Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Catholic But Not Roman

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I am guessing that as you read the title of this post you thought that I meant Christians of other traditions like Protestants or the Orthodox. However, I am merely speaking of Catholics who are not Roman – Catholics who do not belong to the Roman Rite. I haven’t conducted a survey but I am probably right in saying that the vast majority of Catholics in the West are not aware of the fact that there are six major rites in the Catholic church that are broken down further depending on the areas of the world in which they are found: Roman, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine. Catholics belonging to any of these rites are equally Catholic. 

A few years ago I happened to interview a Hindu priest who explained to me the difference between Hinduism and (what he called) “western religions.” Over the years, I have meditated quite a lot on this priest’s comments. I find them to be at once enlightening and disturbing. Is Christianity - is Catholicism - a western religion? 

While the Roman Rite is the largest rite in the Catholic Church, I believe that those of us who live in the West must not forget about the other rites, some of which exist in countries of the world like Iraq in which churches are bombed and Christians are tortured for their faith. The word “catholic” means universal – not just Western. There is always a tendency for people to divide up the globe and assign different religions to different parts of the world, but Christ has called all people, not just those in the West. When we fail to recognize the rites in the East we send a message to non-Christians that Christianity is a Western religion and thus not appropriate for the East. But, as the great Episcopalian hymn proclaims, “In Christ there is no East or West,/ In Him no South or North;/But one great fellowship of love/Throughout the whole wide earth.” After all, the first Christians lived in Jerusalem, a city of the near east.

The Second Vatican Council is responsible for many reforms in the Catholic Church, but one reform that is often overlooked in the West dealt with the relationship between the West and the East, not just between Catholics and the Orthodox but between Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics. Many non-Catholic Christians find Saint Cyprian’s statement  “Outside the Church there is no salvation” (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus) to be quite offensive when referring only to the Catholic Church as the one True Church in which all must belong to be saved. But, the old interpretation of this statement was even more offensive. Often, Catholics were taught that outside of the Roman Church there was no salvation. In other words, Catholics who did not belong to the Roman Rite were either completely ignored or else were considered inferior Catholics. During the council, the Melchite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh spoke on behalf of all Eastern Catholics, reminding Rome that while he was Catholic he was not Roman. Participating in a council where all the prelates spoke Latin, the Melchite Patriarch,however, spoke French.  Latin is not the language of the Catholic Church but the language of the Roman Rite. The patriarch wanted the Church to recognize the East because the Orthodox would never consider unity with Catholics if they had to become Roman. Largely because of Maximos IV, today there are even Eastern rite Cardinals in the Church. 

It may surprise you (at least it surprises me) that there have been Eastern rite popes in the past. But for so many centuries this has not been the case. Is it possible, though, to have an Eastern rite pope today? After all, the pope is also the Bishop of Rome. What does that mean for the East? I have only started learning recently about the Eastern rites. Does anyone know whether an Eastern rite Catholic could be pope? If the pope has to be the Bishop of Rome as well, would an Eastern pope be allowed to celebrate mass in his own rite or would he have to celebrate mass in the Latin rite? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


  1. Good post Carnival. I think there are many Western Catholics who aren't aware of these Eastern Rites.

    I'm an Eastern Rite Catholic myself. The tradition in the part of India I come from is that St Thomas, Christ's apostle, came there in 52AD and converted some of the locals, thus establishing the church there. We got our bishops from Mesopotamia for a long time. Then later when the Portuguese missionaries came they wanted to Latinize everything. This caused quite a lot of friction and led to splits in the once united Christian community. Around two thirds of the people did accept the authority of Rome but the others did not. In the 20th century, however, Rome finally stopped the process of Latinization and began to recognize Eastern liturgies.

    Whenever the Catholic Church has insisted on the use of Latin, especially outside of Europe, it has only driven people away from the Church. I'm glad that after the Second Vatican Council Rome has become more comfortable with vernacular masses. Since all languages are inventions of man, why should we confine ourselves to one particular language and regard just one as sacred? The Muslims think Arabic is sacred while Hindus think the same about Sanskrit.

    It would be nice if Catholics and the Orthodox would come together again one day. I think the differences in doctrines between the two are very small.

    I'm not sure if we will see another Eastern Rite pope for some time. But it would be nice!

  2. Interesting history. I had heard about the tradition that St. Thomas visited India. I have become quite fascinated with the Eastern Rites recently and am hoping to experience a Byzantine Divine Liturgy soon. I am glad that Catholics are recognizing more and more the Church's true catholicity.