underlying the quest for unity

What Divides Us

by Ronald G. Roberson, C.S.P.

In his 1985 encyclical, “Slavorum Apostoli,” Pope John Paul II wrote that all Christians should have an appreciation of the wide variety of traditions in the church, especially with regard to the two great Eastern and Western streams of Christianity:

For full catholicity, every nation, every culture has its own part to play in the universal plan of salvation. Every particular tradition, every local church must remain open and alert to the other churches and traditions and … to universal and catholic communion; were it to remain closed in on itself, it too would run the risk of becoming impoverished (n. 27).

Sadly, however, history shows how difficult it has been for Christians to see this diversity as an enrichment. Indeed, all too often, there seems to have been an expectation that there can be only one authentic way of being Christian and that differences should be suppressed for the sake of unity.

As a result of this history, the Eastern Christian world is now divided into four different groups: the Assyrian Church of the East, once called “Nestorian”; the family of Oriental Orthodox churches, once called “Monophysite”; the Orthodox churches, also referred to as “Eastern” Orthodox; and the Eastern Catholic churches, which are a part of the Catholic communion of churches in union with the bishop of Rome.

Each of these groups has its own distinctive characteristics and traditions. But in view of John Paul II’s encyclical, which of these characteristics and traditions should be taken as examples of legitimate diversity and which are so serious as to be “church-dividing”?

Because it formally adopted “Nestorian” Christology in the fifth century, the Assyrian Church of the East is not in full communion with any other church. Its relationship with the Oriental Orthodox churches is tense due to differences between them in the area of Christology. The Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East emphasizes the distinctiveness of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The Christology of the Oriental Orthodox emphasizes the unity of those same elements. Many Oriental Orthodox are so critical of the Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East that, a few years ago, they insisted it be expelled from the Middle East Council of Churches. These differences in Christology are without question church-dividing issues.

Relations with the Catholic Church, however, have been much more constructive. In 1994, Pope John Paul II and Church of the East Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV signed a Common Declaration, declaring that their Christological differences were not church-dividing, and that the distinctive traditions of each church are legitimate.

In 2001, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that the ancient Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, often used by the Church of the East, should be considered valid even though it does not contain an Institution Narrative (the part of the Eucharist when the priest repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper). This removed what some considered a theological obstacle to reconciliation between the two churches.

The only major issue dividing Assyrians and Catholics appears to be the role of the pope in the church.

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Tags: Christianity Unity Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Multiculturalism