Council Fathers Wrestle With Proposals on Eastern Churches

102nd General Congregation
October 15, 1964

If it is passed as drafted, the council’s proposition on the Eastern Churches will allow Catholics of Eastern rites to receive the sacraments from and pronounce marriage vows before Orthodox priests.

Recognizing the “special circumstances” existing in the Near East and in the relationship between the Catholic Eastern rites and Orthodox Churches, the draft presented for discussion at the 102nd meeting of the council points out that Orthodox priests are validly ordained and thus can effect valid sacraments. It provides that Catholics can make use of these when no Catholic priest is available.

The severest criticism of the draft from the three Fathers who spoke on it concerned the section on Eastern-rite patriarchs. Two such patriarchs arose to plead for the restoration of the ancient rights of their office and the recognition of their pre-eminence in the Church. One called the present treatment “totally inadmissible.”

The proposition was introduced by Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, head of the Council Commission on the Eastern Churches, which drafted it. The report on the draft was given by Archbishop Gabriel Bukatko of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, after eight speakers had continued the discussion of the proposition on the priesthood and the council Fathers voted cloture by a narrow majority.

The proposition on the Eastern Churches contains an introduction and six parts, divided roughly into two overall considerations: the discipline of Eastern Churches and their unity.

In presenting the text, Cardinal Cicognani said that its framing was guided by “reverence and fraternal esteem for the Eastern Churches and motives of charity toward the separated brethren of the Near East.” He said that such a document was demanded by history and by recognition of the dignity of this branch of the Church.

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 (liceity) 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.

Presenting the report on the proposition, Archbishop Bukatko said that the present draft was the last of several that had been prepared and was adopted at the commission meeting in April 1963. It is not the result of theological or theoretical speculation, he said, but is based solely on recommendations submitted by council Fathers, which were worked out exclusively in plenary sessions without recourse to any subcommissions.

Because of the great condensation and contraction of the text in its present form, he said, it will be difficult to make changes. In fact, all recommendations sent in by council Fathers since Oct. 1 have been included as appendices at the end of the text rather than incorporated into it. Reiterating Cardinal Cicognani’s remarks, Archbishop Bukatko said that the proposition is necessary as an act of homage to the Christian East and out of consideration for the separated Eastern Christians.

Perhaps the major difficulty the commission had, according to Archbishop Bukatko, concerned mixed marriages. Eight plenary sessions were held on this subject alone and the solution contained in the text was a “last-minute effort,” he said. But even this solution is not satisfactory, he stated. At a plenary session held on Sept. 30, just 15 days earlier, a more radical solution was adopted by a vote of 14 to 7. This is included in the appendix, he reported.

The text in question states: “To avoid an invalid marriage when Eastern-rite Catholics and (Eastern) non-Catholics marry, and to insure the solidity and sanctity of marriage and domestic peace, the faculty is granted to hierarchs to dispense their subjects from the canonical form if it cannot be observed, providing the necessary promises (required in all mixed marriages) are made at least by the Catholic party.”

Since the papal decree of Feb. 22, 1949, it has been required that a Catholic priest be present for a valid mixed marriage. This is the “canonical form” which would be changed by the present text.

The “more radical solution” contained in the appendix would amend the text to the effect that dispensations from hierarchs, though still required for a lawful marriage, would not be required for the validity of a marriage in the eyes of the Church. For this, the presence of a validly ordained priest, even an Orthodox priest, would be sufficient.

Melkite-rite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch commended the text as showing evidence of real progress over previous ones. But he said the weakest chapter is the one dealing with patriarchs, which is “absolutely inadmissible.”

It is false to state that the patriarchate is a purely Eastern institution, he said. The first patriarch of the Catholic Church is the bishop of Rome — the pope himself — and history shows the patriarchal idea was dominant for centuries, even in the West. The very basilica in which the council is being held is called a “patriarchal basilica,” he noted.

He discounted the notion that the title of patriarch in any way diminishes the primacy of the pope, any more than does his title of bishop of Rome. He observed that in the early Church a newly elected pope sent his profession of faith to the four patriarchs of the East and they returned theirs.

It is no use to shower patriarchs with praise and reverence in the text, he observed, and then reduce them to the position of subordinates, obliging them to check with various offices of the Roman curia for many administrative details best left to their own competence.

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 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.

The day’s only other speaker on the Eastern churches was Franziskus Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, who spoke in the name of all the Eastern-rite council Fathers from Austria. He said the text should be revised so as to harmonize more fully with the schema on ecumenism and asked that the treatment on patriarchs be included as background in the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops. As for the treatment on the discipline of the sacraments, he said, if it is common to the Universal Church, then it is out of place in this treatment, and if it is not, then it belongs to the legislative authority of the interested rites.

The meeting began with the Mass for the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, celebrated by Bishop Santos Moro Briz of Avila, Spain. The Gospel was enthroned by Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France. Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, presided during the continuance of the debate on the priesthood proposition. He was replaced by Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, for debate on the Eastern Churches.

First to speak on the priesthood was Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, the Netherlands, who accused the text of “superficial treatment” and said it cannot be published in its present form without frustrating the hopes of priests. He said it does not clarify the image of either the priest or of the priesthood. The apostolate in modern times calls for new thinking on the mission of the priest and that of the Church, he said.

Cardinal Alfrink called for a more extended treatment of celibacy to answer the need of the modern Church, “which amounts to a crisis” as a result of publicity and discussion on the subject. This treatment, he continued, should include a firm foundation for celibacy based on both the Bible and tradition.

Archbishop Gregorio Modrego y Casaus of Barcelona, Spain, said he also wanted a fuller treatment of celibacy based on the Gospels, with an expanded emphasis on the positive aspects of priestly consecration, “which alone can provide for the priest strong support in his difficulties and valid protection in his dangers.”

Auxiliary Bishop John Gugic of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, adding further criticism to the already severely attacked system of benefices, said that in some localities priests have gone to the extreme of concluding that where there is no benefice there is no work to be done, and they refuse their bishop’s assignment. He asked that the council reaffirm the obligation of all priests to accept assignments even if no benefice is attached.

Bishop Jaime Flores Martin of Barbastro, Spain, added that where the system of benefices has been abolished, the generosity of Catholics has had to compensate. This has opened the door to a spirit of avarice among some, he said, even to the point that they try to prevent division of parishes for financial considerations.

He called for a complete revision of the method of clerical support, providing for equal distribution of funds through a diocesan administrative commission. All priests should share equally in this, he said, because “all are priests to the same degree.”

Retired Archbishop Victor Sartre of Tananarive, Malagasy Republic, called for a complete revision of the text to state that priestly ordination is the basis for a whole spiritual life, which life is intimately bound up with the ministry.

Two other speakers took the floor before the cloture vote. They were Bishop Josef Koestner of Gurk, Austria, and Auxiliary Bishop Henri Jenny of Cambrai, France. After cloture, Joseph Cardinal Lefebvre of Bourges, France, invoking the 70-signature rule, rose to ask that the whole presentation of the text be considered more in the light of theology.

Closing remarks on the debate were made by Archbishop Francois Marty of Rheims, France, who had given a report on the proposition at the beginning of the debate.

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

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