Are They Really Catholic? Part I

Q1: Every day I drive past a church that’s called a “Greek Melkite Catholic Church.”  What does this mean? Are these people really Catholics? Why aren’t they Roman Catholics?  –Carol

A: This specific question can be viewed as part of a larger question, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” And is it possible to be truly Catholic without being Roman Catholic?

Since the overwhelming majority of Catholics are of the Roman, or Latin rite, people tend to think that the terms “Catholic” and “Roman Catholic” are synonymous. This is true in the sense that all Roman Catholics are Catholics. But not all Catholics are Roman-rite Catholics. There actually are nearly twenty different rites that make up the Catholic Church!

To better understand the origins and development of most of the different Catholic rites, a brief review of some aspects of church history is in order. In the first centuries A.D., the early Church was established throughout the Roman Empire. Basic Christian doctrine and sacramental discipline was the same everywhere—for example, the sacrifice of the Mass involved the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by a priest; baptism was conferred with water, using the Trinitarian formula; priests were ordained by the imposition of hands by a bishop. But externally, the rituals that were used in various regions developed somewhat differently over time. Ceremonial components that were not directly linked to the validity of the sacrament being conferred, such as clerical vestments, the chanting of parts of the psalms, genuflections, the ringing of bells, and numerous other objects and actions, came to vary widely. But so long as all believers were united under the authority of the Pope, they were all truly Catholic.

With the East-West Schism in the 11th century A.D., a whole segment of the Church no longer acknowledged papal authority, and thus was no longer fully in communion with Rome. The Orthodox Churches that remained in the East developed more or less along political/ethnic boundaries, so that each country or ethnic group basically came to have its own Church. The history of the theological arguments concerning this issue are rather complicated, but in a nutshell, the Catholic Church holds that Orthodox Churches still continue to have valid sacraments, because they still have validly ordained priests and bishops who can administer them.

So if the Orthodox have the same sacraments, why don’t we consider them to be Catholics? Consistent with Catholic theology, canon 205 notes that to be in full communion with the Catholic Church, a person must share in the Church’s faith, her sacraments, and her ecclesiastical governance. If he deviates in some way from essential Church teachings; denies the efficacy of (or somehow changes essential elements in the reception of) the sacraments; or fails to accept the legitimate authority of the Church’s hierarchy, then he is not fully in communion with the Catholic Church. Although the Eastern Orthodox Churches have a valid priesthood and valid sacraments, they are not in full communion, because they deny that the Pope has jurisdiction over the entire Church on earth, as the Vicar of Christ.

At church councils in Lyons, France, in 1274, and later in Florence, Italy, in 1439, unsuccessful attempts were made to reunify both East and West under the Pope. If either council had achieved its objective, the schismatic Orthodox Churches would have been brought back into the Catholic fold.

But these attempts at reunification did not entirely fail in their goal. For over the next few centuries, segments of the various Orthodox Churches chose to rejoin Catholicism, and acknowledged the Pope in Rome as the supreme earthly head of the Church. Their members became truly Catholic, as they were now in full communion with the Catholic Church.

At the same time, however, they have retained their own ceremonies and rituals, and on the surface these appear radically different from those of the Latin-rite Church, with which we are most familiar! They are Catholic, but they are not Roman Catholic. In technical terms, these groups are known as Churches sui iuris.

The Greek Melkites, whom Carol mentioned in her question, are a good example. Originally members of the Orthodox Church in Antioch, they rejoined the Catholic Church in the 1700’s. Initially the Greek Melkites were located primarily in Syria and Lebanon, but significant numbers of immigrants to the U.S. eventually led to the establishment of a Melkite diocese here. Their bishop is headquartered in Massachusetts, but governs all Greek Melkite Catholics located in the United States.

Thus his diocese overlaps territorially with the many Latin-rite dioceses of this country. The parish church to which Carol refers would be under his jurisdiction, even though coincidentally it is also located inside Carol’s own Latin-rite diocese. A Latin-rite bishop is required to make an effort to ensure that Catholics of other rites, residing in his diocese, are spiritually provided for (c. 383.2), even though he is not their bishop. Practically speaking, this can be tricky if there are only a handful of Catholics of a particular rite in his diocese, with no parish of their rite in the vicinity; but in general, the law requires a Latin-rite bishop to cooperate with the hierarchical authorities of their rite, to see to it to the best of their ability that the spiritual needs of these Catholics are met.

Since the Greek Melkites are Catholic in every sense of the word, all Catholics are certainly free to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion at their parish if we wish, and such attendance would of course fulfill our Sunday obligation (c. 923).  And should we wish to go to confession there, canon 991 asserts that we have the right to do that as well. Naturally, the opposite also holds true: Catholics of other rites are always able to receive these sacraments from priests of the Latin rite.

But actually joining a parish of a different rite is another matter. Whether we realize it or not, we who are Latin-rite Catholics became members of the Latin (or Roman) Church when we were baptized into it (c. 111.1). In order to become a parishioner at a Catholic church of another rite, it is necessary first to become a member of that rite. This is possible, but usually it requires obtaining permission from Rome (c. 112.1 n. 1). Canon 112.2 specifically states that a Catholic does not become a member of another rite merely because he regularly attends a church of that rite.

So we can see that it is possible to be Catholic without necessarily being Roman Catholic! The universality of the Church is entirely in keeping with the original definition of the word “Catholic,” which is the Greek word for “universal.” While our external rituals have developed differently in the course of history, we Catholics all share in the same faith, same sacraments, and same ecclesiastical governance.

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