New Challenges for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

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

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In late 1989, Christians throughout the world were astonished at events that dramatically changed the face of central and eastern Europe. With the demise of communism, Christians eagerly awaited the revitalization of the long-suffering Soviet bloc churches.

After the fall of the Soviet empire, it became clear that the communist persecutions made it difficult for the various Christian bodies to live together peacefully – communism homogenized and suppressed in order to conquer.

The re-emergence of the Byzantine (also known as Greek) Catholic churches witnessed the renewal of age-old disputes with the larger Orthodox Church; disputes formerly suppressed by the communists. These feuds remain unresolved.

The contemporary Eastern Catholic churches were formed after the collapse of the “union” achieved between the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the Council of Florence in 1439.

During the Catholic Reformation (formerly called the Counter-Reformation) in the 16th century, the Catholic Church developed a vigorous theology of the papacy that questioned the ecclesial reality of those churches not in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

This provided the basis for sending Catholic missionaries to convert the Orthodox. Upon conversion, the neophytes would be allowed to retain their liturgy and other traditions on the condition that they accepted the agreement signed at Florence.

Some individuals were persuaded. Once these converts formed a community of sufficient size, a Catholic bishop would be provided. More often than not, entire Orthodox eparchies (dioceses) were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. This method of achieving union between Catholics and Orthodox is known today as uniatism.

The two largest churches that resulted from this policy are in modern Ukraine and Romania. These two churches were formed when unions were agreed upon between Rome and the Orthodox ecclesiastical provinces of Brest in 1595-6 (modern Ukraine) and Alba Iulia, Transylvania, in 1700 (modern Romania).

These two union movements have striking similarities: they took place in areas under the control of the Catholic Austrian Empire, whose leaders provided political and economic incentives for their Orthodox subjects to convert; the Orthodox sought to buttress themselves against the spread of the Protestant Reformation; and Catholic missionaries (primarily Jesuit) had labored for some time before the unions were consummated. In both cases there was violent resistance to the unions.

Subsequently the Russian tsars – staunch defenders of Orthodoxy – reasserted their control of what is now Ukraine. All forms of Eastern Catholicism within the Russian Empire were suppressed. The Ukrainian Catholic Church survived only in the province of Galicia, which had never been under Russian control (it passed from Polish to Austrian hands in 1772, and back to Poland at the end of World War I). After World War II, the province was annexed by the Soviet Union.

The Romanian Catholic Church had existed only in the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania until it was unified with Romania at the end of World War I. After the war Romania’s Byzantine Catholics found themselves within a predominantly Orthodox state for the first time.

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Tags: Ukraine Eastern Christianity Communism/Communist Catholic-Orthodox relations Romania