The Assyrian Church of the East and the Principle of Oikonomia
By Benjamin Martin
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Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako (L) and Patriarch Awa Royel III.
(AINA) -- Last month, His Beatitude Patriarch Sako of Chaldean Catholic Church reiterated his position that he sees no obstacle to "the merging of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East under the name of the Church of the East." He presented this as his opinion. It was not a direct appeal to Patriarch Awa and the Assyrian Church of the East, but certainly an invitation to consider unity between the churches. Patriarch Sako has made a direct appeal in the past -- after the death of Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV in 2015, when Patriarch Sako offered to resign from his office so that the Assyrian and Chaldean Churches might combine their holy synods and elect one Catholicos-Patriarch for a united Church of the East. Although appreciated, his offer was rebuffed by Patriarch Awa, then Assyrian Bishop of California, in his letter "Authenticity in Unity."

Patriarch Awa provided two main reasons for turning down the offer of Patriarch Sako. First, he held that union with the Chaldean Church at the time would mean departing from the ancient patrimony of the Church of the East, as received by the Assyrian Church of the East today. Second, he feared that union with the Chaldean Church would risk deeper divisions among the apostolic churches. In what follows, I'd like to explore Patriarch Awa's objections and offer some thoughts in response. Because I am Roman Catholic, I will respond very briefly on the topic of the Eastern Apostolic patrimony, in eight points, and then more fully regarding coordination with the other apostolic churches.

Protecting the Eastern Apostolic Patrimony

First, Patriarch Awa's primary objection to union, in relation to the patrimony of the Church of the East, concerns papal primacy. He writes, "Any authentic and acceptable union with the Church of the East cannot be under the ordinary jurisdiction of any Western bishop." Patriarch Awa acknowledges the authority of Rome to "act as arbiter of disputes between autocephalous Churches," so the controversy moves to the meaning of Rome's purported "ordinary jurisdiction" -- a phrase enshrined in Catholic dogma but also still undefined in Western canon law. Because this is an objection shared by the other Eastern Churches as well, I will return to it separately below.

Second, Patriarch Awa defends as the canonical territory of the Church of the East "the Eastern Middle East, India, Central Asia, and China." His defense does not seem to me to suggest that other churches ought not support jurisdictions of their own in Asia -- this would seem pastorally inappropriate, and the phenomenon of overlapping jurisdictions appears in all three of the other communions of apostolic churches, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox. Rather, Patriarch Awa seems assert against the purported universal jurisdiction of Rome the concept of canonical territory as such, such that the Catholicos-Patriarch of the East should enjoy a form of primacy throughout Central, South, East, and perhaps Southeast Asia. As I have suggested previously, this aspect of the Eastern Apostolic patrimony could find expression someday through the accession of the Church of the East to the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) and the assignment of primacy in the latter to the Catholicos-Patriarch of the East.

A third objection concerns canonical heritage. Patriarch Awa asks, "If it is our own ancient canonical tradition that is to be followed by all in a united Church of the East, then will the Chaldean Catholic Church be prepared to replace the Roman Code and is Rome prepared to tolerate it?" Thankfully, I think Rome has an answer. The decree of Vatican II Orientalium Ecclesiarum concludes as follows: "All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation till such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity." This must also apply to the CCOE and the present role of the Roman Curia. From my Western perspective, I see value in codified canons, and I would be excited to see the CCOE replaced someday by a common code for the Byzantine Churches, a common code for the Alexandrian Churches, a code for a united Church of Antioch, maybe a code for the Church of Jerusalem, a code for the Church of the East, a code for the Armenian Church(es), and a code for a united Church of Malankara.

A fourth objection, also canonical in nature, puzzles me. Patriarch Awa holds that "[f]or any Synod to meet, the bishops must already be in full communion, and further, they must also be functioning under one canonical order and practice." Unless this point pertains exclusively to the status of Bishop Soro, who left the Assyrian Church and joined the Chaldean, it would seem to make the synodal resolution of schism impossible. During the Middle Ages, when Catholic and Orthodox bishops hoped by a synod to overcome the schism between them, they concelebrated the liturgy even at the start of the synod, anticipating its success, though these attempts ultimately did not find wide reception in the East. This fourth objection by Patriarch Awa might find an answer in the discussion of the principle of oikonomia below.

