Eastern Catholic Churches

From New World Encyclopedia
The domes of a Ukrainian Catholic parish in Simpson, Pennsylvania.

The Eastern Catholic Churches are autonomous Churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). While differing in their liturgical, theological and devotional traditions from the predominant form of Western Catholicism, these churces affirm that their faith is not at variance with that of the one Catholic Church, and they recognize the central role of the Bishop of Rome within the College of Bishops. They preserve the special emphases and illuminations that Eastern Christianity has developed over the centuries, some of which Pope John Paul II illustrated in his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen of May 2, 1995.[1]

The Eastern Catholic Churches were located historically in Eastern Europe, the Asian Middle East, Northern Africa and India, but are now, because of migration, found also in Western Europe, the Americas and Oceania to the extent of forming full-scale ecclesiastical structures such as eparchies, alongside the Latin dioceses. One country, Eritrea, has only an Eastern Catholic hierarchy, with no Latin structure.

Eastern Catholics are in full communion with the Roman Pontiff, and in this sense are members of the Catholic Church.[2] They should not be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church or Oriental Orthodoxy, which are themselves distinct forms of Christianity.

One significant difference between the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Roman Catholic Church is their respective positions on clerical celibacy: Whereas the Eastern Churches often allow their priests to marry, the Western Churches do not. Nevertheless, the two branches of Catholicism remain in communion showing their unity in accepting the alleged paramountcy of the papacy.


An Eastern Catholic cemetery in northeastern Pennsylvania, where many Eastern Catholics settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Most Eastern Catholic Churches arose when a group within an ancient Christian Church that was in disagreement with the see of Rome chose to enter into full communion with that see. However, the Maronite Church claims never to have been separated from Rome, and has no counterpart Orthodox Church out of communion with the Pope. The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church has also never been out of communion with Rome, but, unlike the Maronite Church, it uses the same liturgical rite as the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Syro-Malabar Church, based in Kerala, India, also claims never to have been knowingly out of communion with Rome.

Communion between Christian Churches has been broken over matters of faith, when each side accused the other of heresy or departure from the true faith (orthodoxy). Communion has been broken also because of disputes that do not involve matters of faith, as when there is disagreement about questions of authority or the legitimacy of the election of a particular bishop. In these latter cases, each side accuses the other of schism, but not of heresy.

The Churches that accepted the teaching of the 431 C.E. Council of Ephesus (which condemned the views of Nestorius) classified as heretics those who rejected the Council's teaching. Those who accepted it lived mostly in the Roman Empire and classified themselves as orthodox; they considered the others, who lived mainly under Persian rule, as Nestorian heretics who were divided into three Churches, of which the Chaldaean Church, which is in communion with Rome, is the most numerous, while the others have recently split between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

Those who accepted the 451 C.E. Council of Chalcedon similarly classified those who rejected it as Monophysite heretics. The Churches that refused to accept the Council considered instead that it was they who were orthodox. The six present-day Churches that continue their tradition reject the description Monophysite, preferring instead Miaphysite. They are often called, in English, Oriental Orthodox Churches, to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox Churches. This distinction, by which the words oriental and eastern, words that in themselves have exactly the same meaning, are used as labels for two different realities, is impossible in most other languages and is not universally accepted even in English. These churches are also referred to as pre-Chalcedonian.

