When they hear the words Catholic Church, most people, Catholics included, think immediately of the Roman Catholic Church. But in fact the Catholic Church is a communion of many particular churches, of which the Western or Latin church, though the largest, is only one. The Annuario Pontificio , the church’s global almanac, lists 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome. They were once called rites, a term that distinguished them by language, liturgical tradition and theological patrimony. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, they have been recognized as churches sui iuris (“with their own law”) that are “of equal dignity” with the Latin church. Among the oldest are the six historic Catholic churches of the Middle East: the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syrian Catholic churches. With them today are joined the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a Latin vicariate in the Arabian peninsula. Pope Benedict XVI has called representatives of these churches to meet from Oct. 10 to 24 in a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops with representative bishops from the wider church to address the critical circumstances confronting the whole church in the region.
The last two decades have been inhospitable to Christians in the Middle East. Wars and economic sanctions have led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Christians, especially from Iraq. Armed conflict and political tensions have resulted in steady emigration of both Palestinians and Lebanese from their homelands. The rise of Islamic extremism and of Jewish radicalism has placed in doubt the possibility of continued co-existence among the three Abrahamic faiths. In addition, the refusal of the State of Israel to bring into effect the 1993 Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See and the inability of the two parties over a decade to conclude other negotiations have placed holy sites, church institutions, clergy and religious workers, and the faithful in a defensive posture. They find themselves constantly fending off new impositions and restrictions that impede a normal life for them in the Holy Land.
Two of the issues under consideration by the synod will be immigration and emigration. Immigration is a relatively recent but massive reality. The Latin Catholic population in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states is now almost as large as the combined population of the six other churches. It is made up largely of guest workers from the Philippines and South Asia. But most of the Latin Catholics, nearly two million, reside in Saudi Arabia where public observance of Christianity is prohibited.
Emigration is a longstanding problem. Christians have been emigrating to Latin America, the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia since the late 19th century. Today, however, emigration threatens the future of the churches of the Middle East, especially the Chaldeans, who have fled their native Iraq because of the religious persecution that followed the disorder created by the U.S. invasion in 2003. Across the region unresolved political and religious tensions continue to drive Middle Eastern Christians abroad, putting their historic communities in jeopardy. When they assimilate in their new countries, they are likely to lose their distinctive historic identities. Even when they remain Catholics, they are likely to join Roman Catholic congregations. In Argentina there are 300,000 Melkites but only three Melkite parishes. Preserving the rich patrimony of the Eastern churches is a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, as well as to the Eastern churches.
These Middle Eastern churches are headed by their own patriarchs, but the patriarchs exercise full authority, “universal jurisdiction,” only in the Middle East. In the diaspora, their authority is limited to matters of liturgy. One way to counter the effects of emigration would be to extend the range of their pastoral care and authority over these congregations. This is a proposal made in 1999 by the Eastern patriarchs and bishops themselves. Expanded pastoral authority could be coordinated with national hierarchies in arrangements similar to the military ordinariate or the new Anglican rite churches.
To begin with, expanded patriarchal authority would strengthen the ties of these diaspora Catholics to their home churches, creating a more direct relationship. It would also stem assimilation where it begins, with forced acculturation to the customs of the Western church, such as the requirement of a celibate clergy. Rome’s primacy would not be challenged, but the catholicity of the church as a communion of churches and traditions would be enhanced. Ecumenically, Orthodox and other sister churches would see in a new form of governance ecclesial communion realized without Western dominance.