These churches, with an estimated total membership of more than 9 million, originated in very diverse circumstances and live in various situations. What they have in common is full communion* of faith* and sacraments* with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) around the bishop of Rome, while retaining various Eastern liturgical and canonical traditions inherited from the mother churches from which they were separated by their union with the church of Rome. They were disparagingly called Uniates* by the Orthodox or Oriental churches because of negative memories of their origins and of their type of relationship with Rome or with the Orthodox churches of the same traditions.

On the RC side, these union attempts were generally founded on the principle of the union-council of Florence (1438-45): complete respect of the diversity of traditions within the unity of faith. But no Eastern Catholic church in fact traces its origin back to this council. In the context of the Counter-Reformation, the awareness of the ecclesial character of the Orthodox churches became blurred in the RCC, and the attempts to restore unity between the two churches slowly gave way to the “return” of individuals or small groups to the RCC.

In Eastern Europe, the reunion with Rome of certain communities – at times with their bishops – was strongly influenced by the socio-political situation, especially the changes of frontiers between countries with Catholic or Orthodox predominance. The union of the Ukrainians (Brest-Litovsk 1595-96) concluded at a time when these regions were under Polish authority. The union of the Ruthenians (Uzhorod 1646) and that of a group of Romanians ( Transylvania 1700) took place within the Austro-Hungarian empire. Of lesser importance were the Yugoslavian, Bulgarian, Slovak, Hungarian, Belorussian, Albanian, Russian and Greek Catholic churches. All belonged to the Byzantine-Slavonic tradition. The Ukrainian (about 3.7 million members), Ruthenian, Belorussian and Romanian Catholic churches were officially suppressed by force under communist regimes in the late 1940s; they survived only in their homelands underground or outside them, especially in Western Europe and North America.

In the Middle East the circumstances were very different. The Maronite church is a special case. Originating in the territory of Antioch (monastery of Beit-Marun) in the 4th century, it claims no historical consciousness of a formal break with Rome; and it renewed contact at the time of the crusades.* The Maronite church thus has no “Orthodox” counterpart, but belongs totally to the Catholic communion. All the churches of the Middle East lived in very difficult situations within the Ottoman empire . Under its law, as small minorities amid the Muslims they formed ethnic communities with their own separate legal status. Thus these churches readily welcomed the offer of help from Latin missionaries from the West, particularly since most of their members had no vivid awareness of an existing schism* with the RCC. The pastoral, intellectual and social activities of these missionaries slowly created, in different places, groups of laity and pastors who favoured union with Rome; eventually the union was proclaimed officially.

Rather than bringing about the union between the RCC and the respective other partners, the fait accompli was generally refused by the majority of the Orthodox, and new divisions resulted. With some important differences, this was the case with all the churches of the Middle East when some of their members became united with Rome: the Eastern Syrian or Nestorian tradition (Chaldeans, 1553), the Western Syrian tradition (Syrian Catholics, 1662), the Armenian tradition (Armenian Catholics, 1740), the Byzantine tradition (Greek Catholics or Melkites, 1724). Later on, the passage of individuals to the RCC led to the creation of Coptic Catholic (1895) and Ethiopian Catholic (1930) hierarchies.

On the Indian coast of Malabar in the 16th century, divisions resulted when the Portuguese tried to impose Latin authority and discipline on the St Thomas Christians. Two groups entered into communion with Rome: the Malabar (1599) and the Malankara (1930) churches.

The canonical ties of all these churches with Rome led in varying degrees to a process of Latinization of their liturgy and thinking, and to a number of encroachments on their discipline and autonomy as local churches. The Orthodox thus sometimes interpret this as a proof that the Roman Catholic Church has no place for a true local church and an original tradition. However, in its Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Second Vatican Council* insisted on respect for their particular traditions and on the necessity for these churches to rediscover their authentic heritage. Moreover, in emphasizing the ecumenical vocation of the Eastern Catholic churches, Vatican II stated that all juridical dispositions concerning them are of a provisional nature until the time of full communion with the Orthodox churches.

The Orthodox regard the very existence of the Eastern Catholic churches as de facto negation of the ecclesial character of the Orthodox themselves. In their eyes, these churches are instruments of disguised proselytism* which aim to convert to Catholicism those ignorant faithful who are unable to recognize the differences. The Eastern Catholic churches are an open wound in the side of the Orthodox churches which consistently ask for their suppression. Hence the Eastern Catholic churches cannot act as bridge between Catholics and Orthodox, as they were sometimes expected to do. Orthodox churches now want to dialogue directly with the RCC without the mediation of these churches.

From the side of the Eastern Catholic churches, created by Rome with a view to restoring unity, it is painful to be judged an obstacle to unity, a “thorn in the flesh” of the dialogue. What could be their future vocation? By faithfully reviving their most authentic Eastern traditions, they could bear witness to the Orthodox church that it is possible to be an authentic local Eastern church within the Catholic communion around the bishop of Rome . Within the universal Catholic church, their task is a constant reminder that catholicity* cannot limit itself to the Latin tradition alone but must be open to all genuine expressions of the fullness of ecclesial life in Christ.

The official Orthodox-Roman Catholic international commission for theological dialogue (see Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue ), established in 1979 by Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I, began in the mid-1980s to discuss what some on both sides regard as proselytism among vulnerable flocks.

The 1988 session established a special sub-commission to study the question of the Eastern Catholic churches. The topic monopolized the 1990 session, because the re-birth of religious freedom with the sudden political changes in Eastern and Central Europe allowed the resumption of open pastoral activity by the Eastern Catholic churches, including their claim to repossess their former places of worship. The new tensions prompted the holy see in Rome and local Eastern Catholic and Orthodox authorities to begin conversations. Pope John Paul II addressed a letter to the Catholic bishops of Europe (31 May 1991), and the Vatican published general principles and practical norms for “coordinating the evangelizing activity and ecumenical commitment” (1 June 1992). The 1993 international dialogue session (Balamand, Lebanon) adopted a text “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion”, offering ecclesiological principles and practical rules for a solution. However, this question still weighs heavily on Orthodox-Roman Catholic relations.

The Roman curia* has a congregation or department for the Eastern churches, created in 1862 within the Propaganda Fide and made autonomous in 1917. John Paul II, as pastor of the universal Catholic church, promulgated in 1990 a Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches .


n The Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches , Latin-English ed., Washington DC, Canon Law Society of America, 1992 n “Documentation on Ecumenical Statements and Initiatives of the Holy See in Regard to Central and Eastern Europe in the New Situation. January 1989-October 1992”, IS , 81, 1992; for the Balamand text: ibid. , 83, pp.95-99 n R.G. Roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey , 5th ed., Rome , Orientalia Christiana, 1995.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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