The East-West Schism came about in a context of cultural differences between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West and of rivalry between the Churches in Rome, which claimed a primacy not merely of honour but also of authority, and in Constantinople, which claimed parity with that in Rome.[3] The rivalry and lack of comprehension gave rise to controversies, some of which appear already in the acts of the Quinisext Council of 692. At the Council of Florence (1431-1445), these controversies about Western theological elaborations and usages were identified as, chiefly, the insertion of "Filioque" in the Nicene Creed, the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope.[4] The schism is conventionally dated to 1054, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Papal Legate Humbert of Mourmoutiers issued mutual excommunications that have since been revoked. In spite of that event, both Churches continued for many years to maintain friendly relations and seemed to be unaware of any formal or final rupture.[5] However, estrangement continued to grow. In 1190, Theodore Balsamon, Patriarch of Antioch, declared that "no Latin should be given communion unless he first declares that he will abstain from the doctrines and customs that separate him from us;"[6] and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the participants in the so-called Fourth Crusade was seen as the West's ultimate outrage. By then, each side considered that the other no longer belonged to the Church that was orthodox and catholic. But with the passage of centuries, it became customary to refer to the Eastern side as the Orthodox Church and the Western as the Catholic Church, without either side thereby renouncing its claim to be the truly orthodox or the truly catholic Church. The Churches that sided with Constantinople are known collectively as the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

In each Church whose communion with the Church of Rome was broken by these three divisions, there arose, at various times, a group that considered it important to restore that communion. The see of Rome accepted them as they were: there was no question of requiring them to adopt the customs of the Latin Church.


The term Eastern Catholic Churches refers to 23 of the 24 autonomous particular Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. They follow different Eastern Christian liturgical traditions: Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean.[7] Canonically, each Eastern Catholic Church is sui iuris or autonomous with respect to other Catholic Churches, whether Eastern or Latin, though all accept the spiritual and juridical authority of the Pope. Thus a Maronite Catholic is normally subject only to a Maronite bishop, not, for example to a Ukrainian or Latin Catholic bishop. However, if in a country the members of some particular Church are so few that no hierarchy of their own has been established there, their spiritual care is entrusted to a bishop of another ritual Church. This holds also for Latin Catholics: in Eritrea, they are placed in the care of bishops of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. Theologically, all the particular Churches can be viewed as "sister Churches."[8] According to the Second Vatican Council these Eastern Churches, along with the larger Latin Church share "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 (cf. Mark 16:15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff."[9]

The Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion of faith and of acceptance of authority of the See of Rome, but retain their distinctive liturgical rites, laws and customs, traditional devotions and have their own theological emphases. Terminology may vary: For instance, diocese and eparchy, vicar general and protosyncellus, confirmation and chrismation are respectively Western and Eastern terms for the same realities. The mysteries (sacraments) of baptism and chrismation are generally administered, according to the ancient tradition of the Church, one immediately after the other. Infants who are baptized and chrismated are also given the Eucharist.[10]

The Eastern Catholic Churches are represented in the Holy See and the Roman Curia through the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which, as indicated on the Vatican website, "is made up of a Cardinal Prefect (who directs and represents it with the help of a Secretary) and 27 Cardinals, one Archbishop and 4 Bishops, designated by the Pope ad qui[n]quennium. Members by right are the Patriarchs and the Major Archbishops of the Oriental Churches and the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Unity among Christians."[11]

The canon law that the Eastern Catholic Churches have in common has been codified in the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. All Catholics are subject to the bishop of the eparchy or diocese (the local particular Church) to which they belong. They are also subject directly to the Pope, as is stated in canon 43 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches and canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law. Most, but not all, Eastern Catholics are also directly subject to a patriarch, major archbishop/Catholicos, or metropolitan who has authority for all the bishops and the other faithful of the autonomous particular Church (canons 56 and 151 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches).

Under the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the Roman Pontiff (the Pope) enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church which he can always freely exercise.[12] The full description is under Title 3, Canons 42 to 54 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

The Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops derive their titles from the sees of Alexandria (Copts), Antioch (Syrians, Melkites, Maronites), Babylonia (Chaldaeans), Cilicia (Armenians), Kyiv-Halych (Ukrainians), Ernakulam-Angamaly (Syro-Malabars), Trivandrum (Syro-Malankaras), and Făgăraş-Alba Iulia (Romanians). The Patriarchal Churches, Major Archiepiscopal Churches, Metropolitan Churches and Other Churches Sui Iuris, Eparchies and Bishops, Exarchies and Exarchs, and Assemblies of Hierarchs of Several Churches Sui Iuris are governed under Titles 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, respectively, under the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.[13][14]

Modern reforms

Starting in 1964, a series of reforms have been issued concerning Eastern Catholic Churches that have corrected a number of past errors. The cause of those reforms were behaviors that had been building for quite some time, especially below the papal level.

