August 25, 2014

Although the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches (Orientalium Ecclesarium) is the third shortest document produced by the Second Vatican Council, it is a significant statement that goes far beyond maintaining the status quo.

While the decree is not exactly a Magna Carta for the churches of the East which are in union with Rome, it does signal a shift to a more positive view of those churches than had been the practice of recent centuries.

A little history is in order. There are 21 Eastern churches in union with Rome, many of which were at one time separated, but which sought reunion, typically in the 16th century.

While one 18th century encyclical spoke of the Roman Church as being the norm and the others as tolerable, second class churches, official documents have almost universally heaped praise on the Eastern churches.

However, words are one thing and actions another. Theologian Richard Gaillardetz notes that in the centuries prior to Vatican II, the Eastern churches suffered from forced Latinization, "an almost inexorable movement to greater uniformity in Church discipline, liturgy and theology."

In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV, for example, placed Greek churches and monasteries under the authority of the local Latin bishop.

In Canada, when Ukrainians began immigrating to the Prairies in the late 19th century, they and their churches were placed under Latin jurisdiction.

The Latin hierarchy originally opposed the appointment of a Ukrainian Catholic bishop, and Archbishop Adélard Langevin of St. Boniface wrote to the Holy See asking if all Ukrainian Catholics in Canada could be made Latin Catholics.

Rome, fortunately, did not follow such entreaties and, in 1912, appointed Nykyta Budka as the Winnipeg-based bishop for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian Catholic traditions were eroded in Canada, and more than a few Ukrainian Catholics chose to become Eastern Orthodox as a result.

Priests, for example, lost their traditional role as the ordinary minister of Confirmation, and in recruiting priests to come to the New World, a strong preference was given to the celibate. This made recruitment a difficult task as virtually all diocesan priests in Ukraine were married.

When a Latin Catholic married a Ukrainian Catholic, the Ukrainian could opt to join the Latin Church, but the Latin Catholic could not follow the Ukrainian way. Moreover, once a Ukrainian Catholic had opted to become a Latin Catholic, he or she could not revert to their former Church until their spouse had died.

Vatican II started a process to change all that and give greater respect to the Eastern churches.


A crucial step in that direction was the practice at Vatican II to celebrate Mass or the Divine Liturgy in a different liturgical rite each day. Latin bishops, who previously had been more or less oblivious to the existence of the Eastern churches, now found themselves immersed in their liturgical traditions.

The first article of Orientalium Ecclesarium stated that not only does the Catholic Church value the Eastern churches, their institutions, liturgies, traditions and ordering of Christian life, it sees those traditions as "part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the universal Church."

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, meets with members of St. Basil's Parish during his 2012 visit to Edmonton. Ukrainians are still waiting for the head of their Church to be declared a patriarch.


The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, meets with members of St. Basil's Parish during his 2012 visit to Edmonton. Ukrainians are still waiting for the head of their Church to be declared a patriarch.

This is more than a statement of appreciation; it is a doctrinal statement which implies a full equality of all the churches within the orbit of Rome.

The decree also avoids the Latin habit of referring to these churches as "rites" as in "the Ukrainian rite." It recognizes their full dignity as churches, implicitly distinguishing between the 22 churches that recognize papal authority and the five liturgical rites which are celebrated by those churches. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, for example, celebrates the Byzantine rite; the Latin Church celebrates the Roman rite.


Orientalium Ecclesarium went on to say that the diversity of churches under the pope's umbrella does not erode the Church's unity, but rather emphasizes it. That was followed with another striking statement: "The Catholic Church wishes the traditions of each particular church or rite to remain whole and entire, and it likewise wishes to adapt its own way of life to the various needs of time and place" (OE 2).

The decree said Eastern churches have the "right and duty" to govern themselves according to their own traditions. Not only can they preserve their own liturgical rites, but that any changes to those rites ought to come as the result of organic change, not imposition from the outside.

The decree underlined the authority of the patriarchs of the various churches and said even more patriarchs might be appointed in the future. (Ukrainian Catholics are still waiting.)

It upheld - in some cases, restored - the right of Eastern churches to celebrate all three sacraments of initiation - Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation - at the same time and with infants. Because of that, the priest would have to be the ordinary minister of Confirmation.

It also stated that in Eastern churches that the faithful could meet their Sunday Mass obligation by attending either the Divine Liturgy or the Divine Office, that is, a communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.

It would be nice to be able to say that this made everything OK for the Eastern churches. But the story continues.


In 1990, the pope promulgated the first Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches. The code stops well short of the self-governance promised in Orientalium Ecclesarium.

The code is a creation of the Western Church for the Eastern churches, something signified by the fact that it was promulgated by the pope, rather than by the heads of the Eastern churches themselves. As well, each of those churches has its own traditions and needs its own code of Church law.

The Vatican's proud claim that, if the Eastern Orthodox reunited with Rome, this is how they could expect be treated was one Gaillardetz labelled "ecumenically embarrassing."

Clearly, there is a ways to go before the high-minded words of Vatican II about the equal dignity of all Catholic churches become a reality. That, however, should not hide the fact that a corner has been turned and that the Latin Church is moving towards a greater respect for the traditions of the East.

(Much information in this article came from Richard Gaillardetz's book The Church in the Making, David Motiuk's Eastern Christians in the New World and Khaled Anatolios' article on Orientalium Ecclesarium in Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering.)