Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Western Rite is Not "Reverse Uniatism"

One of the more challenging aspects of being Western Rite Orthodox is dealing with the number of misconceptions people harbor about the WR. One of these is that Western Rite Orthodox are merely "reverse Uniates." "Uniatism" is the process that created the Byzantine (or "Eastern Rite") Catholic Churches, hierarchies in communion with the Pope of Rome that formally accept Roman Catholic theology but retain their own liturgy and customs.

At first blush, the comparison of Western Orthodox with "Eastern" Catholics seems natural: both are minorities in a much larger church; both seek to preserve their liturgical patrimony from assimilation; both are often misunderstood by others in their church. However, these similarities mask a number of profound differences. This charge of "Reverse Uniatism," made by ethnic Orthodox and sometimes by Roman Catholic polemicists, is false for at least four reasons:
  • Western Rite Orthodoxy has never in any way influenced would-be converts with political, social, or economic considerations.
  • It did not bring the contemporary, unaltered liturgical practices of another communion into the Church.
  • It is not theologically distinct from "Eastern" Orthodoxy.
  • It does not believe it has a "unique role" or "special duty of promoting the unity of all Christians" beyond that enjoined upon all Christians.
It is worth examining each of these in some further detail.

Conversion Without Coercion
. The Orthodox Church's biggest complaint about Byzantine Catholic churches, both in their formation and today, is that these "proselytizing" bodies use economic, social, or political considerations to attract followers. Such factors played a driving role in the 1596 Union of Brest-Litovsk, which established a Byzantine Catholic Church in Ukraine. Polish royalty exerted pressure on the Orthodox to convert, and Jesuit missionaries emphasized the "political advantages which must accrue to the...Orthodox Church from union with Rome." Indeed, the Ukrainian bishops who petitioned Rome stated, "we have to do this for definite, serious reasons for harmony in the Christian republic [Poland] to avoid further confusion and discord." Internal church pressures also contributed to the decision. Thus, the "Uniates" came into subjection to the Papacy through a process that seems less rooted in theology than economics and politics. Moreover, according to the Orthodox, Eastern Catholics today offer educational benefits, reduced tuition, or less expensive medical care to their church members, a sore temptation for Orthodox to leave the Church.

Leaving aside the question of its propriety for the moment, let's conclude this is certainly unparalleled in the Western Rite. To put it mildly, Western Orthodox receive no financial, political, or social advancement as a result of joining the Church. There is not even a "Coming Home Network" job service for those wishing to join Orthodoxy (in either Rite). In fact, newly ordained Western Rite clergy often forfeit salaries, health insurance, ecclesiastical titles, or the respectability of their former country club colleagues for leaving well-to-do denominations and embracing the true Faith. As Christ said, "every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life" (St. Matt. 19:29). Though we pray fervently for blessings upon the Western Rite, its service remains a Way of the Cross, and we have nothing to offer those who undertake it but the purity of our faith and the fervor of our devotion.

Orthodox in Liturgy. When the Ukrainian bishops approached the Vatican in 1596, they demanded their "divine worship and all prayers and services of Orthros, Vespers, and the night services shall remain intact (without any change at all) for us according to the ancient custom of the Eastern Church" and that their Divine Liturgy be preserved "eternally the same and unchangeable." The promise was made, and the faithful were allowed to recite the Nicene Creed without filioque, ordain married priests, and celebrate their services as they always had. (This toleration was later abandoned, and intense latinization followed.) [1] Put another way, Eastern Rite Catholic practices were in no way different than Eastern Orthodox practices. In The Orthodox Church, Bp. KALLISTOS Ware wrote, "one wonders how far uneducated peasants in Little Russia understood what the quarrel was really about. Many of them, at any rate, explained the matter by saying that the Pope had now joined the Orthodox Church."

This cannot be said of the Western Rite, whose liturgical practices stand out from both the Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Mass and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. (Ironically, we are often criticized for this, as well.) Our Liturgy of St. Gregory preserves the ancient heritage of the Latin tradition, while the Liturgy of St. Tikhon (text file) conforms completely to the 1904 Russian Observations Upon the American Prayer Book. Neither are contemporaneous with the practices of a mainline denomination. [2] Moreover, even before Vatican II, the Liturgy of St. Gregory had been edited to conform to Orthodox guidelines (most notably, with the insertion of a descending epiclesis and additional Pre-Communion Prayers). The Mass is also typically offered in the vernacular. Though visitors would find a great deal of familiarity with certain elements and the overall structure of our Mass, no one could walk in off the street and see a mirror image of another denomination's service (unless that denomination has been imitating us!).

Orthodox in Theology. Although Byzantine Catholics must officially accept all the dogmas and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, there has always been an understanding that ByzCaths would "emphasize" their own, Eastern theology. Byzantine Catholics have discussed the tensions they often feel as a result.