The lack of complete lasting effect of Pope Leo XIII's 1894 encyclical Orientalium Dignitas even with latin clergy being rather firmly threatened to cease and desist from raiding believers from other rites (as the sui iuris Churches were called at the time) led to a gradual awakening to the need to overhaul the relationship between the churches of the East and the West. During this period, attempts at partial and total suppression led to schism in America and difficulties everywhere. Separated Eastern Churches were not slow to issue "I told you so's." There was confusion as to the universality of the Churches of the East among Western clergy despite firm and repeated papal confirmation of these Churches universal character over the centuries. Vatican II brought the reform impulse to visible fruition. Several documents, both during and after Vatican II have led to significant reform and development within the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Orientalium Ecclesiarum

The decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum (November 21, 1964) is the document of the Second Vatican Council that most directly deals with the Eastern Catholic Churches, they being its sole subject. The decree recognized certain rights which had been under dispute.

Lumen Gentium

The Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964) deals with the Eastern Catholic Churches in section 23.

Unitatis Redintegratio

The decree Unitatis Redintegratio (also of November 21, 1964) deals with the Eastern Catholic Churches in sections 14-17.

Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches

During the First Vatican Council the need for a common code for the Eastern Churches was discussed, but no concrete action was taken. Only after the benefits of the 1917 Latin code were appreciated was a serious effort made to create a similar code for the Eastern Catholic Churches.[15] This came to fruition with the promulgation in 1990 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which came into effect in 1991. It is a framework document that lays out the canons that are a consequence of the common patrimony of the Churches of the East: Each individual sui iuris Church has its own canons, its own particular law, layered on top of this code.

List of Eastern Catholic Churches

The Holy See's Annuario Pontificio gives the following list of Eastern Catholic Churches and of countries in which they possess an episcopal ecclesiastical jurisdiction (date of union or foundation in parenthesis):

  • Alexandrian liturgical tradition
    • Coptic Catholic Church (patriarchate): Egypt (1741)
    • Ethiopian Catholic Church (metropolia): Ethiopia, Eritrea (1846)
  • Antiochian (Antiochene or West-Syrian) liturgical tradition
    • Maronite Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Argentina, Brazil, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico (union re-affirmed 1182)
    • Syriac Catholic Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United States and Canada, Venezuela (1781)
    • Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (major archiepiscopate): India, United States (1930)
  • Armenian liturgical tradition:
    • Armenian Catholic Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Ukraine, France, Greece, Latin America, Argentina, Romania, United States, Canada, Eastern Europe (1742)
  • Chaldean or East Syrian liturgical tradition:
    • Chaldean Catholic Church (patriarchate): Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, United States (1692)
    • Syro-Malabar Church (major archiepiscopate): India, United States (at latest, 1599)
  • Byzantine Rite|Byzantine (Constantinopolitan) liturgical tradition:
    • Albanian Greek Catholic Church (apostolic administration): Albania (1628)
    • Belarusian Greek Catholic Church (no established hierarchy at present): Belarus (1596)
    • Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church (apostolic exarchate): Bulgaria (1861)
    • Byzantine Church of the Eparchy of Križevci (an eparchy and an apostolic exarchate): Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro (1611)
    • Greek Byzantine Catholic Church (two apostolic exarchates): Greece, Turkey (1829)
    • Hungarian Greek Catholic Church (an eparchy and an apostolic exarchate): Hungary (1646)
    • Italo-Albanian Catholic Church (two eparchies and a territorial abbacy): Italy (Never separated)
    • Macedonian Greek Catholic Church (an apostolic exarchate): Republic of Macedonia (1918)
    • Melkite Greek Catholic Church (patriarchate): Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Jerusalem, Brazil, United States, Canada, Mexico, Iraq, Egypt and Sudan, Kuwait, Australia, Venezuela, Argentina (1726)
    • Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic (major archiepiscopate): Romania, United States (1697)
    • Russian Catholic Church: (two apostolic exarchates, at present with no published hierarchs): Russia, China (1905); currently about 20 parishes and communities scattered around the world, including five in Russia itself, answering to bishops of other jurisdictions
    • Ruthenian Catholic Church (a sui juris metropolia, an eparchy, and an apostolic exarchate): United States, Ukraine, Czech Republic (1646)
    • Slovak Greek Catholic Church (metropolia): Slovak Republic, Canada (1646)
    • Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (major archiepiscopate): Ukraine, Poland, United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Scandinavia, France, Brazil, Argentina (1595)

