Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Eastern Catholicism and the Universal Church


I began life in the broad mainstream of American Evangelicalism, a tradition quite similar in many respects to the Baptists, the notable differences being the contemporary worship style of my denomination and the greater freedom of theological speculation enjoyed by local communities. Later in life and late in my search for more authentic religion, which had previously compelled me to examine the early Church Fathers and afterward ushered me through the annals of ecclesiastical history, I encountered a strange assembly of Christians called the Eastern Orthodox. Strange at least to Western eyes, since they are so seldom heard from or encountered and because, in comparison to the number of Roman Catholics, they are so few. This encounter came quite a bit after reacquainting myself with the Catholic Church, which I’d always been somewhat familiar with but never fully understood. Because the Catholic Church is predominantly Western well over 90% of her faithful are Latin and because the Western Catholic Church played such a critical role in shaping our civilization, there’s a certain basic cultural access the West enjoys with Roman Catholicism that Eastern Orthodoxy lacks. In addition, all Protestant denominations in the West are offshoots of Catholicism. Though error-ridden, they retain the same language as Western Catholicism, which is ultimately the language of the Latin-speaking Church Fathers. Eastern Orthodoxy speaks much more in the words of the Greek-speaking Fathers, a language utterly foreign to Protestantism, hard even for Western Catholicism to fully appreciate.

It’s unlikely I ever would have encountered the Eastern Orthodoxy at all had it not been for my study of the Catholic religion, which opened me to the real Christendom. Stepping out of the echo chamber of the Reformation and into the full length and breadth of the Christian tradition led to my encounter with ancient Byzantium and her Christianity. Nevertheless, Eastern Orthodoxy failed to convince me. The chief reason is that their ecclesiology — their understanding of the Church’s structure — seemed radically deficient in than Catholic ecclesiology. The latter, contrary to the claims of your average Orthodox Christian, has been explicitly taught by Rome since the Nicene era, as testified to by Pope St. Boniface I (d. 422). In a providential way, knowing of Catholicism before encountering Eastern Orthodoxy allowed me to critique what I was seeing there, giving Catholicism a chance to form my perspective. From that perch, Catholicism had an advantage. I consider this divine grace acting synergistically with my study, and I thank God for it.

Despite Catholicism’s upper hand, I didn’t come away unscathed. Beauty has a way of making an impression on  you and leaving you forever changed. While investigating Eastern Orthodoxy’s claims, I became enamored with the Greek Fathers, so named because they continued writing more or less in the language of the New Testament. They generally populated the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantium, which persisted for a thousand years after the fall of its Western counterpart to the barbarian hordes. Even more, I was attracted to the liturgical rite named after one Greek Father in particular: St. John Chrysostom. Convinced in conscience that the Catholic Church was truly Christ’s own unique Church, with a divine mandate to teach and sanctify the world, and profoundly influenced by Eastern Christianity, I resolved to become an Eastern Christian while remaining a Catholic. I was to become an Eastern Catholic, an Eastern Christian in full communion with Rome. I was baptized, chrismated (or confirmed), and communed on Lazarus Saturday, eight days before Pascha (or Easter) last spring at St. Constantine in Minneapolis, a parish of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

At this point you might be wondering: just what is “Eastern Catholicism” anyway, beyond some combination of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism? In order to answer that question, I find it best to examine Eastern Catholicism in terms of the constitution of the Church overall in other words, in light of ecclesiology. Only after will the particulars, such as worship, art, theological schools, and various cultures, be adequately understood. By this general exploration I hope to promote goodwill, cooperation, and mutual understanding between Eastern and Western Catholics.


In the first place, the Church is the Body of Christ, a mystical reality bridging heaven and earth and incorporating every Christian from every age and uniting them to Christ, the Head of the Body. She is the fulfillment of ancient Israel, the immaculate Spouse of the Son of God. She is also the culmination of all humanity, of the entire cosmos, and their transfiguration and sanctification. In the person of Mary, Mother of God, the Church finds a personal expression. The Theotokos, or God-bearer, embodies the New Covenant: she is the perfect expression of the Church’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness toward man. Her intercession with her Son for all is a reflection of the Church’s salvific mission to offer Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of all and for all her bringing-forth of Christ into the world an icon of the Church offering Him to the world in the Eucharist.

