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Toward Understanding Diversity in Unity

The relationship between the Western and Eastern churches continues to be one of understanding, learning and tolerance.

Attitudes among Catholic and Orthodox peoples on the Church and their place in it not only stem from their strong national feelings, but are also deeply rooted in their ecclesiastical history and religious thought. For while the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ is unified, the Church certainly is not uniform in all aspects.

Until the schism of the East, which occurred after more than a thousand years of Christianity, the Church was organized on a kind of federal basis. Each flexible grouping included a particular geographical area and Christians of similar background and heritage. Within each of the five distinct areas was a chief bishop called a patriarch.

The five patriarchates were named for their see cities: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. Each patriarchal see was a major center of early Christianity. Rome was often referred to as the Patriarchate of the Western Church. The other patriarchates were in the East. Antioch, the first headquarters of the Church until St. Peter moved to Rome, was an important center of Christianity for several centuries. Constantinople developed into the most important and powerful patriarchal see, for it was the capital of the Byzantine and Roman world.

The Great Schism dividing East and West split the Church and was reflected in the political spheres. It was a gradual, almost imperceptible severance extending over centuries. The difficulties concerning Photius in Constantinople in the ninth century opened the first wound of separation since the withdrawal of the Assyrians (Nestorians in Mesopotamia and Persia) and of the non-Chalcedonians (Monophysites in North Africa and Asia Minor) in the fifth century. Then the complex problem between East and West in the eleventh century involving Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, ended in a gigantic division. The previous minor schism culminated in the major separation of Constantinople and Rome.

The breach in 1054 was mended temporarily by the union following the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, but it ruptured once again in 1282. A more promising settlement after the Council of Florence in 1439 lasted until 1472.

The Turkish Muslims who conquered Constantinople found it advantageous to widen this rift. Consequently, the three other Eastern patriarchates were separated. While only Constantinople formally broke from Catholic unity, the rest of the Byzantine Church followed, taking millions of faithful with a true priesthood and valid sacraments.

Western European Christians soon began an unfortunate pattern of intervention in the East. The Crusades aggravated the tension after the schism of 1054. Actually they were more damaging to the cause of reunion and had an effect worse than any of the prior complications. In addition to sacking Constantinople and establishing a new kingdom of Jerusalem, the Crusaders imposed Western authority and practice on the East.

This intrusion of the West in Eastern patriarchates undermined any sense of equality and mutual respect. The Patriarch of the West permitted a Latin hierarchy to be set up in Constantinople and Jerusalem, areas in which a Greek hierarchy already existed. Gradually, “Latin” and “Latinization” became synonymous with Roman interference in – and Westernization of – the Church in the East. Eastern Catholics’ resentment grew.

This domination by the West was linked to the pope. The Bishop of Rome is Patriarch of the West. In the sight of his peers, the patriarchs, he has been considered first among equals. It was his special office as Supreme Pontiff to arbitrate decisively everywhere in ecclesiastical disputes.

In respect to jurisdiction in its own area, each patriarchate had always enjoyed independence in administration. Each exercised the right to appoint its own hierarchy, to legislate for itself, and to engage in its own liturgy of worship. Uninvited intervention in the internal affairs of another patriarchate was not tolerated.

As Patriarch of the Western Church, the pope held jurisdiction which was no more extensive than that of the other patriarchs in ordinary matters. In actuality, the pope played two roles which had to be distinguished. On the one hand, he was Supreme Pontiff with a special power to bind and to loose. On the other hand, he was patriarch of an area with the authority to manage or govern that particular area.

Gradually, the West lost sight of the distinction between the pope’s patriarchal and supreme pontifical offices. After the split the papal function as Patriarch of the West continued unaltered, but outside the Latin Church the pope’s function as Supreme Pontiff was no longer effective or recognized. The West forgot that most of the pope’s authority over the Roman Catholic Church rested in his patriarchal function for the West, not his supreme pontifical function.

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding continued when some small bodies of the Orthodox Eastern Church were reconciled and restored in their Roman communion. This attitude intensified when Western missionary activity made the Latin church worldwide. Even today it is important for Western Catholics to regain an awareness of the distinction between the pope as Patriarch of the West and as Supreme Pontiff.

Abbe Paul Coturier, great apostle of Christian unity, observed: “So many Catholics are shut up in their Church and in their faith, like others in their political party. They yearn for a totalitarian state. All this has nothing to do with the gospel.”

The Churches of the East – those in communion with Rome and those not in communion – have lived in a state of local autonomy throughout history. This is not a matter solely of organization: it has religious and theological dimensions, too. This tradition has deep roots. Hence the Orthodox are wary of Latin centralization.

