Who are the “Eastern Catholics”?

Who are the “Eastern Catholics”? 

This is an intriguing podcast published in March 2011 by Kevin Allen as part of his acclaimed “The Illumined Heart” series on Ancient Faith Radio. Allen interviews Fr. James Babcock, a Melkite Greek Catholic priest and pastor of Holy Cross parish in Placentia, CA. Father James also serves as vice president of the Society of St. John Chrysostom (http://www.ssjc.org/) which organizes the annual Orientale Lumen conference, publishes the Eastern Churches Journal and is dedicated to building understanding between the Eastern and Western Churches.

It is interesting to note how Rome has gradually become more respectful of Eastern Catholics’ observance of their unique traditions. In his May 1995 Apostolic letter Orientale Lumen the late Pope John Paul II cautioned Roman Catholic bishops overseeing Eastern-rite dioceses not to obstruct the preservation- and in many cases, the much-needed renewal- of key aspects of Eastern liturgical and spiritual practices. The Pope also encouraged Eastern Catholics to reunite themselves to those Eastern/Orthodox traditions which they might have lost due to earlier forced or inadvertent latinizations.

Certain problems remain which contribute to the sense among many Orthodox Christians that the Eastern Catholics are cut off from the fullness of the Orthodox tradition and subject to interference by ‘latinizing’ bishops or priests. To an extent, diocesan and parish spiritual and liturgical life are dependent on the degree of autonomy which Rome permits. Most Roman Catholics are not even aware of the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches within the fold of Catholic communion under the Holy See. Most obviously, there remain strong points of tension in the local administration of Eastern Catholic dioceses, whose bishops are still appointed by the Pope, rather than Eastern Catholic synods.

The 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated by the late Pope also specifies that, for Eastern Christians to be in communion with Rome, they must accept as doctrine but not necessarily teach certain Roman Catholic beliefs such as papal infallibility ex cathedra, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, indulgences, purgatory, etc. What are the impacts of these requirements on the beliefs of those Eastern Christians in union with Rome? Do Eastern Catholics practice and believe a faith that is actually Orthodox while living under Rome’s jurisdictional authority? Is their faith thus considerably different from Roman Catholicism?

These Byzantine Catholic bishops celebrate a liturgy which appears to be Orthodox in all ways- except that they honor and commemorate the Pope of Rome in their litanies.

These questions beg the broader question: who are the Eastern Catholics? Estimates of their numbers in the United States range from half a million to almost two million. Are they essentially Orthodox Christians living autonomously in communion with the Pope, or are they fully Catholic Christians in submission to Rome whom the Vatican permits to carry on historic Eastern spiritual and liturgical traditions? Or— are they perhaps somewhere in between?

These Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholic bishops in Bulgaria preside over a small minority faith in that predominantly Orthodox country. Note the Western (Roman rite) Catholic bishop with his distinctive elongaged mitre to the right, and the Eastern Catholic bishop with his Byzantine closed-crown style mitre on the left.

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