Within this tremendous mystery are found various distinctions. The most fundamental distinction in the Church lies between the here and the hereafter. In the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, the Body of Christ is described as existing in two elements, a heavenly and an earthly, in imitation of its Head’s two natures. Like Christ, the Church is one subject. Her two elements are inseparable, cohering as an indivisible whole. The heavenly element includes both the faithful in heaven, and the faithful preparing to enter heaven. The earthly element, by contrast, is a hierarchical, institutional society of Christians. In her heavenly element, the Church dwells with Christ on high immortal, resurrected, conqueror of sin, death, and the devil. In her earthly element, she dwells in the passion and death of Christ, participating in the sacrifice of the cross. The point of contact par excellence between these two elements is the Mystery of the Eucharist, which sums up the entire Paschal Mystery: the death and resurrection of the total Christ, head and members.

Turning to the earthly element, we find yet more distinctions. As mentioned previously, this element is a society of Christians spread throughout the world, organized hierarchically into dioceses ruled over by bishops. In the diocesan bishop, the faithful find the source of the Eucharist. Because the Eucharist sums up the totality of Christ, head and members, each diocese is a microcosm of Christ’s Body, in which Christ rules and sanctifies by means of the bishop who in turn is assisted by his clergy. Fittingly, therefore, each diocese is called a local Church. This Eucharistic, diocesan-focused description of the structure of the Church is called Eucharistic ecclesiology and is foundational in Eastern Catholic thought.

The first and most important local Church is of course that of Rome. As the cathedra of St. Peter, the Roman see is the cornerstone of hierarchical communion and the sine qua non of ecclesiastical unity, defining exactly which group of local Churches comprises the earthly element of the Body of Christ and incarnates its heavenly element. Without her, there would be no sure means of determining which episcopal body inherits the authority of the apostolic college. In the words of Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi, those who fail to acknowledge Rome “have broken the visible bonds of unity and left the mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation and neither see it nor find it.”

There remains one final distinction worth examining, essential to understanding what makes Eastern Catholicism unique. The local Church, organized around the diocesan bishop, belongs to the divine constitution of the Catholic Church as does the local Church of Rome, distinguished by the Petrine Ministry. However, in the first few centuries of Church history, as a matter of convenience in shepherding Christ’s flock, the bishops of each geographical region began to organize themselves into a synod. The bishop of the most illustrious see would be recognized as a primate, and given the right to lead. This synodal body began to be considered a Church of sorts as well, today known as a Church sui iuris, or a Church of its own canon law applied by its own synod. The synod, as guided by its primate, has the responsibility of setting liturgical, canonical, and other norms for vast swaths of territory, which individual bishops then interpret and apply to their local Churches. This synodal organization of bishops is sometimes called mid-level ecclesiastical governance. Though it does not belong to the divine constitution of the Church, it is a development of ecclesiastical authority hallowed by its antiquity.

Eastern Catholicism, then, is simply the group of Churches sui iuris that developed in the various regions of the Eastern Roman Empire. Similarly, Western Catholicism originated in the territory of the Western Roman Empire. Due to complex historical factors, each developed in a different way.

After the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, an enormous power vacuum emerged. In lieu of an overarching imperial power like that which was retained in Constantinople until the fifteenth century, Western Europe naturally turned to the Church to provide structure and unity across fragmented regional lines. Specifically, she turned to Rome, which became the organizational center of the entire West — the primate, if you will, of all its regions instead of just one. Over time, the entirety of Western Catholicism came to be understood as a single Church sui iuris, which is now called the Latin Church.

