A RESPONSE TO THE VATICAN II DECREE ON EASTERN CHURCHES* by Alexander Schmemann

We are sharing Father Alexander Schmemann’s brief 1966 commentary as a springboard for frank, brotherly dialogue between Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, and Orthodox. What relevance do his remarks continue to have, or not, more than half a century later? How do we respond, in particular, to the ongoing concerns of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches on these complex issues?

Language that some may find offensive or outdated should be considered from the vantage of the era in which this response was written.

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It is not easy for an Orthodox to express his views on this particular Decree for the simple yet important reason that the very existence of the “Uniate” Eastern Catholic Churches has always been considered by the Orthodox as one of the major obstacles to any sincere theological confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Orthodox appreciate, to be sure, the efforts made in these last years by some spiritual leaders of these communities to represent and voice within the Roman Catholic Church the Eastern tradition as a whole, efforts which were especially obvious at the Council itself and which no doubt greatly contributed to the basic orientation of the present Decree. But for the sake of true ecumenical understanding, it must be stressed that for the Orthodox there remains in this whole question of uniatism a deep ambiguity, to which all Orthodox are extremely sensitive and which must have a high priority on the ecumenical agenda of the future.

There can be no doubt as to the positive, irenic, and constructive intentions of the Decree as a whole. It is one more step, and a decisive one, toward the recognition of the Eastern tradition as “equal in dignity” to that of the West. Of utmost importance is its emphasis on the temporary character of its provisions— “until such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity.” This seems to indicate a rather significant shift in the very understanding of the function of the Eastern Catholic communities called now to serve as bridges to, rather than substitutes for, the Orthodox East.

Certain important reservations must, however, be made. First of all, the Decree seems to “take for granted” and to perpetuate the reduction of the differences between the East and the West to the sole area of rites, discipline, and “way of life.” But it is precisely this reduction which forms the basis of “uniatism” that the Orthodox reject, for they affirm that the liturgical and canonical tradition of the East cannot be isolated from doctrinal principles which it implies and which constitute the real issue between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Decree solemnly proclaims the equality of the Eastern tradition yet, at the same time, formulates and regulates it in terms of a Western and even juridical ecclesiology hardly adequate to its spirit and orientations. To a great degree it remains thus a Latin text about the Eastern tradition. The institution of Patriarchates, for example, is not only given an importance it does not have, in fact, in the Eastern Church, but is also defined as a personal jurisdiction of the Patriarch over other bishops, which is alien to the Eastern canonical tradition, where the Patriarch or any other Primate is always a primus inter pares.

Finally, one word about the communicatio in sacris. In regard to this painful and complex problem, the Decree shows great tact and caution. An Orthodox commentator must stress, however, that even a partial solution of this problem must be a bilateral action and that, given its crucial importance, it must express, on the Orthodox side, the consensus of all Orthodox Churches.

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Alexander Schmemann. “A Response.” The Documents of Vatican II. Walter M. Abbott, S.J., General Editor. New York: Herder and Herder Association Press, 1966. Pp. 387-88.

*The Latin title of the Decree is Orientalium Ecclesiarum, which has dictated the title of our article. See p. 373, n. 1 in the edition cited above for why its editors made the decision to call it the “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches.”  

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was one of the most prominent Orthodox scholars and theologians of the 20th century. He taught at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1951, and served as the dean from 1962, until his death. He was one of the Orthodox observers at Vatican II.