Western Rite Orthodox do not have a unique or different approach to theology from our Eastern Orthodox brethren. While we look with understandable affection at forefathers like Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose of Milan, the Venerable Bede, and St. Peter Chrysologos, we also kneel at the feet of Sts. Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and John of Kronstadt. We differ in nothing. We are simply Orthodox Christians who worship according to an approved, Western liturgy that expresses both Orthodox theology and our Western heritage.

A Pillar, not a Bridge.
Eastern Rite Catholics long believed, as an Eastern church in the Roman Catholic communion, they enjoyed a special and "unique position" as a "bridge" to Orthodoxy. At its most hopeful and imaginative, this line of reasoning saw Byzantine Catholics as the first-fruits of a reunited Christendom, leading the way to undoing the Great Schism. More to the point, they often call themselves "Orthodox in communion with Rome," a phrase most misleading. However, this vision has since been abandoned by Roman Catholic hierarchy. More than a decade ago, The Balamand Statement declared flatly, "'uniatism' can no longer be a model of the unity our Churches are seeking."

At our most hopeful, Western Orthodox dream of whole denominations accepting the Orthodox faith in either of our Eastern or approved Western rites. We pray for it. Yet we do not see ourselves as a "bridge" to the Papacy. (He just never calls anymore.) And we certainly do not see ourselves as "Roman Catholics [or Anglicans, or Old Catholics] in communion with Orthodoxy." We are simply Orthodox, and our appeal to other denominations will come only when they, too, have embraced the Orthodox Faith. We don't feel primarily that we have left our homeland so much as that we have found it. We do not wish to distinguish ourselves from it, and even though we celebrate different liturgies than others in our communion, they impart the same theology, often in the same way with nearly the same words. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) To put a fine point on this conversation: Byzantine Catholics seem to look primarily outside their communion to the Orthodox Church for inspiration (including saints after 1569, or the appropriate date of union with Rome); Western Rite Orthodox look primarily within our communion. We are not a bridge; we are a pillar of the Church that we love. As one who has many friends and acquaintances in Byzantine Catholicism, it saddens me to see them looking longingly at a Church to which they do not belong.

Others's arguments. It is true Western Rite Orthodox do not have separate bishops and hierarchies, as Byzantine Catholics do, and some have used this as an argument to distinguish us. Though I acknowledge the difference, I find this less than compelling. For one thing, the original Western Rite in this country had its own bishop: Ignatius Nichols. It would represent no enormous step backward were we to have one again. More importantly, not every group that has an extra-geographical hierarchy should be considered "uniate"; that logic leads to the ridiculous conclusion that Romanians, Bulgarians, and Albanians in the OCA would be considered "uniates," which they certainly are not. (And Abp. NATHANIEL is an inspiration to us all!)

Where We Are Similar. We do share one vital similarity with Byzantine Catholics: we, too, believe our witness to our faith's minority heritage (Western, in our case) enriches our Church by demonstrating that it was not intended for merely one group of people or ethnicity, nor has it historically been expressed in only one liturgical praxis. (More about this later, perhaps.) We believe the Orthodox Church is the true Church, and She is now reclaiming Her Western background. Byzantine Catholics believe the Pope is the successor of St. Peter, all must be in communion with him, and they express this theology in their own way. That is another matter for another day, but every Christian of every background can agree: Christ's Church was never intended to be merely Eastern or Western but Catholic and universal, from one end of the earth to the other.

An Important Addendum
. Finally, I am well aware the discussion above relates to the origins of the Greek Catholic churches, and perhaps incidents in other countries (where membership brings one, e.g., reduced tuition). Some extreme polemicists speak of today's "uniates" in Pittsburgh and Passaic as though they were all ignorant pawns of economic-political puppet-masters in Sixteenth Century Ukraine. Modern Byzantine Catholics consist of cradle families going back generations and, since Vatican II, no small number of former Latin Rite Catholics fleeing the liturgical anarchy fertilized during the "New Springtime." (Hence, the bounty of Irish Melkites and Italian Ruthenians.) That is to say, many are members of the Roman Catholic communion by volition.

May we all pray for the day when we shall all be part of the same Church, and petty bickering over who is or is not a "Uniate" will have subsided, melted away by the blinding light of His countenance.

The latinization occurred in the old country but intensified in North America. Open hostility to the existence of the Byzantine Rite inspired St. Alexis (Toth) of Wilkes-Barre to bring his people into Orthodoxy. Meanwhile among Eastern Rite Catholics, the promise of a married priesthood was discarded; a spoken "low Mass" was introduced; side altars were erected; Latin forms of confession replaced Byzantine; and recitation of the Rosary, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and other Western practices sprang up.
2. This is also true of the Western Rite liturgies employed by ROCOR: The English Liturgy and the Sarum Liturgy. This latter should be distinguished from the so-called "Old Sarum Rite Missal," which originated in a non-canonical monastery with strong ties to the "Gnostic Orthodox Church" and a background in Theosophy.

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Blogger bgeorge77 said...

