Christianity: Eastern Catholicism

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Christianity: Eastern Catholicism

FOUNDED: Twelfth century c.e.


The Eastern Catholic Churches are Eastern Churches that obey the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. They are also called the Catholic Churches of Eastern Rites and the Uniate Churches (because of their union with Rome). These churches maintain their own ecclesiastical traditions and rites—sometimes with minor changes influenced by the Latin tradition—and preserve certain levels of autonomy and self-organization but have otherwise accepted the dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are more than 20 Eastern Catholic Churches, with followers all over the world. The different churches officially united with Rome at various times between 1182 and 1961. Most new adherents are in eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, Egypt, western Europe, and North America.


The Eastern Catholic Churches trace their origin to the twelfth century, when the Roman Catholic Church began to absorb Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches of different theological traditions. Rome's efforts were not successful until it established a strong presence in the Near East and Anatolia during the Crusades. Two influential Christian communities declared their unity with Rome at that time: the Maronite Church in 1182 and the Armenian Church in 1198 (a union destroyed by the Tatar invasion of 1375 and reestablished in 1742).

The Catholic Church of Byzantine Rite in southern Italy and Sicily absorbed a mass migration of Orthodox Albanians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and became the Italo-Albanian Church in 1595. The first Eastern Catholic community in India was the SyroMalabar Church, which officially united with Rome in 1599. Some of the hierarchy and followers of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church established the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India in 1930.

Several Eastern Catholic Churches were formed after internal conflicts within Orthodox Churches led groups of clergy and their followers to look for support from Rome. The Chaldean Church of the East-Syrian, or Nestorian tradition (formed in 1552, with adherents mainly in Iraq and Iran); the Syrian Church of the West-Syrian, or Jacobite tradition (formed in 1662); and the Melkite Church of the Byzantine tradition (formed in 1724) were proclaimed in this way.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries bishops' synods and uniting councils brought in several churches of the Byzantine rite in Eastern Europe. The Ukrainian and Belarusian ecclesiastical traditions and churches formed after the Brest Union Council in 1596. The Uzhorog Union with Rome in 1646 brought the Ruthenian Church in the United States (a separate metropoly since 1969) and the Greek-Catholic diocese of Mukachiv in the Ukraine into the Eastern Catholic movement. The Romanian Church joined in 1700 after the bishops of the Transylvania region agreed to unite with Rome.

The eighteenth century brought in the Coptic Catholic Church of Egypt (1741) and the Byzantine Church in the former Yugoslavia (1777). Other Eastern Catholic Churches were established in the twentieth century: the Greek (1911); the Hungarian (1912); the Russian, with two separate exarchates (1917 and 1928); the Bulgarian (1926); the Slovak (1937); the Albanian (1939); and the Ethiopian (1961).


Though not obligated to do so, all Eastern Catholic Churches accept the central doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, including those that have caused controversy between Western and Eastern churches—for example, the doctrines of Filioque, papal infallibility, and the Immaculate Conception. The most latinized churches are those that have the longest history of organizational unity with Rome, those directly supervised by the Latin hierarchy, and those too small to maintain their distinctive traditions in the face of regional Eastern Orthodox influences without direct support of the Latin hierarchy.

A movement to preserve and restore the unique doctrines of Eastern Christianity began in the nineteenth century. The Melkite Church has been one of the most active proponents of this trend along with the Syro-Malankaran, Ethiopian, Syrian, and, increasingly, Ukrainian churches.


As a general rule Eastern Catholic Churches observe the same moral principles as the Eastern Churches, especially in regions where Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians coexist: the state of Kerala in India, Syria, Lebanon, big cities in Iraq, Cairo and upper Egypt, the western Ukraine, and Romanian Transylvania. Eastern Catholics take a more liberal approach to moral principles than Orthodox Christians, however, and have more conservative patterns of conduct than Latin Catholics. In the traditional societies, as well as in diasporian communities, Eastern Catholics mostly develop interpersonal relations—marriage in particular—within the church community.


Eastern Catholic Churches use the liturgical books and texts of traditional Eastern Christianity, including the Euchologions, the Books of Needs, the Anthologions, the Festal Anthologies, the Floral and the Lenten Triodions, Oktoechos, Horologions, Typikons, Menologions, Menaions, the Books of Akathistos, and the Books of Commemoration. Some churches accept Latin editions of these works.