Today there are twenty-two Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris in the Universal Catholic Church, representing traditions primarily from the Greek, Slavic, and Arab cultures, but including minority traditions as well. The largest Eastern Churches shepherd millions of faithful, while the smallest exist for a mere handful. Collectively, they make up less than 10% of Catholics worldwide, but are important nonetheless for their preservation of the traditions of the Greek Fathers. The overall number of Eastern Christians, including the Orthodox, is much larger than the total number of Eastern Catholics, approaching three hundred million around the globe.

There are a great many liturgical, cultural, and aesthetic distinctions between Eastern and Western Catholicism, but these deserve more time and attention than the confines of the present essay permits. For the present moment, it is sufficient to note that in this time of crisis in the Latin West, as she struggles to understand and protect her own soul, a greater understanding of the soul of the East, which remains largely unaffected by Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and the New Paganism, may prove indispensable in efforts at reclaiming the Catholic identity.


[fundraiser_panel id=”2422″ style=”wdf-fresh” show_title=”yes”]

11 thoughts on “Eastern Catholicism and the Universal Church”

  1. Now is the time to find the Eastern Catholic parish near you. If the Latin rite goes full blown “Spirit of VII”, they are a port in the storm.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for this outline of Eastern Catholic Ecclesiology. While I consider myself a Latin Catholic, I worship in an anglo-rite Church (Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter) but find myself more and more drawn (since 2000) to the spiritual riches of the Eastern Church.

    A question – how do you (or do you?) integrate post-schism Eastern theology/spirituality? I’m thinking especially here of Palamite theology (the essence-energy distinction) – it seems key to everything, both in dogmatic theology and especially in monastic spirituality, but is often depicted as being antithetical to Western, especially Thomistic, theology. What of devotion to post-schism Saints (e.g. St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Silouan the Athonite)?

    To put my cards on the table, I’m very sympathetic to the essence-energy distinction, though I’m very aware that the mainstream of dogmatic western theology is not. I pray to Sergius and Seraphim regularly – Russian spirituality is close to my heart – but the historical distance and their own history makes it questionable if these men ever truly denied Rome or simply grew up without ever truly knowing the fullness of Ecclesial Union. I admire St. Silouan (along with a number of modern Athonites), but his historical proximity concerns me. All of this always comes with a tinge of worry, though. Then again, I am somewhat of a mutt – Latin by history, Anglo by current location, Eastern by proclivity.

    • Tomas,

      Thanks for being one of the wonderful few keeping the anglo-Catholic tradition alive in the Catholic Church. The Anglican Ordinariates are one of the great triumphs of Benedict’s pontificate.

      Regarding the essence-energy distinction in particular, that distinction is not purely a post-schism reality. St. Gregory Palamas (who is canonized in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, and I think in the Melkite Church) retaught and then refined a conceptual distinction that had already been explored by great Greek Fathers like Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Basil of Caesarea (d. 373), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), and Maximos of Constantinople (d. 662.)

      Clement, for instance, writes: “He who is far off has— oh ineffable marvel!— come very near. I am a God that draws near, says the Lord. He is in essence remote… But He is very near in virtue of that power which holds all things in its embrace… For the power of God is always present, in contact with us.”

      Basil writes: “The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.”

      Cyril writes: “Essence and energy are not identical.”

      Maximos says: “The man divinized by grace will be everything that God is, apart from identity of essence,” implying that God is his energies and that we participate in God in them.”

      Furthermore the liturgical practice of the Eastern Churches simply presupposes some kind of essence-energy distinction. In Eastern Christendom, liturgy is considered the sine qua non of apostolic tradition and the bedrock of faith — no belief proposed in the liturgical text of any Sacrament can be discarded.

      Thus my approach to Palamism and all theology development post-schism is to ask whether it existed in some form in the pre-schism Fathers. My suspicion is that nearly every theological doctrine post-schism has such a foundation. Eastern Catholics must found their faith on the pre-schism Greek Fathers, which means the essence-energy distinction must be taught and believed in at least the same specificity that the Greek Fathers teach it.