Fifth, Patriarch Awa writes, "The Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East has the sole prerogative and obligation to protect and continue the ancient tradition of her Fathers in preserving the Sacred Liturgy, holy prayer, canonical order, spiritual wellbeing, and moral life of the Church's children..." To this he adds: "the sacred texts of prayer and Liturgy given to us by the Holy Fathers cannot be shortened or amended by secular influence or modernist ideas." The concluding phrase admits of multiple interpretations -- what counts as secular influence or modernist ideas? The Chaldean liturgy has been shortened and amended at times, Latinized and de-Latinized. Unfortunately, I fear that Patriarch Awa and Patriarch Sako likely do not agree on the topic of liturgical reform. I expect that Assyrian-Chaldean unity will require tolerance of liturgical variation in some degree and joint study regarding what degree of such tolerance is appropriate.

Patriarch Awa names several specific aspects of the liturgical, canonical, and theological tradition of the Church of the East in need of renewed attention, on most of which I will not comment because they are foreign to me. One, however, stood out for me -- which I will treat as a sixth point. Patriarch Awa writes, "we must all struggle towards renewed ascetic effort according to the full requirements of the Church of the East and not the contemporary use of the western Church." Asceticism has atrophied in the West, and I hope that someday we in the West will receive it anew from the East

Seventh, Patriarch Awa writes,

We invite the Chaldean Catholic Church to a true spiritual renaissance of liturgy, canonical order, spiritual life, and theology in the time-honored traditions of the fathers of the Church of the East. True brotherhood begins by sharing a common commitment and experience in our great ecclesiastical tradition, and any hope for unity must presume a common ecclesial spirit.

This point also puzzles me. It strikes me as either slightly overstated or quite modern. It is good that Assyrians and Chaldeans should draw closer to one another even before Eucharistic communion is restored. But no ancient Church Father would have proposed as a condition for unity any sort of renaissance or a common experience. Rather, schisms were overcome often by ascription to a list of anathemas. Unity lay in agreement on narrowly defined doctrines and specific, objective practices. My concern likely arises from a misreading of his objection, because Patriarch Awa immediately proceeds to list specific practices to be strengthened in a united Church of the East. But I present my concern here in case anyone may be tempted to mistake subjective feelings of difference for objective obstacles to Christian unity.

Eighth, Patriarch Awa provides several historical examples of the inappropriate exercise of papal authority in relation to the Eastern Churches, the like of which threaten to undermine the Church of the East and her ancient patrimony. Thankfully, Pope St. John Paul II also explicitly endorsed the search for a new way of exercising Roman primacy, one that respects the Eastern Churches, their canonical territory, and the patriarchal office. Pope Francis has carried forward this effort. But its success requires also the conversion of the Roman Curia and healing and rapprochement in the hearts of all Western and Eastern Christians. I am hardly authorized to apologize for the actions of past popes, but here I can recall two conciliatory truths: Whether or not we can enjoy it at present, all Christians of the apostolic churches hope for communion with the Roman See, and at the same time we all know that not all popes are saints (in the colloquial sense).

Ecumenical Coordination and Oikonomia

For the most part, all of the foregoing pertains to relations among the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Church of Rome. But, as Patriarch Awa states, "Our partners in this process [of ecumenical rapprochement also include] the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox (Miaphysite) Churches." He would not rush into communion with Rome, such that, he writes, "our ecumenical journey with all the other Eastern Churches would cease, and we could only hope for unity with them through Rome." By coordinating with the other apostolic churches too, Patriarch Awa seeks both to minimize the risk of new schisms and appropriately to preserve for the Church of the East, even after the restoration of communion with Rome, a degree of independence in ecumenical processes -- an independence unknown at present in the Catholic Church.

