Eastern-rite Catholics

Question: My son will be marrying an Eastern-rite Catholic next year. I am not sure how the Eastern-rite Catholics fit into the Catholic Church overall. Are they as fully Catholic as Roman Catholics? Why are there so many Eastern Catholic rites, and where did they come from? What is their connection to the Orthodox Church? 

— Name and city withheld, Connecticut

Answer: An Eastern Catholic would be very upset by your question — though I know you ask it in good faith. The Eastern Catholic Churches are as fully Catholic and as fully part of the Church universal as any Catholic you know. They are fully in communion with the Holy See and are Catholic in every way. A Roman Catholic can receive the sacraments in an Eastern Catholic Church and vice versa (though the regulations on interritual marriage are a little complicated). 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on the different Catholic churches and their liturgical diversity (Nos. 1200-1209). No. 1200 states: “From the first community of Jerusalem until the parousia [the coming of Christ in glory], it is the same Paschal mystery the Churches of God, faithful to the apostolic faith, celebrate in every place. The mystery celebrated in the liturgy is one, but the forms of its celebration are diverse.” The Christian mystery is so unfathomable rich that it cannot be exhausted by its celebration in any single liturgical tradition. These different traditions enrich and complement each other and are in no way in competition. 

Why do the different liturgical traditions exist? The Catechism answers: “The diverse liturgical traditions have arisen by very reason of the Church’s mission. Churches of the same geographical and cultural area came to celebrate the mystery of Christ through particular expressions characterized by the culture: in the tradition of the ‘deposit of faith,’ in liturgical symbolism, in the organization of fraternal communion, in the theological understanding of the mysteries, and in various forms of holiness. Through the liturgical life of a local church, Christ, the light and salvation of all peoples, is made manifest to the particular people and culture to which the Church is sent and in which she is rooted. The Church is catholic, capable of integrating into her unity, while purifying them, all the authentic richness of cultures” (No. 1202). 

Because of the diverse cultures into which the Church has been incarnated over the centuries, the result is the existence of quite a variety of Eastern Catholic Churches. The Catechism, quoting from the Second Vatican Council, states: “In ‘faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully recognized rites to be of equal right and dignity, and she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way’” (No. 1203). 

Presently, the Eastern Catholic Churches have no official connection to the Orthodox Churches (the authenticity of whose rites and sacraments the Catholic Church fully recognizes). There exists considerable tension between the Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox Churches as the latter regard the former as inappropriately attached to Rome and to have deserted the allegiance they held at various times to the Orthodox jurisdictions. Many hope that the Eastern Churches could act as bridges between Eastern and Western Christianity, but that hope is not currently being realized very well. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.