AINA Editorial
Obstacles in the Unification of Assyrian Churches
By Benjamin Martin
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Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako (L) and Patriarch Awa Royel III.
(AINA) -- In December, Patriarch Awa spoke of the possible reunification of Assyrians and Chaldeans within one Church of the East. He also mentioned an objection to the union that must be addressed first: uniatism. His words were reported as follows:

With the Chaldeans, who are certainly our brothers, we are always ready to talk about unity and reunification in a single Church of the East. However, we totally reject uniatism, which was at the origins of the schism of 1552. I believe this is Patriarch Sako's proposal: the two Patriarchs, the Chaldean and the Assyrian, resign from their offices, and the Assyrian and Chaldean bishops elect together another Patriarch of the Eastern Church, but then that Patriarch must be in hierarchical communion with the Pope. And this procedure does not seem feasible to me. The way is to rediscover the roots of the Eastern Church, go back to before 1552, see what was the shared ecclesiology at the moment of separation.

In what follows, I will examine the topic of uniatism and how the Catholic Church might answer Patriarch Awa's objection.

What is Uniatism?

In 1993, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church produced a document titled "Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion," otherwise known as the "Balamand Statement." Unfortunately, the document does not define the term "uniatism." Instead, it speaks of historical initiatives that "led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their Mother Churches of the East" (§8). From these communities have come most of the Eastern Catholic Churches of the present day.

The document indicates that these historical processes often involved inappropriately exclusivist ecclesiology, the use of "unacceptable means," and "extraecclesial interests" and that they failed to restore complete unity between East and West (§§8-11). The document goes on to condemn ecclesiology that denies the means for salvation in the non-Catholic Eastern Churches and therefore also the pursuit of the "conversion of people from one Church to the other" (§15). In addition, it strongly cautions against allowing financial or social assistance or opportunities for education or other material benefits to tempt someone to leave one Church and join another (§24). We can call these prohibited practices "proselytism." They are rejected -- at least formally -- by all the apostolic Churches.

The topic of "uniatism" is difficult to discuss because at different times it is identified with different but related realities. These include: (i) the proselytism that preceded the formation of the Eastern Catholic Churches, (ii) the choice of certain communities for union with the See of Rome at the expense of communion with their Mother Churches, (iii) the deeper and more bitter divisions that followed, and (iv) the continued existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Insofar as "uniatism" refers to (i), it is universally condemned. Insofar as "uniatism" refers to (ii), the Balamand Statement cannot condemn it. Although likely influenced by proselytism and although unsuccessful in restoring Eucharistic communion between East and West, respect must be shown for the potential "authenticity of the desire to be faithful to the commandment of Christ: 'that all may be one'" (§9). Consequently, neither can (iv) be condemned. Eastern Catholics cannot be condemned simply for being Eastern Catholic: "[T]he Oriental Catholic Churches...have the right to exist and to act in answer to the spiritual needs of their faithful" (§3). To be complete, (iii) is universally regretted.

More Facets of Uniatism

In addition to these, at least three more realities are sometimes identified with "uniatism": (v) the psychological and spiritual harm suffered by Eastern Catholics as a result of the situation of double schism (schism between their Mother Churches and the See of Rome and schism with(in) their Mother Churches), (vi) the persistence of excessively Roman ecclesiology among Eastern Catholics, and (vii) the concretization of such excessively Roman ecclesiology in Eastern Catholic practice and canon law.

Among the psychological and spiritual harms suffered by Eastern Catholics, Patriarch Awa has written of "numerous instances of latinization which the Chaldean Catholic Church has suffered as a spiritual persecution." The scholar Justin Tse likewise identifies uniatism with the habit of "taking on the Latin Church's theological formulations, devotional practices, and liturgical sensibilities at the expense of," in his case, "[the] Byzantine heritage." These might include "the rosary, the Sacred Heart, the Stations of the Cross, and the juridical modus operandi of Roman Catholicism in general." Tse also observes that Eastern Catholics of any of the major liturgical traditions may exhibit "[an] inferiority complex in relation to Rome [that] leads them to discard their own tradition for another."

To heal from this psychological and spiritual wound is a significant task. In fact, Tse cites the opinion of Archimandrite Robert Taft S.J. that "the entire task of Eastern Catholic theology is about recognizing the dignity of the Eastern Catholic churches' original practices as Catholic in and of themselves" and not inferior to those of Rome. Thus, he writes, "the attempts by some of our theologians [in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church] to slowly roll back the practices in our church that are more Latin than Byzantine is, in fact, an attempt to be more fully Catholic in our Orthodoxy." In the same way, Patriarch Awa "[invites] 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."

