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The Catholic Eastern Churches

The split between the Latin and Byzantine churches, which had been symbolized by the mutual excommunications of Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Ugo da Silva Candida in 1054, became definitive in the minds of the common people in the east after the Crusades and the sacking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204. Attempts at reunion took place at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-1439, but neither was successful.

Subsequently, a Roman Catholic theology of the Church continued to develop which vigorously emphasized the necessity of the direct jurisdiction of the Pope over all the local churches. This implied that churches not under the Pope’s jurisdiction could be considered objects of missionary activity for the purpose of bringing them into communion with the Catholic Church. At the same time, the notion of “rite” developed, according to which groups of eastern Christians who came into union with Rome would be absorbed into the single Church, but allowed to maintain their own liturgical tradition and canonical discipline.

This missionary activity, which was sometimes carried out with the support of Catholic governments of countries with Orthodox minorities, was directed towards all the eastern churches. Eventually segments of virtually all of these churches came into union with Rome. It should be recognized, however, that not all these unions were the result of the activity of Catholic missionaries. The Bulgarian Byzantine Catholic Church, for example, was the direct result of a spontaneous movement of Orthodox towards Rome. And the Maronites in Lebanon claim never to have been out of communion with the Roman Church.

Inevitably, these unions resulted in a process of latinization, or the adoption of certain practices and attitudes proper to the Latin Church, to a certain degree, depending on the circumstances of the group. As a result, these churches sometimes lost contact with their spiritual roots. The monastic tradition, so central to Orthodox spirituality, died out in most of the Eastern Catholic churches, although religious life often continued in the form of congregations modeled on Latin apostolic communities. Since the Second Vatican Council, efforts have been made to reverse this process.

All of these churches come under the jurisdiction of the Pope through the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, one of the offices of the Roman Curia. It was created in 1862 as part of the Propaganda Fide (which oversaw the church’s missionary activity), and was made an autonomous Congregation by Benedict XV in 1917. It has the same role with regard to bishops, clergy, religious, and the faithful in the Eastern Catholic churches that other offices of the Curia have in relation to the Latin church.

The Oriental Congregation also oversees the prestigious Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, which is under the direction of the Jesuits and has one of the best libraries for eastern Christian studies in the world.

It should be mentioned that in the past the Eastern Catholic churches were often referred to as “Uniate” churches. Since the term is now considered derogatory, it is no longer used.

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