Eastern Catholics consider holy crosses of various forms (including Greek, Saint Andrew the First Called, Coptic, and Slavic) as important sacred symbols in liturgical as well as private contexts. The Heart of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (a red heart in conjunction with such symbols as drops of blood, wreaths, crowns, or red rays) has become an important symbol in some churches since the end of the nineteenth century, notably the Coptic, the Syro-Malabar, and to some extent the Ukrainian and other churches of the Byzantine tradition.


The founders of specific Eastern Catholic Churches are especially important: Jeremias II al-Amshitti, the first patriarch (1199–1230) of the Maronite Church; Simon III, the first patriarch (1552–1555) of the Chaldean Church; Bishop Jacob, head of the Christians of Saint Thomas, who established informal unity with Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century; Abraham Pierre I, the first patriarch of the Armenian Church in the eighteenth century; and Michel Jarweh, the first patriarch of the Syrian Church, who helped restore church traditions in 1782. Saint Josaphat Kuntsevych, murdered by his opponents in Polotsk (now Belarusia) in 1623, is especially well known among Eastern European Catholics as a symbol of faithfulness to Rome.

Especially distinguished members of the Eastern Catholic Churches' contemporary hierarchy include Cardinal Ignatius Mous Daud I, the patriarch of the Syrian Church since 1998; Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite Church since 1986; and Cardinal Liubomyr Huzar, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Church since 2000.


The modernday theology of the Eastern Catholic Churches is based on the works and activities of several theologians from the late nineteenth century (including Josef Audo, the patriarch of the Chaldean Church, and George II, the patriarch of the Melkite Church). In the early twentieth century Andrij Sheptytsky, the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Church, had a significant impact on the development of the Eastern European churches.

While Eastern Catholic theology formerly focused on the Byzantine tradition, several late-twentieth-century authors from the Arabic and Indian Eastern Catholic traditions, including Reverend Mathew Vellanikal from India, Reverend Samir Khallil from Lebanon, and Chaldean Reverend Peter Jusif, introduced other types of Eastern spirituality into consideration.


The Eastern Catholic Churches fall into four groups: patriarchates, major archepiscopacies, metropolies, and others. The six patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches—the Maronite, Armenian, Chaldean, Syrian, Melkite, and Coptic churches—have the highest level of autonomy and consist of numerous (sometimes two or three dozen) dioceses, which in some cases are joined in regional metropolies or exarchates (one step above a metropoly). The Ukrainian Church and the Syro-Malabar Church in India are major archepiscopacies (archbishoprics), which also consist of numerous dioceses and metropolies or exarchates.

Each of the four metropolitan (metropolitinate) Eastern Catholic Churches—the Ethiopian, the Syro-Malankara, the Romanian, and Ruthenian—consist of dioceses only. The 10 other Eastern Catholic Churches have internal autonomy but receive direct guidance from the Vatican. The Italo-Albanian and the Slovak Churches each have two dioceses; the Hungarian Church and the Byzantine Church in the former Yugoslavia have one diocese each; the Bulgarian and Greek Churches exist as exarchates; the Belarusian and the Russian Churches, with an extremely limited number of parishes and adherents, have only organizations at the parochial level; and the Albanian Church exists only in name, having never recovered from Communist repression. The Greek-Catholic diocese of Mukachiv in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine, denied the possibility of becoming part of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, identifies with the Ruthenian Metropoly in the United States and depends organizationally directly on Rome.


Eastern Catholic church buildings come in a variety of styles, each with its own priest and other clergy. In large cities the Eastern Catholic traditions led by archbishops or metropolitans offer services in cathedrals. Chapels intended for private prayer (particularly for travelers) in various places (sometimes far from cities or villages, occasionally at memorial sites or crossroads) do not have permanent clergy. Other popular holy places for prayer and veneration are missionary crosses and statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or popular saints found near churches, in the center of villages or cities, in hospitals, in the countryside, and in private houses.


In the Eastern Catholic Churches the bread and wine used in the sacrament of Communion are the most sacred things. Icons painted on wood or canvas are objects of special veneration, as are crosses, church buildings, the liturgical clothing of the clergy, and ecclesiastical texts.


As in Eastern Christianity, Easter is the most significant holiday for Eastern Catholics because of its symbolism of victory over the death. The other main Eastern Catholic holidays are a combination of the 12 traditional holidays in Eastern Christianity (including Christmas, Theophany, Holy Trinity, Transfiguration, Dormition of the Most Pure Mother of God, Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Christmas of the God's Mother, and Entering of the God's Mother into the Temple), several holidays from Western Christianity (including Holy Eucharist and the Christ's Heart), and certain holidays celebrating specific events and saints from regional Eastern Catholic traditions—for example, the Day of Saint Josafat Kuntsevych, observed by Eastern European Catholics, and the Day of Mykola Charnetsky, a newly proclaimed saint in the Ukrainian Church.