To these observations, Dr. Tse adds a warning: A radical development of the concept of uniatism by Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk "involves naming an Orthodox uniatism, a posture of Greek Catholic subordination to the Orthodox in this case that leads to an illegitimate union that was as perverse as [Latinization]." Analogously, the Chaldean Church cannot find healing through mere imitation of the Assyrian Church of the East. Assyrians and Chaldeans must progress toward unity together, each faithful to what the Holy Spirit speaks in his heart. As Tse concludes, we surpass the minimal agreement achieved by the Balamand document and overcome uniatism in the form of ideological colonization "not by advancing arguments about the validity of our existence [but] by living in ways that are attentive to movements in the heart and its sense of [its ecclesial] home."

Having considered uniatism understood as a form of psychological and spiritual harm -- (v) above -- there still remains the problem of a tradition of ecclesiology among Eastern Catholics that places more emphasis on the role of the See of Rome than was ever typical in the Christian East before the formation of the Eastern Catholic Churches (vi). Because all three formal dialogues between the Catholic Church and the non-Catholic Eastern communions are addressing Roman ecclesiology, I will not do so. Instead, I will turn to the most objectionable manifestations of this ecclesiology in Eastern Catholic canon law (vii), specifically in the Code of Canons for the Oriental Churches (CCOE).

De-Latinizing Eastern Catholic Canon Law

In the remainder of this article, I will comment briefly on the opening sections of the CCOE. I am neither a canonist nor an Eastern Christian. But I hope that, by reviewing what canons would seem to me most objectionable from an Eastern perspective, I might shed light on the position of Patriarch Awa regarding "uniatism" and a possible response by the Catholic Church.

The CCOE opens with six Preliminary Canons. These are technical in nature, determining the scope of the CCOE. There is little in them that appears objectionable, except for the very fact that they open a common code of canons for Eastern Churches promulgated by the Roman Curia. Certainly, it is assumed that the CCOE will be replaced upon the healing of the schisms between East and West (Cf. Orientalum Ecclesiarum §30 ). But the very existence of the CCOE, and the consequent imposition of Rome's "juridic" style, may cause offense in the Christian East.

As I have written before, I see value in codified canons. And I hope that the Eastern Churches won't reject the practice of developing sophisticated canonical codes of their own simply because these have appeared in the West. Every local Church has received gifts from other local Churches, even of other liturgical traditions. I do not see why certain canonical practices might not likewise be authentically received.

Perhaps the Eastern Catholic Churches could develop new canonical codes more authentic to their specific traditions, in cooperation with their corresponding non-Catholic Churches, even before the restoration of Eucharistic communion among them. However, I expect that it is more likely that the Eastern Catholic Churches will continue to operate under the CCOE before and after the restoration of Eucharistic communion with their corresponding non-Catholic Churches, up until the complete integration of the corresponding hierarchies. In the meantime, the Eastern Catholic Churches, together with their corresponding non-Catholic Churches, could propose gradual, incremental reforms to the CCOE that make of it good source material for whatever future canonical codes might govern their reunited Churches.

After the Preliminary Canons, Title 1 addresses the Rights and Obligations of All the Christian Faithful. This section too contains little that is objectionable. Can. 7 §2 employs ecclesiological formulations of the Second Vatican Council, but these can be interpreted in an ecumenically acceptable manner. Because I am seeking for now the most objectionable aspects of the CCOE for the sake of its incremental reform, I won't address these any further. Can. 12 §1, which obligates the faithful "always to maintain communion with the Church," could stir suspicion but likewise admits of an ecumenically acceptable reading.

Title 2 addresses "Churches sui juris" and rites, as well as assignment and transfer of jurisdictions. Because every Eastern Catholic Church will either integrate with a corresponding non-Catholic autocephalous or autonomous Church or could come to be understood as an autocephalous Church (e.g. the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church), the concept of a "Church sui juris" can likely be replaced in the future with the concepts of autocephalous and autonomous Churches, as these are employed among non-Catholic Eastern Christians today. Can. 32 is the first canon to assign to the See of Rome a significant power: It requires Rome's consent for a transfer of jurisdiction, though this consent is presumed if the local bishops of overlapping dioceses consent in writing. This seems like a responsibility appropriate for the See of Rome.

