The centuries-old relationship between Latin and Greek Catholics has been a tumultuous one. Although this is not the place to get into the fraught history of Latin interventionism in Greek—indeed all Eastern—Catholic affairs, most are now aware of the gross injustices suffered by Greek Catholics in the West, particularly in the United States at the hands of Bishop Ireland, Rome’s greatest gift to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Since at least the time of the Second Vatican Council, Latin/Greek relations have improved significantly, though most contemporary Catholics, if they know anything of the Christian East at all, remain content to view Greek Catholicism (Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, etc.) as little more than an “exotic attraction,” something “interesting” to pay notice to now and again, but not much else. Traditional Latin Catholics have a more complicated relationship with the Greeks. Although there often exists a surface admiration for the East’s liturgical ethos, traditionalists are largely dismissive of, if not directly hostile toward, Greek Catholic traditions such as married clergy or the East’s cool reception of certain Western theological and spiritual currents. What this means in practice is that while there have been a number of conservative Latin Catholics who have made a new home in Greek Catholicism as a way of escaping the liturgical, spiritual, and moral rot which has beset much of contemporary Latin Catholicism, Latin traditionalists have often found it hard to accept Greek Catholicism as anything more than a second-best option in the midst of a first-rate crisis.
To be fair, Greek Catholicism does bear some of the blame for ongoing tensions with Latin Catholics, particularly traditionalists. Greek Catholics, like their separated Orthodox brethren, have a tendency to see their ways—liturgical, spiritual, and theological—as automatically superior to Latin ways, sometimes for very superficial reasons. And again, like the Orthodox, there is still a tendency for Greek Catholicism to present itself as an ethnic museum unwelcoming to those with the wrong last name or family heritage. The good news is that a lot of this is starting to change, though perhaps not as quickly as necessary. A quarter-century ago, when I was still a boy, there were more than a few Eastern priests who would openly ask visiting Latin Catholics, “Don’t you have your own church to go to?” This at a time when many Greek Catholic parishes were beginning to suffer severe demographic decline while the younger generation desired recognition and respect, not accusations and finger-pointing, with their Latin coreligionists.
I make mention of this not to indict either Latin or Greek Catholicism, but to identify some of the difficulties which still attend to Latin/Greek relations and to suggest that the way forward, even in the West, is not to sustain an artificial partition between the two but to build a culture of mutual appreciation and respect. This is easier said than done. As I discussed in an earlier post, Greek Catholics in the West are still struggling to restore their full liturgical patrimony and clarify their authentic traditions. Latin Catholicism is in the midst of a similar struggle, though one that is far more complicated and contentious by several orders of magnitude. The fact that there are certain ideologically charged Latin theologians who are content to “cherry pick” from the Christian East in order to do an apparent end-run around extant Catholic doctrine certainly doesn’t help matters. Instead of seeing the Eastern patrimony in its integrity, they view it—or the views of certain individual Eastern Fathers—as a reservoir for renovationism in the Roman Church.
As for the more narrow relationship between Greek Catholics and Latin traditionalists, let me say this. Setting aside the occasionally uncharitable manner in which some traditionalists address “things Eastern,” there is, I believe, a great deal traditionalists can learn from the Greeks, particularly with respect to taking a wider view of the universal Church’s patrimony. Greek Catholics, for their part, should be respectful of traditionalist desires to restore the Roman Rite and preserve the Christian West’s theological heritage, which includes giving a certain primacy to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Scholasticism. None of this means that Greek Catholics should become Thomists or feel compelled to import certain Latin liturgical practices (e.g., low Mass), however.
In closing, I want to point out that there are some serious challenges on the horizon which Latins and Greeks need to be aware of. With rumors in the air of a forthcoming synod intended to address the issue of clerical celibacy, it is inevitable that the Christian East will be dragged into the middle of an ongoing disciplinary dogfight within the Roman Church. Many unedifying things will probably be said about the married priesthood by proponents of clerical celibacy while the other side romanticizes Eastern praxis in splendid isolation from on-the-ground realities. At the ecumenical level, the West continues to face pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church to throw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church under the proverbial bus in the interest of building “stronger ties” between first and third Rome. The more Rome behaves in a manner which alienates loyal Greek Catholics while ignoring their concrete historical situation, the less trustful Greek Catholics are likely to be of Latins in general. Such a result would be a slap in the face to the desire of numerous popes, from Leo XIII to John Paul II, that Greek Catholicism has an authentic, unique, and integral role to play in the universal Church of Christ.