The clergy of the most latinized Eastern Catholic Churches (the Syro-Malabar, Maronite, Armenian, and Romanian Churches and the church in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the Basilian monastic order in the Eastern European churches) dress according to Western Christian tradition in black robes with white collars. Some ideological movements that originated in the early 1900s have called for a mode of dress based exclusively on the Eastern tradition: long black (sometimes grey, rarely green or dark red) robes with wide sleeves.


According to the common Orthodox tradition, Eastern Catholic Churches observe no specific dietary limitations or prohibitions. Fasts have a more significant role in the church than they do in Western Christianity, however. When adherents fast, they may not eat any product of animal origin or drink alcohol; they must limit public appearances and sexual activity; they may not organize or conduct celebrations or intensive spiritual exercises; and they more frequently attend worship services and pray. Eastern Catholics fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year and participate in four longer fasts: Lent, the Fast of the Holy Apostles, the Fast of the Dormition of the Most Pure Mother of God, and Advent. Several contemporary churches have eliminated fasting obligations on certain dates (New Year's Day in the Ukrainian Church, for example); relaxed general fasting requirements (permitting the use of eggs and milk and shortening the length of fasting periods); and exempted several groups of people from fasting, including children, the elderly, pregnant women, travelers, and those who are ill. These churches still support strict rules during Lent (the Great Fast).


The liturgy (the main service, which includes confession and Communion) is the focal point of ritual practice in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Each of the five main ecclesiastical and liturgical traditions (Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, Chaldean, and Syrian, or Jacobite) uses its own unique texts, but all have three main parts (the Latin liturgy has only two): Proskomide (introduction and preparation of the saint's gifts for Communion); the Liturgy of Oglashenny, or Catechumens (those preparing to be baptized); and the Liturgy of Adherents. Influenced by the Latin tradition and a general tendency to simplify and shorten rituals, some Eastern Catholic Churches make a point of rejecting certain forms of worship—for example, all-night vigils and "little vespers"—that are traditional components of Eastern Christianity.

Eastern Catholic Churches recognize the seven sacraments (the most holy mysteries) and emphasize baptism, marriage, confession, and Communion. Other rituals important to Eastern Catholics include Chrismation (which involves the application of myrrh after baptism), the consecration of priests, and consecration by oil for bodily and spiritual recovery.


Although their level of religious activity and their involvement in religious life are high compared with Western (Latin) Catholics, the majority of Eastern Catholics do not attend weekly services. Eastern Catholics do generally adhere to those rituals connected with birth, adulthood, marriage, and death. Children are baptized within several days after their birth, when the parents choose godparents to support the spiritual growth of the child. Unlike in the Orthodox tradition, some Eastern Catholic Churches accept the Latin practice of confirmation for older children. In marriages between Eastern and Western Catholic spouses, the children accept the rite of the parent of their gender: boys inherit their father's rite and girls take their mother's. Funeral services are attended by special commemorations, which are repeated on the ninth and fortieth days after the death and again one year after the death.


Eastern Catholic Churches that exist in predominantly non-Christian environments, particularly the Coptic, Chaldean, and Syrian traditions, are limited in their ability to evangelize openly, so their communities have remained relatively closed and without growth for several decades. Eastern European Catholic Churches were prohibited and persecuted after World War II by Communist regimes. The Soviet Ukrainian, Romanian, and Czechoslovakian churches were liquidated in a uniform way: with the support of Communist regimes, former clergy declaring their desire to join the Orthodox Church gathered special councils—in Lviv (Ukraine) in 1946, in Cluj-Napoca (Romania) in 1948, in Uzhorod (Ukraine) in 1949, and in Presov (Czechoslovakia) in 1950—that agreed to terminate ecclesiastical relations with Rome. Bishops and priests who refused to recognize the decisions of these councils were arrested or banned from ecclesiastical activity. After the late 1940s adherents of Eastern Catholic Churches in these Communist countries met illegally. Poland and Yugoslavia were allowed to retain their Eastern Catholic dioceses (along with their relations to Rome).