To avoid new schisms within existing churches, ecumenical dialogue must proceed in such a way that clergy and laity adequately receive its results and none feel that his church has abandoned the apostolic faith on the way to Christian unity. To avoid new schisms among the churches, each of the four communions ought to act together in overcoming schisms with others, preferably three or four communions taking the same steps at once. Such steps likely include: first, permission for sacramental sharing among the laity; second, hierarchal and clerical concelebration of the sacraments; and, finally, the merging of holy synods, primatial offices, and duplicate jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, the Assyrian Church of the East is likely further from participating in any of these steps with the Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox than all three non-Assyrian communions are from taking these steps together. To pursue the ecumenical strategy presented by Patriarch Awa, the Assyrian Church of the East cannot simply protect her ancient patrimony, as discussed above, but must also contend with the objections of her other ecumenical partners -- the foremost of which concerns her commemoration of the Greek Fathers Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopseustia, and Nestorius of Constantinople. In the 1990s, the Assyrian Church ceased to anathematize St. Cyril and various Miaphysite Fathers, but her Miaphysite interlocutors have continued to object to the place of the Greek Fathers in the Eastern Apostolic heritage. On this issue, the Assyrian Church can hardly compromise.

Thankfully, such disagreement need not be church-dividing. Since ancient times, similar schisms have been overcome -- due, in part, to the ecclesiological principle of oikonomia. In the remainder of this article, I will introduce the concept of oikonomia and three applications of it that I hope might draw closer together all four communions of apostolic churches.

oikonomia literally means "house law," or "household management." It refers first to the Divine Economy, i.e. to God's care for creation, second to the participation of the Church in God's work of salvation, and third to episcopal administration for the same end. In relation to canon law, the word has come to be associated with the concept of "extraordinary concession," lenience in pastoral care, and departure from the canons. But this latter usage is something of an innovation, traceable to the Eastern Orthodox canonist St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809).

In treating oikonomia, the 102nd canon of the Council of Trullo (692) recommends that "the person undertaking pastoral leadership... must therefore be versed in both...the requirements of strictness (akriveia) [i.e. the exact demands of the holy canons] and the requirements of custom (sunetheia) [which are often more lenient]." St. Nicodemus identified oikonomia with custom and lenience, but the canon contrasts akriveia not with oikonomia but with sunetheia -- so "oikonomia" does not mean an exception to or departure from canon law but is the aim of the canons themselves: service for the salvation of souls.

In the first canon identified with him in Orthodox tradition, St. Basil clarifies that when strict adherence to canon law, although objectively superior to departure from it, "become[s] an obstacle in the general economy (of the Church), we must again adopt the custom [established by the salve of extraordinary concession] and follow the Fathers who economically regulated the affairs of our Church." oikonomia -- the administration of the Church -- has at its disposal both the resources of canon law and the resources of custom, both the power of returning to strict adherence to canons and the power of granting extraordinary concessions by which more lenient customs are established or restored, each insofar as it serves the mission of the Church.

The only known systematic treatment of oikonomia from ancient times appears in a treatise by St. Eulogius, Pope of Alexandria (died 608). The text has been lost, but a summary survives in opuscule 227 of the Bibliotheca of St. Photius of Constantinople (810-893). According to Photius, Eulogius held that, provided the apostolic faith is preserved, pastoral prudence may permit accommodation or "extraordinary concession" for (a) temporary lapses in Christian practice, such as the circumcision of Timothy, (b) different and even poor articulations of doctrine, and (c) technical barriers to communion, such as when some ignore an ecclesiastical decree against them, or commemorate a heretic, or preserve other vestiges of past but not present error. (Cf. Booth, Phil. Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent in Late Antiquity, p. 218 and Erickson, John. "Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today.")

The account of St. Eulogius holds promise for the ecumenical situation of the Assyrian Church of the East. The Assyrian Church must persuade interlocutors that she preserves the apostolic faith unharmed. But her interlocutors cannot hold that her commemoration of the Greek Fathers Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius alone constitutes harm to the faith and prevents them from restoring Eucharistic communion. Disagreement over who is a heretic concerns facts that lie outside the deposit of faith received from Christ and His apostles, and so on its own need not prevent communion if no error is found at present. This is one application of the principle of oikonomia that can advance the ecumenical strategy of Patriarch Awa.

A second application concerns the enumeration of ecumenical councils. According to Western accounts, the Assyrian Church of the East accepts only the first two ecumenical councils; the Oriental Orthodox accept the first three; the Eastern Orthodox, the first seven; and Catholics, twenty-one. The importance of a common enumeration of ecumenical councils isn't quite clear. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox seem most concerned with the issue -- and place the most value on the councils. In contrast, the Assyrian Church of the East seems freely to acknowledge the importance of ecumenical councils in which she herself did not participate and did not receive, and the Catholic Church has adapted her concept of ecumenical councils over time, not even counting the majority of the twenty-one as ecumenical councils until centuries after they occurred.

