Questions about the structure and governance of Eastern Catholic Churches.

Eastern Pope

Is it possible for an Eastern rite Catholic to be elected pope? Has there ever been one?

Yes, it is possible. In the history of the Catholic Church, there have been at least ten Easterners elected as Pope. Each one became Patriarch of the Latin Church, and celebrated the Roman Rite.

When all is said and done, I think that it is preferable that the Pope belong to the Latin Church. Why? Because the Pope, by definition, is the Bishop of Rome. And by tradition, the Bishop of Rome is Patriarch of the Latin Church.


What is a Patriarch?

A Patriarch is a bishop with special authority over the other bishops in an autonomous ritual Church. According to the NCCB document Eastern Catholics in the United States of America, Patriarchs are “heads of their own individual churches.” The Second Vatican Council underscored the special honor given to Patriarchs:

“Following the most ancient tradition of the Church, special honor is to be given to the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, since each is set over his patriarchate as father and head,” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum no. 9).

It should be noted that the Latin Church also has its own Patriarch: the Pope. As well as being head of the universal Church, the Pope also functions as Patriarch of the Latin Church.

It’s my understanding that “sui iuris” translates roughly into “self governing”. Being under the authority of the pope, how much freedom do Eastern Catholic patriarchs indeed have in the governing of their jurisdictions? Can they ordain bishops freely, or must episcopal ordinations be approved by Rome?

In their “traditional” geographic territories Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, together with their Synods, have full authority over their Churches. They can ordain bishops freely without seeking the approval of Rome.

Outside of the “traditional” territories, in the the so-called “diaspora,” the authority of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs is somehwat limited. While they maintain full authority in liturgical matters, the appointment of bishops is done by the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in Rome.

“Roman” Catholic

Aren’t all Catholics “Roman” Catholics, whatever their rite may be?

There is apparently some confusion as to the phrase “Roman Catholic.” In Church documents, you will not find the phrase “Roman Catholic” used to describe the universal Church. Instead, the only phrase used to describe it is simply “the Catholic Church.”

For instance, the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus says the following in paragraph no. 16: “This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”

Nowhere does this document refer to the universal Church as the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, the DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH, Lumen Gentium, nowhere uses the term “Roman Catholic.” Nor is it used in any documents of comparable authority. It does not appear in any code of canon law. From a strictly canonical standpoint, there is no “Roman Catholic” Church.

However, you will sometimes encounter the phrase “Church of Rome” in Church documents. This phrase is used to denote the actual Diocese of Rome. Sometimes it is also used to denote the bishop who presides over this diocese, the Holy Father.

In Church legislation and canons, the Western Church is referred to as the Latin Church. However, in everyday usage members of the Latin Church refer to it as the “Roman Catholic Church.” For instance, in the small town of Toronto, Ohio there are two Catholic parishes. On one side of the town is St. Joseph’s Byzantine Catholic Church. On the other side of town is St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. That’s exactly what the sign says in front of the parish. And everyone knows that this parish is part of the Latin Church.

Here’s another pertinent example. In the city of Pittsburgh there are two Catholic dioceses. There is the Byzantine Catholic diocese, and also the “Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.” That is the actual name of the diocese. Everyone knows that this diocese is part of the Latin Church because it calls itself the “Roman Catholic” diocese. If a Byzantine parish were to advertise itself as St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, there would be endless confusion. That’s because, in popular usage, Roman Catholic has become synonymous with the Latin Church.

This matter is further complicated because there exists in canon law a “Roman Rite.” The Roman Rite is used exclusively by the Latin Church. Eastern Catholics object to being called “Roman Catholics” because we do not use the Roman Rite, as Latin Catholics do. It seems to us that the term “Roman Catholic” is best reserved for Catholics who use the Roman Rite.

Church Councils

Do Eastern Catholic bishops participate in Roman Catholic Church Councils? If so, in what capacity?

Concerning Roman Catholic Church Councils, I assume that you are referring to Councils such as Trent and Vatican II, not Bishops Conferences. Eastern Catholics participated as full members in both Vatican I and II, and played a crucial role in the proceedings of Vatican II. Some of the documents from these Councils had no effect on Eastern Catholics (such as those involving the Latin Liturgy and Latin disciplines). Yet several documents from Vatican II had an enomorsely positive effect on Eastern Catholics.