Expert Cites Problems Hindering Catholic-Orthodox Unity

November 27, 1962

The many obstacles standing in the way of Christian unity were stressed at least implicitly when the Orthodox Churches of Greece and of the Near East declined the invitation to send observers to the Second Vatican Council.

But the stand of the Greek Orthodox could stimulate the council Fathers to study with special attention the problems concerning the Eastern Churches – of both those in communion with the Holy See and those separated from it.

One of the problems concerning Eastern Rite Christians is that because 97% of all Catholics follow the Latin Rite, it is often assumed that this is the best, and that others are somehow suspect.

To many Latin Rite Catholics, it seems strange to find other Catholics whose Mass is in languages other than Latin, whose laity receive Holy Communion under both species, whose Baptisms involve plunging the child entirely into water three times, and who have married men who are ordained priests.

Such customs mark most of the Eastern Churches, separated as well as Catholic. Some separated Eastern Christians fear that if they came into unity with the Holy See in a body such customs would result in their being considered second-class Catholics.

Thus it seems likely that the Fathers of the Council will reaffirm the declaration made a generation ago by Pius XI: “In the Church of Jesus Christ, which is not Latin or Greek or Slav, but Catholic, there is no discrimination among her children, so that all, whether Latin or Greek or Slav, enjoy the same favor with the Apostolic See.”

To pave the way for reunion, Christians of both East and West must come to understand that their liturgical, ascetical and theological traditions are complementary and that both have much to impart to each other for their common spiritual progress.

In 1870, the First Vatican Council left a clear definition of the supreme pastoral duties and status of the bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter in the Church. This was providential; the Catholic Church found herself solidly unified and strong to meet the ideological challenges which were to follow and to organize the missionary work of the last 90 years.

But, besides Peter, Christ chose other Apostles. The bishops are their successors. The episcopacy is, therefore, of divine institution, and to formulate a complete doctrine on the government of the Church, the council should have expressed besides the primacy of the pope, the duties and rights of the bishops.

Because it did not, many Eastern theologians not united with Rome have often conceived a wrong notion of the Catholic doctrine on the episcopacy. It would contribute to better mutual understanding if the Second Vatican Council could define more explicitly what the first only outlined: that the bishops are not simply administrators of a restricted area in the name of the pope and under his continual guidance, but that in solidarity with all the bishops of the world, under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, they share the responsibility for the whole Church.

Further, the council of 1870 clearly defined that when the pope teaches solemnly as head of the Church he is protected against error by the Holy Spirit and that his teaching does not need to be approved by any council or endorsed by the Christian people.

The bishops now meeting in Rome would remove apprehensions among many Eastern non-Catholics if they expressed clearly that the pope never teaches solemnly what he would have learned only by private revelation. He teaches what he sees in the unchanging teaching of the bishops and the common belief of the Christian people. A better understanding by the Eastern Orthodox would result if the council were to define clearly that error will never prevail either against the pope or the episcopal body or the whole Church, that the three are infallible in virtue of the same infallibility, and that God will never allow them to be in opposition.

Another problem is precedence. The Code of Oriental Canon Law published by Pope Pius XII stated that in the Catholic Church, cardinals have precedence over patriarchs.

The Eastern Catholics would like to have that decree altered. They stress the fact that it does not take into consideration the old and most respectable tradition of the Church and still more that it makes reunion with the Orthodox virtually impossible.

To expect, they say, that in case of reconciliation with Rome, the Patriarchs of the East, to whom the first ecumenical councils had bestowed the precedence over all the bishops after the bishop of Rome, would be willing to take their place after the present almost 90 cardinals, is to be unrealistic. It would show a complete ignorance of the Eastern mentality.

Many solutions have been proposed to solve that difficulty. One could imagine, for instance, that patriarchs and cardinals be placed on equal footing and that precedence among them be based on the antiquity of their See or the date of their nomination.

This could be done easier if there were not so many patriarchs for the same See. For example, there are at present three Catholic Patriarchs of Antioch, the Maronite, the Melkite and the Syrian, and two for Alexandria, the Coptic and the Melkite. Therefore, it has been suggested that the number of patriarchs be reduced so that only one would keep the title of each historic See.

Further, in meetings where patriarchs and cardinals would find themselves together, the dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals could have precedence as representing the pope and the titulars of the historic patriarchates would follow him before the other cardinals.

Before May 2, 1949, that is, before the promulgation of the new Oriental Canon Law, a marriage of an Oriental Catholic with an Orthodox, celebrated by an Orthodox priest, was considered by the Catholic Church as illicit, but, nevertheless, as valid. Since that date, such a marriage has become invalid. Therefore, a Catholic who does not have his marriage blessed in the Catholic Church is considered as living in a state of grave sin and is deprived of the sacraments of the Church.

This more severe regulation was introduced precisely at a time when a closer collaboration between Orthodox and Catholics became imperative. After World War II, the French and English protectorates in the Near East were suppressed. In the new independent countries, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, the Christians were submerged in a huge majority of Moslems; Orthodox and Catholics together generally represented less than 10% of the population.

In the field of social relations, the Moslem pressure on these Christians has become much stronger. When, for instance, a Christian girl becomes the wife of a Moslem, she is practically compelled to join the Moslem community with her husband.

It became obvious, therefore, that instead of raising a new obstacle to marriages between Catholics and Orthodox, it would have been better to make such marriages easier to avoid Christians marrying Moslems and becoming apostates.

Catholics of Egypt, therefore, have asked the council to introduce a new regulation. It is a custom in the Near East that a marriage be celebrated in the church of the bridegroom. According to this proposal, in case of a marriage of a Catholic girl with an Orthodox, the Catholic bishop would easily grant that girl a dispensation to be married in the Church of her fiance. He would only request from her a solemn promise to remain faithful to the Catholic Faith and to make every effort possible to give her children a Catholic education. From the Orthodox husband, the bishop would request a promise that he will always guarantee his wife the full liberty to practice and live according to her Catholic Faith.

It is well known that the Orthodox are less categorical than the Catholics in maintaining the indissolubility of marriage; they concede divorce in some particular cases. Therefore, it would be made clear that even when a marriage would be celebrated in an Orthodox Church, the Catholic party would always remain submissive in conscience to the Catholic discipline on marriage.

In the present circumstances, mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox are generally more tragic than marriages between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants are often raised in such a spirit of relativism that they accept readily in good faith to be married in the church of another denomination.

But the Orthodox on the contrary are educated in an uncompromising spirit similar to that of the Catholic Church. They hold that only their Orthodox Church is the true one established by Christ.

Therefore, in a mixed marriage between Orthodox and Catholics, generally one of the two accepts to act against what he thinks in conscience to be the law of God. The Fathers of the council would not only contribute to the strengthening of the Christian minorities in the Near East, but would also avoid many grave offenses to God if they can establish a satisfactory regulation to suppress the dramatic situation resulting too often from mixed marriages.

These are some of the main questions confronting the council as it tries to smooth relations between Rome and the Eastern Churches. There are many others. They are, in general, very delicate. The presence of a large number of Orthodox observers at the council would be desirable. They could express, at least privately, the feelings or suggestions of their communities on the different subjects.

It is to be hoped and prayed, therefore, that before the end of the council there can be some kind of a beginning of dialogue and collaboration looking toward unity with the Eastern Churches.

Father Paul Mailleux, S.J.

Father Mailleux is a Belgian-born priest who has served since 1957 as superior of the Russian Center at Fordham University, New York, and at the same time has been in charge of all Jesuit Eastern Rite establishments in North and South America.

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