Gathered for their ad limina, Eastern Catholic bishops from the U.S. were addressed last week by Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri. His injunction”made not about abortion, the HHS mandate, war, wealth redistribution, or gay marriage”could have a critical influence on the Christian response to all of the above.

Among the Cardinal’s remarks was a tersely reiterated expectation of celibacy for priests serving the Eastern Catholic Churches in diaspora ”in this case the U.S. The message may not have been carried directly from the hand of Benedict but the effect has been unpleasant to say the least.

Enter Thomas Loya, a Ruthenian Catholic priest of the Parma Ohio Eparchy, writing his eparch in response.

In addition to being chillingly reminiscent of the demeaning attitude of the Latin Rite bishops toward the Eastern Catholic Churches during the beginning of the last century in America, the Cardinal’s remarks about celibacy seem to confirm what so many Eastern Catholics in America have suspected for too long: Rome and the Latin Rite see the Eastern Catholic Churches in America as essentially inconsequential, perhaps even in the way of ecumenism between Rome and the Orthodox Churches.

The chilling reminiscence refers, in part, to an exercise in aberrant ecclesiology”more a power play”engineered by Archbishop John Ireland that resulted in an entire body of U.S. Eastern Catholics breaking communion with Rome.

I’m not about to jump into the trenches on the issue of celibacy (I would rather the comments box not turn into a Mixed Martial Arts cage). I’ll simply repeat the known fact that celibacy it is not a dogma of the Church but a discipline, and that its normative status in the Latin Church is not of ancient provenance. Moreover, Loya’s point is not about celibacy per se but ecclesial integrity and mutual respect.

What moves us onto this more sensitive landscape is his suggestion that Rome views the Eastern Catholic churches as “in the way” of relations between itself and the Orthodox Churches. I can certainly see why it would occur to him and he’s not the first to say it. For centuries, the existence of the so-called Uniate Churches has been a vexed point in those relations.

But I wonder how much help he can realistically expect from the Eastern hierarchs. Too many Eastern Catholic bishops behave as though their mandate actually is to allow their Churches to die a slow, palliated death.

If Loya is correct, it’s difficult to see how Cardinal Sandri’s words advance the ecumenical agenda. In fact, it would seem to do the reverse. For, what possible inducement to deepening trust could the Orthodox find in Rome’s insistence that Eastern Churches compromise their traditions the moment they hit the customs line at JFK?

This is, at best, a very mixed signal. When added to other actions, however, it can begin to seem otherwise.

In terms of impeding the cause of reunion, perhaps the most inexplicable move in recent years was Rome’s decision suddenly to drop the title “Patriarch of the West” from the list of papal honorifics in the 2006 Annuario Pontificio.

As Adam DeVille points out in his superb, Orthodoxy and the Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, of all the titles claimed for the Pope, it is the office of Patriarch that is most meaningful to the Orthodox. It is the one most serious ecumenists agree holds the greatest potential to serve as a model for the “new situation” John Paul II invited all Christians to help him imagine and make real .

The practical stakes of this are high. As Loya goes on to say,

The Eastern Catholic Churches, and in particular the Ruthenian Church, are actually in a position to indeed supply what is lacking in the whole Church in America and to confront secular society with a type of vocabulary and spirituality that we alone can bring to the war on secularism and moral relativism. It seems that Rome understands none of this about us.

I’m not sure why he feels the Ruthenian Church is in the particular position he describes. I also wish he hadn’t chosen to depict the resistance to secularism as war. But, those are fairly minor points. Fr. Loya is doing something important by addressing the tip that reveals the presence of an iceberg”something I earlier suggested could and should have a critical influence on the Christian response to our myriad problems.

Others have suggested, as have I, that a quantum leap in cooperation between the Roman and Orthodox Catholic Churches is indispensable to the cause of revitalizing a Western culture suffering as a result of its repudiation of or indifference to the treasure of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Given how things have unfolded in the reformed churches over the last fifty or so years, it is imperative that Rome and its sister churches of the East do all within the scope of their human power to rise to this challenge.

Fr Loya is to be commended on his appeal for ecclesial integrity and mutual respect. They are not easy to come by. The historical and political obstacles are formidable, as those laboring in this cause well know. But without them the world will continue to be deprived of the fullness of the Body of Christ. And we will continue struggling in a sea of resentment, instead of rejoicing beside the sea of glass.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things .

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