Eastern Rite Churches, Uniate Churches

General Information

Eastern Rite churches are communities of eastern Christians in union with the Roman Catholic church. Also known as Uniate churches, they retain their own distinctive spiritual, liturgical, and canonical traditions. In addition to differences from the Roman (Western) rite in liturgy, many of the Eastern Rite churches permit a married clergy.

Between 10 and 11 million Catholics are members of these churches. Like the Orthodox Church, they are divided into families; the five major families are the Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine. They often originated among Orthodox and other eastern Christian communities under the political influence of a Roman Catholic sovereign. The largest Eastern Rite church - the Ukrainian Catholic church - was formed when Ukrainian subjects of the king of Poland were united with Rome in 1596. Another large group - the Maronites of Lebanon - established ties with the papacy when their country was occupied by Western Crusaders in the 12th century. The Romanian Eastern Rite church was created under Habsburg rule in 1700.

The Ukrainian Catholic church, with an estimated 4 to 5 million members, is concentrated in the western Ukraine, especially in the areas of Lvov and Ivano - Frankovsk, which were under Austrian and Polish jurisdiction until World War II. After the war, when the region became part of the USSR, the church was outlawed and driven underground by the Soviet government. It was allowed to resume open activity in the freer atmosphere of the late 1980s.

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Each of the Eastern Rite churches is headed by its own Patriarch, who has jurisdiction over the bishops, clergy, and people of that rite. All of the patriarchs are members of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which governs the relations of the Vatican with the Eastern Rites.

D Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East (1961); B Proko, Ukrainian Catholics in America (1982).

Eastern Rite Churches

Uniate Churches

General Information

The Eastern Rite Churches are Eastern Christian churches consisting of five rites derived from ancient traditions of Christian churches in the East. They are now in communion with the Western church under the papacy. Distinct from both the Orthodox churches and the so-called Independent churches of the East, neither of which recognize papal primacy, the Eastern Rite churches are also sometimes known as Eastern Catholic, or Uniate, churches. Today more than 10 million Eastern Catholics are in the various rites.

The five rites are the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Antiochene, Chaldean, and Armenian. Within these rites are further subdivisions according to national or ethnic origins. The largest single group of Eastern Catholics is the Ukrainian church (Byzantine rite); it has about 7 million members, with approximately 70 percent in Ukraine. In the United States there are about 250,000 Ukrainian Catholics.

A rite signifies more than a liturgy; it denotes distinctive traditions across a broad front. Noteworthy among these for Eastern Catholics, in contrast with those of the Roman rite, is a married clergy. Distinctive sacramental practices are also found, such as the immediate admission of baptized infants to confirmation and the Eucharist. Rather than Latin, the liturgical languages of the Eastern Rite churches are either those spoken by the original missionary founders or the present-day vernacular. The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, confirmed the pledge to preserve the Eastern rites intact. Such a reassurance was welcome because of the repeated criticism by these churches that their traditions were gradually being eroded by their communion with Rome.

The effecting of this communion was a long process. After the Great Schism of 1054 between Eastern and Western Christians, some groups, such as the Maronites and Armenians, were united to Rome in the following century. The real history of the development of the Eastern rite churches, however, began in the 16th century. In 1596, by the Brest-Litovsk Union, two Ukrainian Orthodox bishops acknowledged the primacy of the pope. Other groups followed, such as the Chaldeans (1681) and other churches of the Byzantine rite (the Ruthenians in 1592, the Romanians in 1698, and the Melkites in 1724). The last were the Malankarese (Antiochene rite) of India in 1930. As these various groups of Eastern Catholics grew, Rome established ecclesiastical hierarchies for them.

The Eastern churches have their own canon law and are not bound by the Code of Canon Law of the Western church. Each church is governed by a patriarch (the patriarchs of Alexandria, Babylon, and Cilicia, and three patriarchs of Antioch). A patriarch with his synod has the highest authority within his jurisdiction and is even able to appoint bishops and create dioceses. Nonetheless, the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, whose membership includes the Eastern Rite patriarchs, has general competence over the Eastern rites.

John W. O'Malley

Also, see:
Eastern Rite Churches
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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