Title 3 addresses the authority of the Roman Pontiff. The entire section reflects the centralizing ecclesiology of the First Vatican Council and therefore ought to be replaced -- perhaps rewritten in terms derived from the present dialogues with the non-Catholic communions of the East.

Title 4 addresses patriarchates. Here we find frequent references to specific powers of the Roman Pontiff and the Apostolic See. The very frequency of the references likely offends -- so these might better be grouped together someday in a more acceptable Title 3. However, many of these powers claimed by Rome are reasonable and inoffensive. Others are less so. I will briefly list those that seem to me to be (a) inoffensive and unremarkable, (b) more significant and appropriately assigned to the See of Rome, (c) questionable, and (d) offensive.

The (a) inoffensive and unremarkable powers assigned to the Roman Pontiff by Title 4 of the CCOE include: the right to be notified of episcopal ordinations and enthronements (cann. 76 §1 and 86 §3), of legislation and decisions of holy synods (can. 111 §3), whenever a patriarchal Church is unable to form a permanent synod (can. 121), whenever a patriarchal see becomes vacant (can. 128 §1), and whenever a patriarchal see becomes impeded (can. 132 §3); and the right to be consulted before the modification of dioceses (can. 85 §1). Can. 85 §2 gives patriarchal Churches the right to defer cases of disobedient bishops to Rome. And cann. 81, 86 §2, and 88 §2 also make minor mention of Rome.

Of the powers (b) more significant and appropriately assigned to Rome, most seem intended either to regulate relations among the patriarchates, like can. 32 mentioned above which governs transfers of jurisdiction, or to prevent innovations in law and practice that could threaten the unity of the Church. (The latter function may strike Eastern Christians as ironic in light of the First Vatican Council.) Can. 56 serves as an example of the latter: "A patriarch is a bishop who enjoys power over all bishops including metropolitans and other Christian faithful of the Church over which he presides according to the norm of law approved by the supreme authority of the Church." Many will object to the double use of the preposition "over," but more interesting for the moment is the requirement that the norm of law by which a patriarch exercises his authority be approved by the Roman Pontiff.

This requirement could be interpreted as a "bridle" on Eastern Catholic patriarchs, to use an image once employed by Patriarch Awa. But I read the canon more positively: Any innovation in the patriarchal office must concern the entire Church, and therefore especially the Roman Pontiff. The Roman Pontiff cannot deny patriarchs the prerogatives assigned to them by Sacred Tradition -- it would be better for can. 56 to indicate as much. But the power of oversight in question, to check ecclesiological innovation for the sake of preserving Christian unity, seems to me to be appropriate.

To regulate relations among patriarchates, canons of Title 4 allow Rome: to establish or modify patriarchates and their canonical territories (can. 57); to adjudicate territorial disputes (can. 146 §2); to regulate the extraterritorial exercise of patriarchal authority (can. 78 §2) and the authority of extraterritorially constituted metropolitans (can. 138) and bishops (can. 150); and to ensure metropolitan oversight of extraterritorial bishops (can. 139) and care for the faithful of Eastern patriarchates in diaspora (can. 148). Can. 58 allows the Roman Pontiff to establish "special norms" concerning precedence, such as for consistories of the College of Cardinals, while can. 59 §2 preserves the taxis among the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. (Perhaps can. 59 §3 could someday explicitly list the order of precedence among all the patriarchates of all four communions, in order to settle controversy.) Provided these powers are exercised in accord with Sacred Tradition, all of them seem appropriate.

Finally, can. 98 requires Roman approval of agreements between patriarchal Churches and secular authorities. This may generate controversy, but it serves as a protection of the patriarchal Churches against abuse by state governments. Therefore, this too seems to be an appropriate prerogative of Rome.

Of the canons of Title 4 that ascribe (c) powers to the Roman Pontiff that an Eastern Christian must question, can. 92 is foremost. It reads as follows:

  1. The patriarch is to manifest hierarchal communion with the Roman Pontiff, successor of Saint Peter, through the loyalty, veneration and obedience which are due to the supreme pastor of the entire Church.
  2. The patriarch must make a commemoration of the Roman Pontiff as a sign of full communion with him in the Divine Liturgy and divine praises according to the prescriptions of the liturgical books and to see that it is done faithfully by all the bishops and other clerics of the Church over which he presides. [This is mentioned in can. 91 as well.]
  3. It is to be the custom for the patriarch to visit the Roman Pontiff and, according to the norms established especially for this, to send to him a report concerning the state of the Church over which he presides. Within a year of his election and then often during his tenure in office, he is to make a visit to Rome to venerate the tombs of apostles Peter and Paul and present himself to the successor of Saint Peter in primacy over the entire Church.

