Relations of the Orthodox Church with “Uniates”

A Plea for Removing One More Skandalon in an Increasingly Scandalized World

by Very Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza

Allow me to begin by suggesting that today’s “new circumstances and challenges” referenced in the Draft Document “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” (par. 24) require a radical kenosis among Christians. The rapid rejection of Christ’s truth in the West, and the equally widespread secularization of the educated classes in the East, demand a new commitment to “modeling the new man in Christ” (cf. par. 23).  This “new man in Christ” blesses those who curse him and does good to those who hate him (cf. Mathew 5:44). This kind of love shatters secularism’s self-assuredness.

In 1987, the Primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, publicly asked forgiveness of the Russian Orthodox Church in the following words: “Following the Spirit of Christ, we extend our hand of forgiveness, reconciliation and love to the Russian nation and the Moscow Patriarchate. We repeat the words of Christ that we spoke during our act of reconciliation with the Polish nation: ‘Forgive us, as we forgive’ (Matthew 6:12).” Unfortunately, this gesture has remained unanswered to the present day. Can Orthodox and “Uniates” not begin a new era of relations by having their Protohierarchs send – and respond to – such letters on a regular basis?  

The present Primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has continued his predecessor’s legacy. Contrary to some perceptions, he welcomed the recent meeting of Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis  The concerns he expressed related only to the phrasing of three paragraphs of the otherwise superb Havana Statement (pars. 25, 26 and 27). These presented a distorted interpretation of the situation in Ukraine, and belittled the ecclesial status of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Statement referred to them as “ecclesial communities,” a term in Catholic parlance reserved for Protestants. Moreover, the fact that Greco-Catholics were informed of their “right to exist” (par. 25) was viewed as a patronizing concession to what is actually a Church of true martyrs. In any case, the Balamand Agreed Statement had already asserted this right almost 25 years ago. Notwithstanding this, Ukrainian Greco-Catholic hierarchs sincerely hope to see encounters like the Havana Meeting occur more often – and at different levels – so that each successive gathering might bring the participants closer to the Truth.

Recent history provides striking examples of Orthodox-Eastern Catholic rapprochement. In the mid-1960s Patriarch Athenagoras declared to Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, that the latter had “spoken for the Orthodox” at Vatican II. In the USA, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School welcomed Melkite Greek Catholic seminarians for years – with wonderful results evident to all. In Canada, the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies has hired not only a long list of Orthodox scholars as adjunct faculty, but was blessed to have the current chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America as a full-time, tenured professor. Finally, the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv frequently hosts presentations by scholars of the Moscow Patriarchate, and hires lecturers of various Orthodox Churches.

Eastern Catholics understand the sense of vulnerability that prevents many Orthodox from reciprocating such gestures. However, in the meantime, we hope for at least a change in attitude among those Orthodox who continue to view Eastern Catholics as either “traitors to Orthodoxy,” or “heretics.” The question of “treason” is too broad to be discussed here. However, as regards “heresy,” it is odd that while Eastern Catholics accept the same teachings as Roman Catholics, they are frequently treated with far greater disdain.

In any case, more Orthodox need to understand the reasons that so many Eastern Catholics remain Catholic. In part, at least, it relates to some of the unresolved issues that continue to generate division within Orthodoxy. Eastern Catholics have found them resolved as a result of union with Rome – imperfect as that union has been. Jurisdictional strife, for example, is essentially absent from Eastern Catholicism. Also, the ethno-phyletism that plagues parts of Orthodoxy is challenged by communion with a universal primate. Of course, Eastern Catholics can be just as guilty of the same ethno-phyletism (though, ironically, its proponents within Eastern Catholicism insist that they simply want a “national Church” – “just like the Orthodox”). However, as culpable as Eastern Catholics may be of this ecclesiological heresy, they nonetheless recognize the right of the Bishop of Rome to reprove and/or discipline Catholic leaders who would foment or tolerate nationalist hatred. And while the Pope’s admonitions may not always be heard, no one in the Catholic Church questions his right to exercise universal primacy in this way. These problems are not adduced here to point to “Orthodox failings.” They are only mentioned to illustrate why even those Eastern Catholics who passionately love Orthodoxy remain Catholic.

In conclusion, two concrete initiatives for strengthening the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3) – and thus removing hindrances to the gospel – seem quite feasible:

  1. The creation of an international theological dialogue involving official representatives of the Byzantine Catholic (or, Greek Catholic) Churches on the one hand, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches on the other. Presently, the Eastern Catholics who participate in the International Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue do so as delegates of the Vatican – not their own Synods. In any case, theological meetings of Eastern Orthodox and Catholics of the Byzantine tradition would facilitate focused discussions of issues particularly germane to these Churches. Such a dialogue could develop, for example, a common historiography of the 1946 Pseudo-Synod of Lviv. Some of the same Orthodox who appropriately decry proselytism continue to champion the Synod as a legitimate “return to Orthodoxy.”
  1. The publication by the Holy and Great Council – or a subsequent Conciliar commission – of theological and practical principles for Orthodox relations with Eastern Catholics. Naturally, different regions will adapt these principles according to diverse sensibilities. But certain uncharitable attitudes and behaviors, witnessed occasionally even in North America, would hopefully be declared unacceptable.

Finally, to end where we began: The concluding paragraph of the Draft Document reads: “The Orthodox Church is aware of the fact that the movement for the restoration of Christian unity takes new forms in response to new circumstances and new challenges” (par. 24). In the present circumstances of global strife and antipathy towards our Churches, truly committed Christians within Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy will “cleanse out the old leaven… the leaven of malice” and become new dough heated by the Holy Spirit so that we might again celebrate together “in sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).

Archpriest Peter Galadza is Kule Family Professor of Liturgy and Acting Director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

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