Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches) truly deserves more attention, as it remains vital to the self-understanding of the Catholic Church and for the prospect of Christian ecumenism in general.
Eastern Catholics are non-Latin Rite Christians who, at some point in the last thousand years, entered into communion with Bishop of Rome—though technically, some like the Italo-Albanian and Maronite churches, may have never left that communion. These Christians of the East are many, part of several churches, in communion with the Roman church. It is often forgotten that the Catholic Church, founded on the See of Peter, is a communion of twenty-two churches.
These Eastern-rite churches are significant to any real ecclesiology because their Catholic reality—their theological tradition, liturgy, spirituality, discipline, and customs—does not derive from Western influence. As a matter of fact, their Catholicism has its own apostolic foundations as old as, or even older than, those of Rome itself. Therefore, the way the Roman church understands its relationship to Eastern churches and the way in which it lives out that understanding is a clear marker to the shape a reunified Church will take in the future.
It is an unfortunate truth that the actual experience of communion with Rome for many, if not all, of these Eastern churches has been distressing. Some of the issues that arise are largely due to historical circumstance and may be inevitable. Even the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches—the Ukranian church—is less than one-hundredth the size of the Roman church. The first and most obvious problem is the massive Latin influence that deeply associates itself with the rejection Eastern Catholics meet from other Eastern Christians. In other words, Eastern Catholics are not only misunderstood, but are often left isolated and this isolation is twofold: ignorance and lack of understanding, or interest, on the part of Roman Catholics compared to resentment and exclusion on the part of the majority of Orthodox and Oriential Christians. Pope John Paul II described these problems precisely to this point:
The Eastern Churches which entered into full communion with Rome wished to be an expression of this concern, according to the degree of maturity of the ecclesial awareness of the time. In entering into catholic communion, they did not at all intend to deny their fidelity to their own tradition, to which they have borne witness down the centuries with heroism and often by shedding their blood. And if sometimes, in their relations with the Orthodox Churches, misunderstandings and open opposition have arisen, we all know that we must ceaselessly implore divine mercy and a new heart capable of reconciliation over and above any wrong suffered or inflicted.
It has been stressed several times that the full union of the Catholic Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome which has already been achieved must not imply a diminished awareness of their own authenticity and originality…because they have “the right and the duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition, and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls.” These Churches carry a tragic wound, for they are still kept from full communion with the Eastern Orthodox Churches despite sharing in the heritage of their fathers. A constant, shared conversion is indispensable for them to advance resolutely and energetically towards mutual understanding. And conversion is also required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire catholic communion; that she may show concretely, far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realization of the Church’s universality. (Orientale Lumen)
The real problem, however, is not merely an external reality created by circumstances. The matter is wholly theological. Are these Eastern churches, as the Decree asserts, several times, sister churches, equal in dignity and therefore bearing an equal responsibility with the Latin-rite church for the evangelization of the whole world? Or, are these Eastern churches, as the Decree almost seems to suggest in other places, mere territorial groupings of Christians whose very existences as churches has been somehow created or conceded by the Roman church, as if they were “daughter” rather than sister churches, so that they are unable to act outside of their defined “ancestral” traditions without the permission of the Latin church?
It also begs the fundamental question, what is the position of the Papacy in this dilemma? The Decree speaks of the Pope as “the supreme arbiter of inter-church Relations,” which might imply that the Pope is to judge evenhandedly between the claims of the Eastern and Western churches where there might be conflict. However, to an Eastern Catholic, this view does not take into account is the most obvious: the Pope does not exist on some neutral ground above or outside the Eastern/Western dimensions of the Church’s lived reality, but he belongs within a particular church, the Western church. He is, in Eastern Christians terms, the Patriarch of the Western Church.
The difficult theological question which the Decree brings to the forefront but does not answer comes down to this: how is the Petrine charism of the Papacy to be exercised for the good of the Universal Church as a whole, East and West, given the fact that the one who exercises this charism belongs of necessity within the ecclesial traditions of a particular church?
