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.
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Jonathan Pierre Cariveau is a Minnesota native and a convert to Eastern Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He writes on Eastern Catholicism, Church history, liturgical theology, and Catholic life in the 21st century.