Because she takes the most flexible approach to ecumenical councils, the Assyrian Church of the East is best positioned to develop an account of ecumenical councils receivable across the communions. For example, she could come to acknowledge in a formal way the authority of more than two ecumenical councils and at the same time hold that she need not adopt certain of their doctrinal definitions or disciplinary canons -- like the position that she has taken with respect to the Council of Chalcedon. Acknowledging the authority of an ecumenical council could be understood as obligating the reception of its definitions or canons or, alternatively, as obligating at least an explanation regarding the particular circumstances of the local church that make such reception pastorally imprudent or impossible. The Assyrian Church can likely meet the latter obligation such that other local churches would recognize in her decisions both the same apostolic faith as their own and the legitimate exercise of oikonomia.

This same strategy might contribute to the Eastern Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox dialogue as well. I don't anticipate in the near future an account of ecumenical councils common to East and West, but perhaps all four apostolic communions might come to enumerate together the eight great councils of the first millennium. I include the eighth because, on the one hand, it produced no controversial doctrine, but, on the other hand, it became a point of controversy between Catholics and Orthodox. After the 11th century schism between Rome and Constantinople, a synod in Constantinople that had deposed Patriarch Photius in 869-870 was elevated to the rank of the eight ecumenical council, called by Catholics Constantinople IV, even though it had been abrogated by another synod in Constantinople that restored Photius, as well as communion between Rome and Constantinople, in 879-880. The Orthodox call the latter synod Constantinople IV. Maybe Catholics could resolve the unfortunate complexity by treating the two as a double council -- i.e. never letting the council of 869-870 be recalled without reference to the council of 879-880, which restored communion between East and West.

Finally, I return to the objection of Patriarch Awa that "the Church of the East cannot be under the ordinary jurisdiction of any Western bishop." It would seem inappropriate for the Catholic Church to ask the non-Catholic Eastern Churches to accept the universal "ordinary jurisdiction" of the Pope of Rome, since Western canon law has not yet carefully defined the concept, especially in relation to Eastern patriarchates. But the Eastern Churches may have in their tradition an appropriate interpretation of the pope's universal jurisdiction -- in the concept of oikonomia.

If oikonomia is identified with "extraordinary concession," as has often been the case since St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, then to call the pope's universal jurisdiction "oikonomic" would simply contradict Catholic dogma. But if oikonomia is understood as the ordinary solicitude of pastoral care, which encompasses the ordinary operation of canon law, the ordinary force of custom, and the power of extraordinary action, then the concept may reveal common ground with regard to the role of the Roman Pope.

The Pope of Rome is also the Patriarch of the Latin Church (even if the title has been suppressed). Ordinarily, patriarchs tend to their own canonical territories. Today, this means their own territories and their own diasporas. If the Pope of Rome enjoys a "universal jurisdiction of oikonomia," then he must at all times concern himself with the good of all Christians and of every local church. But to intervene in an Eastern Church could only be understood as extraordinary. Extraordinary action belongs to oikonomia, but to be authentically oikonomic such action must be a participation in God's plan of salvation and the mission of the Church; it must serve to preserve the apostolic faith, the divinely established constitution of the Church, and therefore episcopal and patriarchal authority as well, and the Church's synodal practice and sacramental communion. These conditions belong to the concept of oikonomia, and therefore the concept of oikonomia may be employed to regulate the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pope.


These considerations of oikonomia, of ecumenical coordination among the apostolic churches, and of steps toward protecting the ancient patrimony of the Church of the East have been lengthy and yet still incomplete. But I hope that by exploring the points set out in Patriarch Awa's letter "Authenticity in Unity" and offering some thoughts in response, I may supplement the thinking invited by the recent words of Patriarch Sako. As our Lord prayed at the Last Supper -- a prayer that still encourages Assyrians and Chaldeans today -- "may they all be that the world may believe" (John 17:23).

Benjamin Martin is a board member for the Martin Family Foundation, and VP for Evangelization for Caritas in Veritate International. He studied philosophy at Boston College and Loyola University Chicago and writes on phenomenology, ethics, ecumenism, and the intersection of religion and politics in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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