It might be fair to say that we (Roman Catholics) are not yet sufficiently free of our deep-rooted habit of identifying ourselves solely as the “universal church” to be able to answer the question in such a way that preserves the equal dignity and responsibility of Eastern Catholic Churches in fact as well as in word. Forty years or so have passed since the Second Vatican Council and the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches still stands as a reminder that a basic theological question remains unanswered and that the union of all Catholic churches, East and West, are contingent on finding an answer.
This deep, pressing question did not escape the radar of Pope John Paul II during his Pontificate. The Roman Pontiff remarked:
Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.
The sin of our separation is very serious: I feel the need to increase our common openness to the Spirit who calls us to conversion, to accept and recognize others with fraternal respect, to make fresh, courageous gestures, able to dispel any temptation to turn back. We feel the need to go beyond the degree of communion we have reached. (Orientale Lumen)
The Holy Father, throughout his Pontificate (the third-longest in church history) vigorously promoted Christian ecumenism and advocated that the Church breathe with both of her “lungs” believing unity to be an essential feature of the Church and the will of the Lord.
Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape. (Ut Unum Sint)
The prayer of our Lord for unity stands at the heart of the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint, which is perhaps the most important ecumenical text of the twentieth century, if not since the Great Schism of 1054 itself. In it the Bishop of Rome invites others to help him understand his special ministry in the service of the unity of the Church which is integral to her life.
Among all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, the Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God established as her “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” and whom the Spirit sustains in order that he may enable all the others to share in this essential good. In the beautiful expression of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, my ministry is that of servus servorum Dei. This designation is the best possible safeguard against the risk of separating power (and in particular the primacy) from ministry. Such a separation would contradict the very meaning of power according to the Gospel: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27), says our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. On the other hand…the Catholic Church’s conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections. To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join my Predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness.
This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)?
The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the College of all Pastors consists precisely in “keeping watching” (episkopein)…With the power and authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity.
I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility…above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its missions, is nonetheless open to a new situation. (Ut Unum Sint)
The Holy Father declares, though not in detail, that the purpose of ecumenical dialogue is “to re-establish together full unity in legitimate diversity.” This process, however arduous, is absolutely necessary because division is both a scandal and the enemy of the Gospel.
When non-believers meet missions who do not agree among themselves, even though they all appeal to Christ, will t hey be in a position to receive the true message? Will they not think that the Gospel is a cause of division, despite the fact that it is presented as the fundamental law of love? (Ut Unum Sint)
Moreover, given the fact that the will of our Lord is manifestly clear (cf. John 17), it is both prideful and absolutely disobedient for Christians to perpetuate division amongst themselves with petty, unproductive arguing and cheap slogans in place of humble, prayerful dialogue.
How could (believers) refuse to do everything possible, with God’s help, to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus…? (Ut Unum Sint)
Ecumenical dialogue calls all, even Catholics, to conversion. Everyone involved have “dirty hands” and have contributed in word, deed, ignorance, and lack of action to the immense situation we are currently facing. This is why the heart of ecumenical dialogue is universal conversion.
John even goes so far as to say, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Such a radical exhortation to acknowledge our condition as sinners ought also to mark the spirit which we bring to ecumenical dialogue. (Ut Unum Sint)
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism was regarded as dangerous to faith and few, usually experts, engaged in it very cautiously. The Pope, here, calls all the faithful, by saying that it (ecumenism) must pervade the life of the Church. Ecumenism is intricately linked to the mission of evangelization.
Thus, it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of “appendix” which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does…. (Ut Unum Sint)
Though, this is contrary to the “traditionalist” mindset, the Holy Father is telling us that this is not some “appendix” or add-on; it is a new feature of evangelization, a necessity, in other words–a necessary consequence of our contemporary situation. This search for unity that “must pervade” the life of the Church flows directly from our Lord’s prayer in John 17. This is the Lord’s clear teaching. It is for this reason that ecumenism cannot be divorced from evangelization. If we cannot so much as invite our brethren to our table, if we cannot sit with them, and talk with them—regardless of troubling intellectual or theological ideas they may hold—how should we hope that they should become Catholic, or that we save as many souls as possible? If we only remain amongst our own, what does this gain us–do not all those outside the Church do the same?