The Orthodox see in the highly centralized Catholic Church the religious history and mentality of Western Europe, and not a universality of their own concept. They wonder about the single structure and system of discipline and administration, the minutely developed canon law, the highly systematized theology, the curia in Rome regulating affairs of the whole Church – at times, affairs of which they have little real understanding. Over the centuries these characteristics have intensified and spread. Despite promises to the contrary, these Western characteristics and practices have affected the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Among the institutions to which Eastern Catholics attach particular importance are the rites of public worship; yet never was reunion based simply on the preservation of the Eastern rites. Granted the importance of these historic and beautiful rites, it would be an oversimplification to hinge unity on this single point.

To consider even our Eastern Catholic Churches as merely users of different liturgical ceremonies and languages would be a gross misunderstanding. It would be an error to identify the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox Churches as merely rites. The question of Catholic unity is not dealing with rites. The concern is centered, rather, on branches of the Church struggling to maintain the complete and ancient religious cultures in which they are embodied.

Western dominance in thought and practice makes the Orthodox fear Rome would try to assimilate them into the Western system, thus causing the loss of their whole system, tradition, and identity. They respect the fact, however, that Westerners are entitled to their own religious mentality and customs, as are Easterners. The Orthodox are not convinced of the papal declarations made time and again that the Catholic Church has no intention of changing Eastern tradition. They see in historical events that promises made were not fulfilled.

Pope Pius XII expressed the earnestness of papal intent: “Each and every people of the Eastern rite should enjoy legitimate freedom in all matters pertaining to their history, their special bent and their character…. All may rest completely assured that they will never be forced to change their own rites and ancient institutions for Latin rites and institutions. Both should be held in equal esteem and honor because they surround our common Mother the Church with a real diversity. Even more, in keeping intact and inviolable what many regard as ancient and precious, this diversity of rites and institutions is not in any way opposed to true and sincere unity.”

Nonetheless, Latin Catholics frequently balk at the patriarchal principle of local, self-governing Churches – a point of major consequence with the East. Undoubtedly, theological issues between Catholicism and Orthodoxy are, in the abstract, most important. But, in the concrete, the patriarchal principle is equally important to Eastern Orthodoxy.

While the Orthodox Eastern Church, through a variety of political and religious pressures, has fragmented, autonomous and national segments of Orthodoxy have multiplied. The question is inevitable, then: Is it possible for the Catholic Church to return in some fashion to its structure of administration before the tragic separation?

History hints at an answer. The general councils of Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1439 restored unity between East and West. In both instances, however, the reunion lasted only a short time. The basis of reconciliation in both cases was precisely the recognition of the distinction between the pope as patriarch and as Supreme Pontiff. The Apostolic See acknowledged the respect due the autonomy of the Eastern Churches in matters of internal government. Recognition was clearly granted to this important element of earliest tradition.

Archbishop Philip Nabaa, the late Melkite Metropolitan of Beirut, reminded us, “We must remember how close the East is to Western Christianity, with which it lived for ten centuries in peace and charity in the one faith. If this deep unity was sometimes shattered, shaken, or even broken, this was due to a failure to understand one another rather than to bad faith.

“It arose not so much from a denial of the faith as through sincere attachment to truly Christian traditions. The reasons were not so much the religious as the political and psychological factors that led to separate development in East and West. The first result was a division in charity, followed by a division in faith, all of which led to a great rent in the Catholica.”

When in the past four centuries segments of the Eastern Churches reunited with the Holy See, some peculiarly Western characteristics were extended to these Churches. These developments grieved and offended Eastern Catholics, who want to guard the integrity of the spiritual and cultural heritage of their Churches. Furthermore, Catholics of the East are trying to prevent a heightening of any barrier between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

What, then, can be done to restore East and West to one faith and one Church? Obviously, a reply to this burning question is not easily formulated.

Archbishop Nabaa proposed a healthy approach. “It will not be sufficient,” he explained, “to ask our Orthodox brethren to accept our faith and convince them of the truth of our beliefs. We must also meet them in great charity, showing that we respect their great Christian traditions in a catholic spirit.

“We must show them that Christ’s Church is truly catholic and open to East as well as West. Our actions must show that the catholicity of the Church enables it to include all human institutions, civilizations and national cultures, all Christian traditions and liturgies, without special privileges for any country, church, rite, or person. There are no first-class or secondclass citizens in Christ’s Church, for all are one in Christ.”

The Eastern Catholic Churches may have a unique role and vocation to be the bridge by which the Orthodox Churches will return to communion with the Apostolic See. The delicate and complex matters which have divided Christianity need to be understood if full unity with a respect for diversity is to be achieved.

Moreover, we must keep foremost the image and the reality of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ – the Head united with His many, diverse groups of members.

Brother John Samaha, S.M., is a Melkite Catholic on the staff of the Marianist Formation Center in Cupertino, California.

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