By Jackie Morfesis
Greek Catholic. Byzantine Catholic. Eastern Rite Catholic. By now, every Orthodox Christian should be familiar with this terminology. But are we familiar with why traditionally Orthodox Christians would become Eastern Rite Catholics? Why anyone would?
I was personally aware of the answer to this question, but it was dramatically confirmed in the year 2000, when I visited Rome, Italy. It happened to be the year of the Roman Catholic celebration of two-thousand years of Christianity, the “Great Jubilee.” This was the year when Pope John Paul the II gave his famous Mea Culpa. His Mea Culpa for all the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church through the centuries. Including against Jews, women, Muslims, indigenous peoples, for the Crusades, including the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, and the Inquisition. Near one hundred apologies were made during the reign of Pope John Paul II. Among them? The subversive tactic of going into traditionally Orthodox countries and converting Christians to “Eastern Rite Catholics.”
Let us unpack the reasoning. Is it because good meaning Catholic missionaries want to save souls? Highly unlikely, given that they are converting those who are already “saved.” Then again, Pope Pius IX stated that “No one can be saved outside the Catholic Church” in his encyclical letter of 1863. But there is another possible reason, a very concerning reason. Eastern Rite Catholics are in full communion with the Roman Apostolic See and with the Roman Catholic Church. They are under papal authority and are dues-paying Catholics.
We know that Jesus paid the ultimate price for our redemption. “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Given that the Catholic Church is deemed to be if not the wealthiest institution in the world, including land and property owner, this makes this practice all the more troubling. Not only is the Catholic Church’s wealth estimated to be in the billions, but many also estimate it to be in the trillions.
This practice of the Catholic Church traces back to the 1400s when Catholic missionaries, many of the monastic orders (Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Capuchins) began their crusade for reunification of Catholics and Orthodox. As if the Orthodox left? The Orthodox remained the Early Church. We did not need at that time, nor do we need at this time to be reunified to anyone. Nor reunited. Nor brought back into communion. We never left communion.
I was reminded of this thorn in the side of Orthodox-Catholic relations because retired Pope Francis was recently interviewed in an article published in the National Catholic Register – “Pope Francis Discusses Revising Priestly Celibacy.” It was not so much the debate about celibacy that interested me, but the language he used in his interview: “Eastern Catholic priests”, “The Catholic Church in the Eastern Rites.” Think for one moment, if the Orthodox church did what the Catholic Church has done. Since they have Eastern Rite Catholics – should we have Western Rite Orthodox? So that former Catholics can pay dues to the Orthodox church?
I am not being cynical. Nor overly critical. I am being honest. Pope John Paul II apologized for a reason. Apologies are made based upon fact, are an admission of wrongdoing, and an honest attempt to redress and heal a wrong. Spiritually they are an appeal for forgiveness. However, as in many of the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church through the centuries, apologies are worthless if one keeps committing the same sin over and over. We often cite the scripture when our Lord says: “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). However, very few follow with the rest of the scripture when our Lord says: “Sin no more.”
We should also all be aware of the movement to unite the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches supported by Patriarch Bartholomew and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros. In the year, 2025, according to our respective calendars, we will celebrate Easter together. Powers that be not only hope but are working towards the Orthodox Church and Catholic Church no longer observing Easter on different days. As per the Nicene Creed, we are “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” However, “catholic” in this context is not referring to the Roman Catholic Church. It is referring to “catholic” meaning universal. The Roman Catholic Church believes this only applies to them.
Certainly, the origin, growth, and propagation of Eastern Rite Catholics is not a simple evolution, and I am by no means putting the full blame on the Catholic Church. Those who choose to convert are also responsible. But let us be honest – encouraging, tempting, and coercing others to do something against their own good judgment with the promise of reward, support, or benefit is not the type of seed we want to plant in anyone’s heart. Given the fact that Eastern Rite Catholics are permitted to retain their iconography, liturgy, and other meaningful aspects of worship – it is evidence that this conversion is subversive.
I guarantee if the day ever comes when the Orthodox Church has become Roman Catholic – and under papal authority, that will be the day that I convert to another Christian denomination. To be clear, I am not speaking to the Catholic faithful. Nor am I against, have prejudice, or am discriminatory against the Catholic Church or any other Christian denomination.
But, I personally will not be in communion with a church that was responsible for the warring Crusades and the evil tortures of the Inquisition. And centuries of institutional and systemic emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and cruelty against innocent children in their schools and churches by Catholic clergy, nuns, and teachers. Including acts committed by and protected by the hierarchy of the Catholic church all the way to the Vatican doors. By the way, reports of abuse are still occurring, and lawsuits and settlements are still being litigated. “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). Pope John Paul II’s first public apology for the clergy sex-abuse was in 2001 via email.
Not only is there water under the bridge between the Orthodox and Catholics, there are some very serious issues practical, ecclesiastical, and hierarchical, that deserve deep and thoughtful consideration. I am well aware that as Christians we are “one body in Christ”, however, not only in regard to the Roman Catholic Church but other denominations, our views, understanding, and practice of the faith can be widely divergent. Again, this is not personal to the Catholic faithful nor even an indictment against the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, it is a topic that deserves deep reflection and thoughtful prayer.