      I would then encourage Eastern Catholics to then adopt all of the post-schism theological refinement they can without denying Catholic dogma. Now, where exactly this line must be drawn, I don’t claim to know. But by no means do I reject anything simply because it developed after the schism. I suspect Palamism itself may be integrated in some way into Eastern Catholic theology.

      I believe at root there’s a fundamental linguistic divide between East and West at present that prevents any large-scale synthesis of the post-schism Eastern tradition and Catholic dogma. For instance, I think the various terms that go into the dogma of “absolute divine simplicity” as held by Rome are actually defined differently than in the East. This is also the theory of a friend of mine, Michael Liccione, who has written on the topic. Eventually, an Ecumenical Council will be needed to sort out exact definitions to terms and harmonize Latin and Greek theology, and unlike Florence et al, not simply impose the former on the latter.

      Regarding devotion to post schism saints my approach is fairly simple. If they’re canonized by an Eastern Catholic Church, feel free to venerate them. If they’re canonized by an Orthodox Church and they did not die in explicit opposition to Rome, feel free to venerate them. I don’t venerate Mark of Ephesus because he died in explicit repudiation of union. I don’t believe the same applies to St. Seraphim of Sarov, also canonized in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

      Interestingly, the Orthodox approach St. Isaac the Syrian in a similar way. St. Isaac died in the Nestorian communion that eventually became the modern day Assyrian Church of the East, yet is still venerated and prayed to by Orthodox Christians. He is in fact one of the most beloved of all saints in the Orthodox Churches.

      Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner, on all of us.

      • The Catholic West since the split has distinguished dogmatic and other theologies (fundamental, scriptural, patrology …) from spiritual theology. The East has never gone through the intellectual refinement of theology and sees all theology practically as spiritual theology. Thus all the quotes above OBVIOUSLY are about EXPERIENCE of life with God.
        The latter is, after all, what it’s all about, not the former, even for Aquinas himself, which he stated shortly before he died, as straw compared to what had been revealed to him (ie. what he experienced mystically). Reunion will bring this out more clearly. The intellect in the end must descend to the heart (seat of the person) for the meaning of love to permeate everything.

        • I largely agree as far as emphasis is concerned. Eastern spirituality emphasizes encounter with the mystery of transcendent divinity, while the West emphasizes rational. However, there is overlap on both sides. Just as the West has some idea of experiential encounter, the East still employs rationality. The Greek Fathers, and later Palamas, are principally concerned with experience of God, but they also articulate that experience intellectually.

    • On Palamite spirituality, one can refer to Aquinas on epistemology: there are REAL distinctions; distinctions that are founded in reality but not real in them selves, but real to us; and nominal distinctions that are not real. An example of the second is the ATTRIBUTES of God which in GOD are all united in Simplicity, but appear to us as distinct, like the united sun ray hitting a prism and separating into the spectrum of colors. The Palamite spirituality the Orth. are speaking of is their MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE OF THE INDWELLING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT HIMSELF UNITING WITH US PERSONALLY. Thus they place a distinction in God between His Energgies and Existence coming from the personal experience of the mystic. Aquinas would say there is no real distinction of essence and existence GOD HIMSELF OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING INTELLECTUALLY, but it can be experienced mystically PERSONALLY as just that.
      As for the Orth post- split Saints, the Roman Church has accepted the Russian ones, I think, with the Union of the Ukrainians some centuries ago and the Byzantine Catholics specifically accept Gregory Palamas as a BLESSED and is commemorated on his feast day, but there is no Liturgy of Office texts for him.
      Nothing prohibits from personal devotion for the others based on exposure to their lives. I mean, do we REALLY have to WAIT personally for Rome to canonize Mother Teresa to know she was and is a Saint? even the UN had a world day of honor for her on the date of her death in Oct (?) for her merciful service of the poorest of the poor, while our unaware Bishop’s Committee for Liturgy FAILED TO PUT HER ON THE AMERICAN CALENDAR, EVEN THOUGH SHE’S A BLESSED AND ACCEPTED BY EVERYBODY AS A SAINT. (BTW, they also ignored St. Faustina,– not mentioned on the US liturgical calendar, even though Divine Mercy Sunday which came THROUGH her from Christ is a mandatory observance.