Differences with Western Roman Catholicism

Bishop celebrating Divine Liturgy in Greek-Catholic church in Presov, eastern Slovakia. Another bishop stands to his immediate right (white omophorion visible), and two married priests stand to the side (facing camera).

Eastern and Western Christian churches have different traditions concerning clerical celibacy. These differences and the resulting controversies have played a role in the relationship between the two groups in some Western countries.

Most Eastern Churches distinguish between "monastic" and "non-monastic" clergy. Monastics do not necessarily live as monks or in monasteries, but have spent at least part of their period of training in such a context. Their monastic vows include a vow of celibate chastity.

Bishops are normally selected from the monastic clergy, and in most Eastern Churches a large percentage of priests and deacons also are celibate, while a portion of the clergy (typically, parish priests) may be married. If a future priest or deacon is to be married, his marriage must take place before ordination to the diaconate. While in some countries the marriage continues usually to be arranged by the families, cultural changes sometimes make it difficult for such seminarians to find women prepared to be the wife of a priest, necessitating a hiatus in the seminarians' studies.

In countries where Eastern traditions prevail among Christians, a married clergy caused little controversy; but it aroused opposition in other countries to which Eastern Catholics immigrated. In response to requests from the Latin bishops of those countries, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith set out rules in a letter of 2 May 1890 to the Archbishop of Paris,[16] which the Congregation applied on 1 May 1897 to the United States,[17] stating that only celibates or widowed priests coming without their children should be permitted in the United States. This rule was restated with special reference to Catholics of Ruthenian Rite by the 1 March 1929 decree Cum data fuerit, which was renewed for a further ten years in 1939. Dissatisfaction by many Ruthenian Catholics in the United States gave rise to the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. This rule was abolished with the promulgation of the Decree on the Catholic churches of the Eastern Rite; since then, married men have been ordained to the priesthood in the United States, and numerous married priests have come from eastern countries to serve parishes in the Americas.[18]

Some Eastern Catholic Churches have decided to adopt mandatory clerical celibacy, as in the Latin Church. They include the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and the Ethiopic Catholic Church.

The Eastern Catholic Churches have sometimes been referred to as "Eastern Rites." The use of the term "rite" to refer to the Eastern Churches, and the Western, has now become rare, however. A publication of the National Catholic Council of Catholic Bishops explains: "We have been accustomed to speaking of the Latin (Roman or Western) Rite or the Eastern Rites to designate these different Churches. However, the Church's contemporary legislation as contained in the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches makes it clear that we ought to speak, not of rites, but of Churches. Canon 112 of the Code of Canon Law uses the phrase 'autonomous ritual Churches' to designate the various Churches."[19] A periodical of January 2006 declared: "The Eastern Churches are still mistakenly called 'Eastern-rite' Churches, a reference to their various liturgical histories. They are most properly called Eastern Churches, or Eastern Catholic Churches."[20]

