Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Corporeal Christendom

It is not very well known, even among Catholics, that the word 'Roman' in 'Roman Catholic' is a modifier describing a rite and not an entire Church. The word 'Catholic', of course, does mean 'universal', but there is more to the universal church than the Roman rite.
When Christ founded His Church, He commissioned the apostles to go out into the world to preach and baptize. Most Catholics are familiar with the founding of the see of Rome by Peter. The primacy of that Church was sealed with the blood of Peter and Paul, and the succession of bishops continues to the present day. What many do not know is that the other apostles themselves founded churches, and that their own successions of bishops continue as well. As presently defined, there are 24 Catholic Churches that can be grouped into eight different rites. A rite is a liturgical, theological, spiritual, and disciplinary patrimony of a distinct people manifested in a Church. While each Catholic Church may have its own rite or customs, in general, there are only eight major rites. History, language, misunderstandings, nationalism, and basic human weakness have resulted in the current communion of 24 Churches. With a few exceptions, the Eastern Catholic Churches result from incomplete reunions with the Orthodox Churches. In those instances, large numbers of bishops and faithful of the Orthodox mother Churches either held back or later rejected union with Rome. Today, many Orthodox are fearful of losing their distinct traditions in a world dominated by the Latin Church. Making matters worse, some of the Eastern Catholic Churches have adopted Latin customs and haven’t been very good examples of how union with Rome should work. This is tragic, since the traditions of these Churches are themselves apostolic and help preserve the catholicity of the Church with their own unique development of the gospel message. For example, unlike a good Latin parish, in a traditional Eastern Catholic parish you won’t find musical instruments, statues, rosaries, or stations of the cross. Indeed, the priest may well have a wife and children, and the church might be without pews or kneelers. In some circumstances, even the Bible might have a larger canon and include Third and Fourth Maccabees. Unity does not mean uniformity.
This brings up an interesting point, in that being Catholic needn't mean dressing and doing as the Roman Church does. It does mean holding to a uniform doctrine. That's why talks about re-union in the Church usually involve the remaining eastern churches and not the Protestant Churches that dominate North America. Those Churches have doctrine that ranges from close to a long ways off, thanks to the free reign given to creative theology students by the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. This corporate organization has not always worked as well as it ought to have, as the story of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church shows:
The first Christians in India were evangelized by the apostle Thomas in what is now the state of Kerala. For most of their history, they were in communion with the Chaldean-Assyrian Church. Indian Christians first encountered the Portuguese in 1498, when they warmly received the representatives of the Church of Rome, whose special status they continued to acknowledge despite long isolation. Sadly, the Portuguese didn’t initially accept the legitimacy of the Malabar Church, and in 1599, Latinizations were imposed—appointments of Portuguese bishops, changes in the liturgy, Roman vestments, clerical celibacy, and the Inquisition. In 1653, after years of bitterness and tension, most Indian Christians severed their union with Rome. Alarmed, Pope Alexander VII sent Carmelites to India to repair the situation, and most of the Christians eventually returned to full communion with the Catholic Church. In 1934, Pope Pius XI initiated a process of liturgical reform to restore the historic Syriac nature of the Latinized Syro-Malabar Church. Unfortunately, tension with the Latin Church remains over the establishment of Syro-Malabar jurisdictions in other parts of India where Latin dioceses already exist.
These churches have always been defined as a 'people' and have had close ties to the land and the culture in which they find themselves. Reading over this interesting article, I wondered if this is an essential feature or not. The question arises because I wonder if western Catholics, currently served by the Roman Church, could regain some of their separated brothers by allowing another rite in the region. Could that address some of the complaints we hear about the supposed 'need' for married clergy or a looser, more spontaneous church culture? A rite like that has no appeal for me, but getting people to get their doctrine right is a big carrot, is it not? The principle that their worship can take different forms seems well established. Then there's this little tidbit:
the London Times reported that, behind the scenes, Vatican authorities had been corresponding with the Traditional Anglican Communion inside the Church of England, discussing the possible formation of an Anglican-rite body in communion with Rome. This network claims the loyalty of more than 400,000 Anglicans around the world and perhaps 500 parishes. Who was the key Vatican official behind these talks? According to Archbishop John Hepworth of Australia, it was Cardinal Ratzinger.
Interesting, no? A point form outline / history of Catholic - Anglican talks is here. Talks continue.

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