Perhaps you've already answered this question somewhere, but are there any Western Rite Orthodox churches that have been in continuous practice since their founding? If not, where and when were the Western Rites revived?


10:59 AM  
Blogger Ben Johnson said...

Forgive me if I misunderstand: are you asking if there have been Western Rite churches that survived from the Great Schism until the present? I apologize if I misinterpreted your question. If this is it, then no; there were Western churches that traced themselves back to Sts. Cyril and Methodius but eventually became Roman Catholic. There was a ruling Benedictine monastery on Mt. Athos for centuries after the Great Schism. And one priest has stated the "Liturgy of St. Peter" -- essentially a Byzantine DL with the Roman canon in place of the Anaphora -- survived the entire period. But no churches survived unbroken and continally WRO from 1054 to the present.

When were they re-established? If you search the blog for its history, this will give you a clearer timeline of what-and-when. Briefly:

1870 -- Dr. JJ Overbeck won approval for a form of the Roman Mass, the Liturgy of St. Gregory.

1904 -- the Russian Synod detailed the conditions under which some form of the Book of Common Prayer could be adopted within Orthodoxy.

1930s -- The Orthodox Church ordained a WR bishop, Ignatius Nichols. (Canonical issues caused by the Bolshevik Revolution led this group out of communion for a decade or so.)

1958 -- The Antiochian Church established the Western Rite Vicariate.

There had been existing WR churches under ROCOR in Mt. Royal, NY; this gave way to Christminster Monastery in Rhode Island. ROCOR now has a number of WR missions in Australia, the first accepted nearly a decade ago. That group celebrates The English Liturgy and the Sarum Liturgy (not the "Old Sarum Rite Missal" but another, better text).

This also ignores the role of the Orthodox Catholic Church of France, which tried to reconstruct the Gallican Liturgy defunct for around a millenium.

I hope this didn't confuse more than it helped!

God bless,
Your namesake (Proverbs 22:1)

10:12 PM  
Blogger Nick Finzer said...

I'm a former Uniate now Orthodox and I enjoy your blog. Your comparison is right on. Another difference, along the lines of something you mentioned, is how each came to be. The Uniates came as a whole church at the heirarchical level, while unless I'm mistaken Western Orthodox churches have all come as parish, and are under the local Eastern bishop.

I have a question for you about the Western Rite. I am a proponent of its existence, but I do have one reservation. How do Western Parishes continue to exist outside the short term? By that I mean, how will you find a Latin Rite Orthodox priest to replace the existing ones when they retire or receive their eternal reward? Most importantly, where does an Orthodox Christian go to learn the western rite? I don't believe our seminaries teach it.

And out of curiosity, what service do you do when your bishop visits? Do you think Eastern Bishops are equipped to handle western rite parishes? That concerns me slightly as well.


7:04 PM  
Blogger Ecgbert said...

How do Western Parishes continue to exist outside the short term? By that I mean, how will you find a Latin Rite Orthodox priest to replace the existing ones when they retire or receive their eternal reward? Most importantly, where does an Orthodox Christian go to learn the western rite? I don't believe our seminaries teach it.

I believe there's a link in this blog to that of Fr Matthew Thurman: the Antiochians do train seminarians and new priests to do Western Rite as needed.

And out of curiosity, what service do you do when your bishop visits? Do you think Eastern Bishops are equipped to handle western rite parishes? That concerns me slightly as well.

I think that issue came up recently. At least one Antiochian bishop has worn Western vestments IIRC but I think usually there's a High Mass in the presence of the bishop, who is vested in his usual Byzantine Rite fashion and doesn't try and do a service he doesn't know.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Ben Johnson said...


Good question! YF got it just right. Not only Fr. Thurman but also Fr. Theodore Eklund in Omaha has been ordained to the priesthood having come from a WR parish. Bishops who don't know how to celebrate WR show their support by visiting.

As to where seminarians learn the WR: Fr. Edward Hughes in Massachusetts is head of the St. George Institute, and he teaches WR seminarians how to celebrate Mass and WR ceremonies.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Anaxagoras said...

Do incoming Antiochian seminarians at Holy Cross get to choose whether they will be Eastern or Western Rite once they graduate from seminary and are ordained, or are you supposed to do whatever they do at the parish you originally came from?

5:59 PM  
Blogger Jean-Michel said...

good job - page now in French too :

my remark : the problem for WR is that it lacks any WR contemporary saint to "prove" the way to deification it could be. Dom Denis Chambault is maybe in the veneration of some of us (very few but even then!), but we still lack the "smoking gun" of sanctity attained in modern days WR. This only, imho, would brought the "spiritual fuel" required. I don't mean we have to take whoever played a key-role in restauring WR to the Church and "make him a saint" the way the RCC does since a millenium with anyone who has been politically nice to them and accepted all their viles as a new "divine truth". But we need one, to start. And preferably a woman, for lots of good reasons. Tridentinism is so machist..



12:46 AM  

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