On November 30, 1894, Pope Leo XIII issued the Apostolic Constitution Orientalium Dignitas, in which he says "that the ancient Eastern rites are a witness to the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church, that their diversity, consistent with unity of the faith, is itself a witness to the unity of the Church, that they add to her dignity and honour. He says that the Catholic Church does not possess one rite only, but that she embraces all the ancient rites of Chistendom; her unity consists not in a mechanical uniformity of all her parts, but on the contrary, in their variety, according in one principle and vivified by it."[21]

The Pope broadened from Melkite Catholics to all Eastern Catholics the prohibition in Pope Benedict XIV's Constitution Demandatam or December 24, 1743, declaring: "Any Latin rite missionary, whether of the secular or religious clergy, who induces with his advice or assistance any Eastern rite faithful to transfer to the Latin rite, will be deposed and excluded from his benefice in addition to the ipso facto suspension a divinis and other punishments that he will incur as imposed in the aforesaid Constitution Demandatam."[22]


  1. Vatican, Orientale lumen, 5-8. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  2. The term "Roman Catholic Church" is repeatedly used to refer to the whole Church in communion with the see of Rome, including Eastern Catholics, in official documents concerning dialogue between the Church as a whole (not just the Western part) and groups outside her fold. Examples of such documents can be found at the links on the Vatican website under the heading Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Holy See never uses "Roman Catholic Church" to refer only to the Western or Latin Church. In the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution de fide catholica, the phrase the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church (in Latin, Sancta catholica apostolica Romana ecclesia) also refers to something other than the Latin-Rite or Western Church. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  3. Fordham, Theodore Balsamon on the Powers of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  4. "In the third sitting of the Council, Julian, after mutual congratulations, showed that the principal points of dispute between the Greeks and Latins were in the doctrine (a) on the procession of the Holy Ghost, (b) on azymes in the Eucharist, (c) on purgatory, and (d) on the Papal supremacy" The Orthodox Response to the Latin Doctrine of Purgatory. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  5. Myriobiblos, Milton V. Anastos, Constantinople and Rome. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  6. Orthodox Info, The Great Schism: The Estrangement of Eastern and Western Christendom. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  7. The New York Times Guide To Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind, 499.
  8. Vatican, Note on the Expression "sister Churches" Section 11. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  9. Vatican, Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches Section 3. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  10. Vatican, Catechism of the Catholic Church Section 1233. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  11. Vatican, Profile. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  12. Intratext, Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, Title 3, Canon 43. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  13. Intratext, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  14. Intratext, Codex canonum Ecclesiarium orientalium. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  15. John P. Beal and James A. Coriden, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law: Study Edition (Paulist Press 2002), 27.
  16. Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 1891/92, p. 390.
  17. Collectanea No. 1966
  18. Edward Faulk, 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches (New York: Paulist Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8091-4441-9).
  19. USCCB Publishing, Eastern Catholics in the United States of America Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  20. American Catholics, Catholic Update: What All Catholics Should Know About Eastern Catholic Churches. Retrieved September 16, 2008.
  21. Adrian Fortescue and George D. Smith, The Uniate Eastern Churches (2001), 40.
  22. Papal Encyclicals, Orientalium Dignitas, protocol 1. Retrieved September 16, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beal, John P. and James A. Coriden. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law: Study Edition. Paulist Press 2002. ISBN 978-0809140664
  • Betts, Robert B. Christians in the Arab East. Westminster John Knox Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0804207966
  • Binns, John. An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Introduction to Religion). Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0521661409
  • Faulk, Edward. 101 Questions & Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0809144419
  • Fortescue, Adrian and George D. Smith, The Uniate Eastern Churches. Gorgias Press LLC, 2001. ASIN B000864UUM
  • Harakas, Stanley H. The Orthodox Church; 455 Questions and Answers. Light and Life Publishing Company, 1988. ISBN 0937032565
  • Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 0140146563


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