§1 likely offends, though it can be interpreted in an ecumenically acceptable manner -- like Title 3, it ought to be rewritten in terms derived from the ongoing dialogues with the non-Catholic Eastern communions. §2 need not offend, provided respect is shown for how Eucharistic communion is expressed in each liturgical tradition. §3 should be reworked, drawing for example on the document of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches "The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and its Implications for our Search for Communion Today."

Pilgrimages to Rome are good, even of whole hierarchies together, as is done by Catholic bishops in their ad limina visits. Frequent contacts with the See of Rome and the different dicasteries of the Roman Curia are good. But the requirement in can. 92 §3 to visit and to submit a regular report to the Roman Pontiff does not reflect the dignity of the patriarchal Churches. If any requirement is needed to foster communication and preserve communion, that of can. 76 §2 should suffice -- that a newly enthroned patriarch "must as soon as possible request ecclesiastical communion from the Roman Pontiff by means of a letter." Can. 76 §1 requires of a newly enthroned patriarch a "profession of faith...according to the approved formulas" shared "by means of a synodal letter." Perhaps these synodal letters could go beyond approved formulas and serve as a means to present concerns and even to address points of tension among the Churches.

Other questionable prerogatives include the rights of the Roman Pontiff to be consulted before a holy synod accepts the resignation of a patriarch or to accept his resignation directly (can. 126 §2), to issue instructions for various circumstances during the vacancy of a patriarchal see (can. 128), and to appoint an extraterritorial bishop of a patriarchal Church from a list of three candidates proposed by her holy synod (can. 149). All of these seem to me to call for further discussion and negotiation. For example, can. 149, if maintained, could become reciprocal, so that Rome would propose to a patriarch a list of three candidates for appointment within the territory of his patriarchal Church.

Finally, I will list the canons of Title 4 of the CCOE that seem to me most offensive to Eastern Christianity:

  • Can. 67 standardizes the procedure for patriarchal elections, given in cann. 947-957, with "every contrary custom being reprobated" -- thereby forbidding the Eastern Catholic Churches to develop particular law reflective of their own traditions to govern their own patriarchal elections.
  • Can. 72 §2 allows the Roman Pontiff to appoint a patriarch if a patriarchal election is unsuccessful after fifteen days.
  • Can. 77 §2 forbids a patriarch to convoke a synod or ordain bishops before he receives ecclesiastical communion from the Roman Pontiff -- thereby preventing him from first addressing tensions between his Church and the See of Rome through a synod, so that his Church might come together to petition for communion with Rome.
  • Can. 95 §2 requires patriarchs, after a warning without effect, to defer cases of disobedient bishops to the Roman Pontiff.

These seem most to violate the dignity and integrity of the Eastern Churches.

Title 5 addresses the major archepiscopal Churches. Because the title of "major archbishop" does not appear among the non-Catholic Eastern Churches, this section could instead come to address non-patriarchal autocephalous Churches. For example, can. 151 could read: "An archbishop-primate or metropolitan-primate is the metropolitan who presides over an entire autocephalous Eastern Church not endowed with the patriarchal title." Can. 152 applies all the canons of Title 4 to these Churches. Can. 153 requires Rome's confirmation of primatial elections -- because no analogous requirement appears among the non-Catholic Eastern communions, can. 153 could be abrogated. Finally, can. 154 addresses precedence like can. 59; perhaps it could likewise come to list explicitly the order of precedence among the autocephalous Churches of all four communions, e.g. the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, etc.

Title 6 addresses Eastern Catholic Churches of metropolitanate or lesser status. For two reasons, I will not comment on the individual canons of Title 6. First, many of the issues addressed above reappear here and in subsequent sections. Second, I assume that all the Eastern Catholic Churches will someday integrate with, or else come to be understood as, autocephalous Churches governed by Titles 4 or 5. Title 6 could be interpreted as relevant to another ecclesiastical structure in the non-Catholic Eastern communions today: the autonomous Church -- a local Church that operates under her own holy synod but remains part of a larger autocephalous Church. However, the autonomous Churches today are each governed by their own customs or particular law.

