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The Dispatch: More from CWR

Sister Churches Revisited

Reflections on Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, Eucharistic Communion, and the 10th


anniversary of the Balamand Statement

June 12, 2013 07:52 EST

Christopher B. Warner

Pope Francis embraces Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople,


spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, at the Vatican March 20. (CNS
photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

It is surprising how much weight can be put on a single, limited analogy, like the
notion of sister Churches. There are several images of the Church of Christ that
have been set forth by the Fathers throughout the ages: the Ark, New Israel,
Chosen People, Assembly, Mystical Body of Christ, Sheepfold, Vineyard, Temple,
Jerusalem, Mother, Spotless Spouse, Family/Household of God, Army, Pilgrim, etc.
(see CCC 751-757; LG 6) All of these images fall short of the reality yet help us
recognize certain aspects of the nature of Christs Holy Church.

In Catholic-Orthodox dialogue it is silly to get wrapped up in squabbles over


words like sister or mother. These are metaphors that say something
important about the Church, but no single image completely captures the
essence of the Church. As a married man I may talk about how I am the king of
my household, but obviously I am no more a ruling monarch than the Church is
my biological mother.

Yet, the subject of Sister Churches seems to be what caught peoples eye in
CWRs recent interview with Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J.

The Seventh Plenary Session of the Joint International Commission for the
Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Church took place at the school of theology in Balamand, Lebanon ten years ago:
June 17-24, 1993. This session, although it does not hold the same weight as
canonical phraseology or an official Church document, used the phrase Sister
Churches several times:
12. Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in their relationship to
the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister
Churches

13. On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church -
profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the
one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of
bishops - cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches.

14. It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches
recognize each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the
Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns
unity. According to the words of Pope John Paul II, the ecumenical endeavor of the
Sister Churches of East and West, grounded in dialogue and prayer, is the search
for perfect and total communion which is neither absorption nor fusion but a
meeting in truth and love (cf. Slavorum Apostoli, n. 27).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) also has a few things to say about
Sister Churches as did John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The focus ought to be on the
word Churches, not Sister. The question is not whether we ought to use the
phrase Sister Churches, but rather, What does the proper adjective, Sister,
say about the nature of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches?

The point is that Orthodox and Catholic Christians have common origin in the pre-
schism Church of Christ and are unique from other Christians in that they share
apostolic succession, profess one apostolic faith (with post-schism nuances),
celebrate the same sacraments, and participate in the same Eucharistic
Communion (although, not usually from the same table).

This last mark of unity seems to be the most important. While we all hold that
each sister Church maintains fully licit and valid sacraments, under ordinary
circumstances, we exclude each other from sacramental communion. This is a
tragedy, but as the 2010 North American joint declaration states, Conscience
holds us back from celebrating our unity as complete in sacramental terms, until
it is complete in faith, Church structure, and common action.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Eucharistic
communion:
1397 The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion
with the Church.

1396 The unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church. Those who
receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ... In Baptism we have
been called to form but one body. (1Cor 12:13) The Eucharist fulfills this call: "The
cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The
bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because
there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one
bread:" (1Cor 10:16-17)

1398 The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break
the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our
prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him
may return.

1399 The Eastern Churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic
Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. "These Churches, although
separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all - by apostolic
succession - the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us
in closest intimacy." A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist,
"given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely
possible but is encouraged." [Unitatis redintegratio (UR) 15.2; CIC canon 844.3]

Yet, suitable circumstances cannot be interpreted as loosely as one might wish


them to be. As long as there is a Catholic minister available, Catholics must go to
Catholic priests for the sacraments. This is particularly difficult for an Eastern
Catholic who might prefer to attend an Orthodox Divine Liturgy over a Roman rite
Mass when traveling to a place that does not have an Eastern Catholic parish, or
be able to receive communion while visiting one of his Orthodox friends.

Protestants, on the other hand, may not approach the sacraments under any
circumstances, but it is important to note that the Catholic Church does recognize
that Christ is present in some way when Protestant Christians celebrate the
Lords Supper.
1400 Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from
the Catholic Church, "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic
mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of
Holy Orders."(UR 22.3) It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church,
Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible. However
these ecclesial communities, "when they commemorate the Lord's death and
resurrection in the Holy Supper . . . profess that it signifies life in communion with
Christ and await his coming in glory." (UR 22.3)

The canons make it clear that Catholics cannot approach an Orthodox priest for
the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, or Anointing unless the situation is
necessary or gives spiritual advantage in the absence of a Catholic
minister. Similarly, Orthodox Christians may approach a Catholic priest for the
sacraments if grave necessity arises and the Orthodox bishop permits it:

1401 When, in the Ordinary's judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic


ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the
Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask
for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic
faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions. (CIC
canon 844.4)

The Balamand Statement also addresses a key issue for healing schismatic
wounds between the Churches. It is difficult to heal history, but being honest
about the past, recognizing the abuses and sins of our own Churches, and asking
one anothers forgiveness is crucial:

23. The history of the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental
Catholic Churches has been marked by persecutions and sufferings. Whatever
may have been these sufferings and their causes, they do not justify any
triumphalism; no one can glorify in them or draw an argument from them to
accuse or disparage the other Church. God alone knows his own witnesses.
Whatever may have been the past, it must be left to the mercy of God, and all
the energies of the Churches should be directed towards obtaining that the
present and the future conform better to the will of Christ for his own.

30. [Seminaries] should offer a correct and comprehensive knowledge of history


aiming at a historiography of the two Churches which is in agreement and even
may be common. In this way, the dissipation of prejudices will be helped, and the
use of history in a polemical manner will be avoided. This presentation will lead
to an awareness that faults leading to separation belong to both sides, leaving
deep wounds on each side.