials of the Orthodox Church’s ecclesial reality by the Catholic Church. Otherwise how could the Catholic Church justify sending missionaries to work among the Orthodox faithful?

Over time the new Byzantine Catholic churches gradually assumed a distinct identity: Catholic but not Latin, Byzantine but not Orthodox; a presence that created both a bridge and a barrier between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.




This history needs to be taken into account when considering the fate of the Byzantine Catholic churches under communism. It was the aim of the communist governments to destroy these western-aligned communities by forcibly reuniting them with the national Orthodox churches. Thus they were dissolved and forced underground, the majority of their property was transferred to the Orthodox, their hierarchy was imprisoned, and large numbers of clergy and faithful suffered exile, imprisonment and even execution.

Officially the Russian and Romanian Orthodox patriarchates rejoiced in these events as the spontaneous and freely chosen end of a schism within their churches. The precise role played by the Orthodox remains, however, unclear.

The communists were hostile toward the Orthodox churches as well. Had the Orthodox publicly resisted the government-imposed union, they would have incurred the communist wrath as well.

Nevertheless a widespread perception grew among Byzantine Catholics that the Orthodox had willingly collaborated with the government to bring about their destruction. This conviction, when coupled with the general feelings of the Orthodox toward uniatism, explains the current hostility and anger regarding the restitution of church property after communism’s fall.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church was the first to benefit from these changes. Beginning in late 1989, the church began to resume a normal ecclesial life and, with the support of the local government, gradually appropriated their property. By late 1991, the Byzantine Catholics possessed more than 2,000 churches. The Orthodox presence in western Ukraine had been greatly reduced.

The Russian Orthodox patriarchate, which controlled the church in Ukraine, claimed that the Byzantine Catholics violently repossessed some of these structures and accused Rome of expansion at the expense of the Orthodox.

The patriarchate has also interpreted the establishment of a Latin Catholic hierarchy in Russia and in other republics of the former Soviet Union as an intention of the Catholic Church to proselytize among traditional Orthodox populations.

As a result, the Holy See sent a delegation to meet with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate. In January 1990 they agreed on a set of “recommendations” that were intended to provide a basis for the normalization of relations. Unfortunately some of these key provisions – such as the establishment of a local commission to settle concrete disputes – have not been implemented. At present, an uneasy modus vivendi has been established between the two churches.

Complicating these disputes is the reemergence of the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, also suppressed by the communists for its support of Ukrainian independence. This church too is at odds with the Moscow-oriented Ukrainian Orthodox Church.




In Romania the government that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989 quickly issued a decree annulling the 1948 order that dissolved the Byzantine Catholic Church there. The government did not, however, restore the church’s confiscated property.

As a matter of justice, Romania’s Byzantine Catholics have demanded that all property be returned to the church; restitutio in integrum is an expression of their position.

The Orthodox have insisted that any restitution of church property must take into account the current pastoral needs of the two communities. By the summer of 1992 this impasse had not been resolved and the Byzantine Catholics had secured about 15 of the more than 2,000 confiscated churches. The Romanian Orthodox have also claimed that the repossession of these churches by the Byzantine Catholic community was often violently achieved.

Catholics in both Romania and Ukraine deny that violence has taken place.

A major question is the real number of Byzantine Catholics in Romania. A census in January 1992 indicated that they now number less than 250,000. The Byzantine Catholics claim that the census was grossly inaccurate and that they number nearly three million faithful. This has created a highly polemic atmosphere between the two churches.

These contentions have affected general relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, specifically the work of the international theological dialogue that has been in progress since 1980.

The members of the dialogue realized that the question of uniatism would have to he addressed in the future. They asserted this could only be done effectively after a basic theological agreement in ecclesiology and other matters had been established. Thus when the problem of uniatism first exploded in 1989, the international commission was not prepared to deal with it.

Nevertheless when the sixth plenary session of the dialogue took place at Freising, Germany, in June 1990, it was clear that the commission would have to shelve its prepared agenda and take up the hot topic of uniatism. A preliminary statement was issued at the end of the meeting. Work was begun to produce a more extensive study.

The Orthodox members of the commission met at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, in December 1990 and stated that for the first time, the dialogue should deal exclusively with uniatism.




In June 1991 the coordinating committee of the international dialogue met near Rome and drafted an extensive document on uniatism. It was scheduled to be discussed at the seventh plenary session near Tripoli, Lebanon, in June 1992. Unfortunately, for technical and political reasons, this session was postponed.

Nevertheless, “Uniatism, Former Method of Union, and the Present Search for Full Communion,” is the one study that gives hope for an eventual resolution to this crisis in dialogue.

The committee that drafted this document has recognized that the Byzantine Catholic churches have the right to exist and to enjoy a full ecclesial life. This in itself is a major point; formerly the Orthodox denied the very existence of the Byzantine Catholic churches.

The same committee rejected the method of uniatism used in the formation of these churches as inappropriate. These churches, they stated, are not models for Catholic-Orthodox unity.

Finally the committee made a series of recommendations to solve basic problems with mutual respect and dialogue.

All this is easier said than done. The legacy of communist oppression still weighs heavily on all faiths in central and eastern Europe. Forced underground, Byzantine Catholics were unable to participate in Vatican II and to learn its teachings. They were also isolated when the warming of relations with the Orthodox took place after Vatican II.

The Orthodox also suffered from the communist oppression. While some of their leaders were able to have ecumenical contacts, the laity remained unaware of these trends. Hence these groups emerged from the communist winter hampered by a lack of knowledge of these developments and preoccupied with survival.

There is hope that with the passage of time the wounds will heal and the situation, improve. As the Byzantine Catholics and the Orthodox resume contacts with the rest of the Christian and non-Christian world, they will be able to absorb the implications of the dramatic events that pulled them from their long slumber. This awakening will be a slow process, its importance, however, essential for unity.

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