      • You’re right, one possible resolution to the essence-energy distinction’s tension with the Western approach is via the formal distinction, although again I would caution you against this duality that regards the East as the home of all mystical experience and the West as the center of intellectual knowledge. The East articulates the experience of God’s energies intellectually, and the West ultimately regards experience of God as more important than theory,

        Regarding Gregory Palamas being a blessed, there is no such category in the Eastern Churches. A man is either canonized or not, and Palamas is canonized.

  3. The Orthodox Church (es) are limited to one Rite, but by Divine Providence the Roman Church has NEVER been limited to the Western Rite(s) only. There have always been Byzantine or other Eastern Rites (Churches) in communion with Rome keeping it Catholic in the sociological sense: e.g. Italo-Greeks in Sicily and S. Italy who have NEVER SLIT FROM ROME; then the Maronites, then, Ukrainian- Ruthenians,Chaldeans, Syrian, Chaldean, Ethiopian and Coptic, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malenkarese. Sometimes Rome has been heavy handed with some of them. (as in the USA with the Ruthenians, who were so badly treated that most of them here in the late 19th cent switched to Russian Orthodoxy of the San Francisco eparchy. But the point is that the ecclesiology of the Universal and local Church (churches) has never been reduced to only the Western Church, as the Orthodox has been to the Byzantine with the Byzantinizing of the Georgian Orthodox from their own rite under the pressure of Russia. St Nilus the younger and his disciple St Bartholomew, eg. came up from S.Italy and founded the monastery of Grottaferata in the 10th cent and never split from Rome. This is a SIGN of divine protection witnessing to the UNITY of the Catholic Church in history

    • “The Orthodox Church (es) are limited to one Rite, but by Divine Providence the Roman Church has NEVER been limited to the Western Rite(s) only… the point is that the ecclesiology of the Universal and local Church (churches) has never been reduced to only the Western Church, as the Orthodox has been to the Byzantine with the Byzantinizing of the Georgian Orthodox from their own rite under the pressure of Russia.”

      This is an oversimplified view. The Orthodox Churches have a Western rite. The difference between the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Western Orthodox rites is that the latter are, in the truest sense, only bare “rites.” There are no Western Orthodox bishops, thus there are no Western Orthodox Churches. There are just Orthodox Churches, and some of their bishops allow a select few of their presbyters to use Western liturgies.

      In contrast the Catholic Church is a communion of Churches sui iuris, fully-functioning episcopal bodies using their historic liturgical rite.

      Also, it’s worth mentioning that Rome has engaged in the latinization of Eastern Catholics from their own liturgical rites just as the Orthodox byzantized other Christians’ rites.

      I don’t mean to be wholly negative. I did appreciate your comments because dispute the lack of nuance they’re quite helpful and add a lot to the discussion. Thank you for leaving them!

  4. Hi Jon,

    Our backgrounds are amazing similar—in some ways by reading your history I felt like you were telling my history! Grew up evangelical Christian—but more of the pentacostal/charismatic flavor. The church I had attended for a long time fell apart and so I was sent out into the world to find another church for me and my family—started reading about other churches, church history, the Fathers, the Catholic Church—left the evangelical echo chamber.

    At first I couldn’t bring myself to seriously consider the Catholic Church (it’s like a Bronco fan becoming a Raiders fan). I discovered Eastern Orthodoxy and attended for about 6 months. Fell in love with the liturgy and church life. But could no matter how hard I tried I could not understand why the Orthodox worked so hard at separating themselves from the Catholic Church. In some ways I learned about the Catholic Church through the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church converted me from Protestant to Catholic. Weird, I know.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...