Title 7 addresses bishops and eparchies generally. Here too the issues above repeat. So, to bring my commentary to a close, I will consider just one series of canons in Title 7 that is frequently referenced in earlier sections: cann. 182-187, which concern episcopal elections. Like the canons of Title 4, these ascribe several prerogatives to the Roman Pontiff, some of which seem acceptable from an Eastern perspective and some of which do not. The former include the rights of the Roman Pontiff to be notified when a candidate for the episcopate accepts his election (can. 184 §2) and to be consulted before a patriarch conducts an episcopal election by letter (can. 186 §1). Unacceptable are the requirements of Rome's consent for all episcopal candidates (cann. 182 §§3-4, 184 §1, and 185), to defer to Rome unsuccessful episcopal elections (can 186 §3), and of a promise of obedience to the Roman Pontiff before episcopal ordination (can. 187 §2). This last prerogative could admit of an ecumenically acceptable interpretation but ought to be rewritten in new terms, like Title 3 and can. 92.

At this point, we've reviewed about a tenth of the CCOE. While objections may be raised against the CCOE altogether, I hope to have exhibited a method for sorting through its more and less objectionable elements and to have picked out the canons most appropriately identified with the final meaning of "uniatism," i.e. as the canonical concretization of excessively Roman ecclesiology -- (vii) above.

Conclusion: Responding to Patriarch Awa

When Patriarch Awa spoke in December against the reunification of the Assyrian and Chaldean Churches, he used the word "uniatism" in multiple senses. First, he referenced the historical schism of 1552, similar to the Balamand Statement. Because he spoke of a "total rejection," he seems to have had in mind the first concept of "uniatism" examined above: uniatism as proselytism (i).

Then, Patriarch Awa spoke of "Patriarch Sako's proposal," which, he said, "does not seem feasible," due to a requirement of "hierarchal communion with the Pope." Certainly, he does not object to communion with the Pope of Rome, since this is the very goal of ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church. Instead, he seems here to have had in mind the last concept of "uniatism" examined above: the concretization in Eastern Catholic practice and canon law of an ecclesiology that places excessive emphasis on the See of Rome (vii).

Finally, Patriarch Awa proposes a renewal of ecclesiology, which by implication would contrast with the excessively Roman ecclesiology that he perceives among Chaldeans. The latter is the sixth concept of uniatism examined above. Patriarch Awa likely understands this tradition of ecclesiology (vi) as having given rise to the proselytism of the 16th century (i) and to the problems of the CCOE in the 20th (vii).

Thankfully, the Catholic Church, in agreement with the Assyrian Church of the East, explicitly rejects (i). And all three dialogues with the non-Catholic Eastern communions are seeking to clarify, or to bring balance to, or to correct the excesses of, (vi). It remains then for Chaldeans, and Eastern Catholics generally, to take up the task of correcting (vii), insofar as this can be done before the formal dialogues have produced definitive agreements. In the foregoing section, I have sought to identify the canons with which gradual, incremental reforms of the CCOE might begin.

Until he can have a sense of what ecclesial life in communion with Rome will be like, Patriarch Awa is probably right to balk at the proposal of Patriarch Sako. The integration of divided hierarchies is the last step in the healing of schism. Before then, when unity in faith has been recognized by both sides, despite their different expressions, and when the faithful are prepared, Assyrians and Chaldeans (and other Catholics as well) can advance to unrestricted sacramental sharing among the laity. At the same time or maybe soon thereafter, they can also permit unrestricted concelebration of sacraments by the clergy. But then there will likely still remain many details of common ecclesial life to sort out. Even if the CCOE is to be abrogated upon the integration of divided hierarchies, integration cannot happen if one party distrusts the habits of mind and ecclesiastical style of the other. Therefore, these must undergo reform, beginning even now.

Patriarch Awa has written of the need for "a common ecclesial spirit." To achieve this, Assyrians and Chaldeans will have to overcome the uniatism of Latinized practice and canon law (vii), on the one hand, and to avoid a "reverse uniatism" that subordinates Chaldeans to Assyrians (v), of which Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk has spoken, on the other hand. The process will be demanding, but once Assyrians and Chaldeans have achieved a common sense of their ecclesial home then the proposal of Patriarch Sako that appears to Patriarch Awa to be infeasible at present will then appear to all to be feasible, obvious, and necessary.

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