The final of the three decrees approved by the Vatican Council at Rome at its third session is this one treating the “Eastern Churches.” It is brief compared to the others which were approved, but it deals with one of the “sore spots” within the Romish church and in its relationship with the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
In the first place there are within the Roman church various “rites” or forms of liturgy through which the members express, what they consider to be, their worship to God. Secondly, the question of the relationship between Rome and the closely related Eastern Orthodox Churches has troubled both groups for some time.
THE BACKGROUND HISTORY
Though Protestants, and likely many Roman Catholics too, are not so aware of it; there are within the Romish church different rites used in their worship services. A “rite” is “in modern religious use any external sign or action employed as an expression of reverence or devotion, or as a means of exciting religious sentiments.” (Encyclopedia Americana). The same encyclopedia points out that fit is generally accepted that the fairly uniform type of liturgy previously used everywhere developed into four great parent-rites, from which all others now in use in Christendom are derived. These four are the liturgies of Antioch, Alexandria, Gaul, and Rome.” I have no intent (and I presume you have no interest in such) to analyze the differences between these four liturgies and that which has developed from them. I would point out, though, that the various “rites” differ both in language and in form one from the other. The Roman church almost exclusively uses the “Roman” or “Latin” rite throughout the world. But there are segments of the Roman church that do use other rites than the “Latin.” Latin has never been the exclusive official language of the whole Romish church nor does it use exclusively one form of liturgy throughout the whole church. But those using the other rites are a small minority, and often feel themselves to be “step-children” of Rome.
Related to the above, there is the relationship between the “Orthodox” and the “Roman” churches. The Orthodox Church has an estimated 150 million members with over two million of these on the American continent. The Orthodox churches are not one large denomination, but consist of independent groups, each under its own “patriarch.” At the present time there are some sixteen of these independent groups of churches. The churches are largely located in Eastern Europe and in Asia.
These churches broke relationships with the Western or Roman segment of the church in the year 1054. There were various causes for the break including differences in custom and traditions and disagreements on the authority of the Roman bishop. There were other doctrinal disagreements including the “filioque” dispute (whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, or also from the Son).
The similarities between the two groups of churches are great. Their form of worship and their doctrinal emphasis are similar. Though the “Orthodox” groups appear to place less emphasis on “Mariology” than does Rome, yet also here the differences are not very great. Presently, one of the biggest obstacles to union between the two groups would be the Roman doctrine of papal infallibility in doctrinal matters, and papal supremacy.
Through this decree, and other recent actions, Rome appears to be making a very deliberate attempt to seek to open the way for reunion with this large segment of “Christianity.”
THE PROBLEMS CONFRONTED
From the “Council Daybook, Third Session” (quoted in former articles) I want to point out the various problems as they exist in the minds of members of the Romish church.
First, there must be obviously friction between the “Latin-rite” majority of the Romish church and the minority which use other “rites.” The minority feel left out and merely tolerated -in the church. These are groups that did not go along with the “Orthodox” but remained allied to Rome—yet retained their old forms of worship. There appears to be disagreement on the place of a patriarch also in the Roman hierarchal system.
The patriarch objected also to the opening words of the proposition’s introduction which expresses the great esteem of the Catholic Church for Eastern rites. In this he said he saw the implication that the Eastern rites are something other than Catholic.
He called for the restoration of ancient dignity and prerogatives of the patriarchate and asked that the honorary patriarchates in the West be abolished, since they demean the dignity of the office.
“Let us not close the circle of Catholicity in the West—retaining only small appendages from the East.” he said.
Coptic-rite Patriarch Stephanos I Sidarouss of Alexandria (I wonder how that man signs his checks?) also asked for the restoration of patriarchal dignity. He said he preferred the whole treatment on the Eastern churches to be included in the Constitution on the Nature of the Church since, although they have different rites, they are not, strictly speaking, particular churches. (page 138).
The relationship between Rome and the Orthodox churches raised much discussion and also disagreement.
The text caused difficulty for the commission particularly in three areas, Cardinal Cicognani said, and the majority reached on these points was far from unanimous. The points included these:
1. Eastern Christians converted to Catholicism should be received into the Catholic rite corresponding to the Orthodox one they leave, with provision made for recourse to the Holy See to change;
2. A Catholic priest’s presence at a mixed marriage between Eastern Christians is required for a marriage within the law unless a dispensation is granted, but not for a valid marriage.
3. Permission for Eastern-rite Catholics to make use of Orthodox sacraments provided no Catholic priest is available.
THE CONTENTS OF THE DECREE
The decree approved by the Vatican Council on the “Eastern Churches” consists basically of two parts. In the first part the Romish church condones and approves the existence of rites other than Latin within the church. And it urges that these “rites” be developed.
These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff. (p. 351).
All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. (p. 352).
With respect to the “Orthodox” churches, Rome expressed its consciousness of closeness between the two groups. Rome recognizes as proper the administration of sacraments in the “Orthodox” churches and is ready to receive both members and its priests into communion with Rome.
If any separated Eastern Christian should, under the guidance of the grace of the Holy Spirit, join himself to the unity of Catholics, no more should be required of him than what a bare profession of the Catholic faith demands. Eastern clerics, seeing that a valid priesthood is preserved among them, are permitted to exercise the Orders they possess on joining the unity of the Catholic Church, in accordance with the regulations established by the competent authority. (p. 354).
Rome recognizes the validity of the sacraments in the Orthodox churches, and under certain circumstances allows its members to participate in the worship services in the Orthodox group.
Without prejudice to the principles noted earlier, Eastern Christians who are in fact separated in good faith from the Catholic Church, if they ask of their own accord and have the right dispositions, maybe admitted to the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. Further, Catholics may ask for these same sacraments from those non-Catholic ministers whose churches possess valid sacraments, as often as necessary or a genuine spiritual benefit recommends such a course and access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible. (p. 354).
The ultimate aim of the Romish church is reunion with the Orthodox group.
The sacred council feels great joy in the fruitful zealous collaboration of the Eastern and the Western Catholic Churches and at the same time declares: All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation till such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity.
In this age of ecumenism, I can well conceive that the above could take place. I would regard a union between these two bodies as more than remotely possible—and a first step of Rome towards union with Protestant groups as well. Already Pope Paul has met in Jerusalem with one patriarch of the Orthodox churches. And at the conclusion of the last session of the Vatican Council Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I mutually lifted the “excommunications” which the churches has uttered against each other when the schism began. Differences remain. But the way to union has at least been opened up.
Again, all this must be a reminder to us of the last days in which we live. More and more one can detect the trends towards the establishment of one large “Christian” church which can serve as the seat of the anti-Christ. God grant the faithful members of the body of Christ grace to stand firm even until the end of time.