In 1968 the Slovakian Church gained the freedom to expand, but the strong opposition of the local Orthodox Churches prevented it from regaining its prewar status. Other Eastern European churches have evangelized openly only since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s; the Romanian Church has witnessed some growth, while the Ukrainian Church has actually exceeded its previous influence. The Belarussian and Russian churches, however, have grown very slowly, while the Albanian Church never resumed activities, despite regaining the liberty to do so.


Eastern Catholic Churches are fairly open to external ecumenical contacts, although they observe the Vatican's lead and do not generally participate independently in interdenominational communications. Eastern Catholic ecumenical activities usually encounter strong opposition from the Orthodox Churches, however, which do not recognize the union of the Eastern Catholic Churches with Rome as an appropriate way to restore Christian unity. The Orthodox Churches regard Eastern Catholicism as a form of contemporary Catholic proselytism and an attempt to obtain new adherents in the traditional Orthodox territories, curtailing Orthodox influence on the Christian world. They see the Eastern Catholic Churches as a major obstacle in their efforts to establish their own lasting relations with the Vatican on the basis of principles of church organization from the first Christian millennium, which designated five main centers—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antiochia, and Jerusalem. In this schema Rome would have only spiritual leadership. The bishops of the Melkite Church have been leading advocates of making the reintegration of Eastern Catholic Churches into their corresponding Eastern Orthodox Churches a precondition to reconciliation between Western and Eastern Christianity.


The position of specific Eastern Catholic Churches on poverty and other social problems is generally determined by that church's position in society. Adherents of the Maronite and Armenian Churches in Lebanon represent the wealthier sector of society and have founded prestigious educational institutions (including universities) and many supportive organizations for the poor. Followers of the Chaldean (in Iraq and Iran), Coptic (in Egypt), and Syrian (in Syria and Turkey) Churches belong to the poorer classes. Eastern European Catholics, who represent the middle class, have used the help of Western Catholic institutions to organize support of the poor within their societies. All the churches try to provide theological and general education for their followers, with support from Rome and other Catholic organizations throughout the world.


Traditional family values form the basis of the social doctrine of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Preparation and special education before marriage have become an obligatory practice for the majority of the churches. Marriage between Eastern Catholics and non-Catholics is not widespread or supported in church communities.

Unlike their counterparts in the Western Catholic Church, the majority of Eastern Catholic clergy (except bishops, monks, and hieromonks, who can serve as parochial priests) are married. The Latin observance of celibacy is accepted by the Syro-Malabar, ItaloAlbanian, and Armenian Churches and by several small churches of the Byzantine tradition in Europe. The private family life of married Eastern Catholic priests must serve as a model for the interpersonal relations of the society in general. The presence of these priests in dioceses in the West has at times put the Eastern Catholic Churches at odds with local Roman Catholic groups.


The Eastern Catholic custom of maintaining distinctive local traditions within their connection to the Vatican has frequently led to disagreements about proper practice. The Syro-Malabar Church just recently normalized relations with the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite in India after a dispute over jurisdiction; the Vatican had not allowed the Malabar Church to establish new dioceses in the state of Kerala, which is the historical motherland of that church. As the most numerous in members and dynamic in its contemporary development, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church was to have received patriarchal status from the Vatican, but the Vatican has backed down in the face of opposition from Orthodox churches, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the early 1990s the post-Soviet-era legalization and restoration of the Ukrainian and Romanian Greek-Catholic Churches' organizational structures have caused many ideological and other conflicts (especially concerning the possession of church buildings) with Orthodox Churches that strongly opposed the process. The desire in the second half of the 1990s of the majority of the region's Greek-Catholics to find or rediscover the Eastern roots of their ecclesiastical identity has lessened the opposition between the two communities, which now work to reach mutual understanding.


The Eastern Catholic Churches have had a powerful impact on the cultural development of nations and societies, especially those where Eastern Catholics have been or are the majority or an essential part of the local society, such as Iraq, India, the western Ukraine, and Romanian Transylvania. In the visual and decorative arts, Eastern Catholicism has contributed iconography and other elements of temple decoration, including many famous local images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and different saints, as well as clerical clothing and liturgical objects. Eastern Catholic architecture in churches, bell towers, and chapels sometimes includes Latin or Western additions that distinguish them from Orthodox buildings. Eastern Catholicism has included polyphonic singing (an obligatory part of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy) in its liturgy, and it has produced a great variety of liturgical, ecclesiastical, historical, and educational works.

Andrij Yurash

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity


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Christianity: Eastern Catholicism

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Christianity: Eastern Catholicism