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Detours on the Road to Unity

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Once upon a time, there used to be just one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the course of the centuries, because of misunderstandings of language and customs, because of personal rivalries and jealousies, because of political pressures and violence and because of God knows how many other factors, the one Church became divided.

Truly, no Christian is happy about the divisions.

Over the years there have been a variety of attempts to resolve them, especially as regards the divisions between the churches of the East and of the West.

During the last four centuries, some Christian communities decided to unite with Rome, even at the price of breaking communion with their mother churches.

In those days the choice seemed to have been either “us” or “them.” Ecclesiology, or understanding of church, in the West tended to portray the divisions of the Church like the separation of branches from the trunk of the tree or like the separation of stray sheep from the body of the flock.

The Eastern Christian communities that opted for full union with the Church of Rome and placed themselves under her authority, are now the Eastern Catholic churches, or “uniate” churches, as some call them.

Since these churches were organized, ecclesiology has developed and the understanding of the nature of the Church has evolved in both West and East.

After Vatican Council II, the image of church as a family or as a communion of disciples became more prominent. Also, union came to be seen, not so much as a “yes” or “no” situation, but as a matter of degrees and as a growing process.

Now, we speak less of who is right and who is wrong and more of how we can all live in peace and communion, one Christian family, together.

The challenge of East-West Christian unity has become three-way: among the church of the West (the Roman Catholics), the Church of the East (the Orthodox) and the Eastern Catholic churches in union with Rome.

How does each church live and grow without offending or impeding the other? There’s need for a delicate balance.

On 23 June 1993, the joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, meeting in Balamand, Lebanon, issued a striking statement addressing this task: “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion.”

Honestly analyzing the past in the light of our shared faith, it calls for a rejection of “uniatism” as an outdated method for the attainment of unity, for the recognition of the legitimacy and rights of the existing Eastern Catholic churches and for the exclusion of all proselytism and all desire for expansion by Catholics at the expense of the Orthodox Church.

Of course, we’ve known the right method to attain Christian unity all along: Love one another as I have loved you.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Unity Catholic Eastern Christianity Catholic-Orthodox relations