It is simple to overlook the fact that the Lord came to us. He did not wait for us to come to Him—such a thing would have never happened. We all had to be called. Therefore, it is an imperative, if not an absolute obligation, that Catholics follow the Lord and go to people and begin the conversation—without insulting them, with patience, with love, and a humble heart. It is only then that the words of Pope John Paul II may truly come to life:
Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? (Ut Unum Sint).
Now it goes without question that the timely and prophetic voice of Pope John Paul II has not received the response that it deserves on the part of the faithful. Though, there have been positive and promising responses from various Christian communities, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
I personally would like to recommend a specific response to Ut Unum Sint, that being The Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christian Unity by retired Archbishop John Quinn. It is really a phenomenal analysis of the very complex challenge of Christian ecumenism and a work of constructive criticism of the contemporary Church in response to the Pope’s “revolutionary” encyclical. The analysis is fair and balanced and the tone is very humble.
This book is written at…the first level of reflection. It is not the work of a professional theologian who has spent his life in study, research, and teaching. While it makes use of theology and history, it is more the reflection of a bishop which may need to be corrected, modified, augmented, or confirmed by the work of theologians and scholars, as well as by my brother bishops…I speak completely in fidelity to the Church, One and Catholic. (The Reform of the Papacy)
Quinn begins with an analysis of Ut Unum Sint where he repeatedly underscores the “radical and precedent-breaking character” of the encyclical. It is, in his words, a “revolutionary document.” Pope John Paul II makes declarations and requests that no other Successor of St. Peter has ever said or asked in the search for Christian unity, including, underlining the need for constant conversion, as well as the place of dialogue in the search for unity and the need to take the first step boldly, not only relationally with other Christians but in the renewal of self, which includes the whole Church.
Quinn paraphrases the Pope’s words this way:
I realize that the papal primacy is a serious obstacle to our union. Let’s talk about it and see what can be done. There are certain basic elements that the primacy will always have to have. But beyond that things can change. There can be a new way of papal primacy. I cannot say what that would be. I need your help in trying to discover it.
Quinn discusses what the Pope says about the doctrinal core of the papacy, the need for a re-examination, historically and theologically, of the first millennium when communion was preserved not only by synodal and collegial action regionally, but through the communion of all the patriarchs with one another, and in a special way, with the Bishop of Rome.
In subsequent chapters, Quinn endeavors to find the “place” of reform and criticism in the Church, as well as addresses the papacy and collegiality, the appointment of bishops, the college of cardinals, and the workings of the Roman Curia. All of these things are concerns to other Christians contemplating unity with the Roman Catholic Church. Quinn rightly observes that in Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant dialogues there is no mention of abolishing the papacy as a condition for unity. Rather, there is a growing acknowledgment of how truly providential the papacy is. In each matter Quinn sees the practice of the first millennium as crucial. Present-day problems and debatable distortions of the tradition are clearly described, and the ways of possible reform indicated. Though, I disagree with his solution to change the character of the Roman Curia rather than improve its effectiveness without disturbing its centuries-old structure.
Despite minor objections here and there—which we are all bound to find in any work–Quinn’s book is informative and convincing. This book is a must for all those interested in the next steps towards the visible unity of the church, even if you do not agree with all of its points. The brilliant analysis of the encyclical ends with the reflection that “there is no realistic hope for Christian unity unless the (Roman) Catholic Church is willing to take a serious look at itself as the Bishop of Rome has asked.”
An insightful theologian summed up this whole challenge this way:
The greatest corrective to centralization in Rome will occur the day a Protestant church comes knocking on the Vatican door to say, “We want a corporate union.” Over and over again church leaders have said that that they hope and pray for unity, but it will be fascinating when someone finally calls the cards so that they have to do something about a concrete bid. Then it will no longer be possible to postpone until the distant future the question of how the papacy would have to function in a united Church….Such a daring request for corporate union might be the ultimate challenge to the successor Peter, testing what it means to feed the sheep of Jesus….
It has been the Papacy’s proudest boast that to Peter alone among all the disciples Jesus gave the power of the keys. A Protestant church asking for corporate union would be asking Peter’s successor to use those keys to get the door open.