Today marks the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. To “commemorate” this event, Professor Peter Kwasniewski posted two closing addresses from the Council, the first by Pope Paul VI and the second by Archbishop Pericle Felici. The naïve optimism expressed in both should give any soberminded Catholic reason to pause. Still, at the risk of sounding like a heretic to many traditional Catholics, can it really be said that all of Vatican II was a wash? And here I am not just referring to passages in Lumen Gentium or Sacrosantum Concillium which merely reaffirm longstanding Catholic doctrine and praxis. What I mean to precisely ask is did Vatican II not give something positive to the Church which, over the last half-century, has borne good fruit? Without claiming to cover the Council’s whole terrain, let me suggest that there is at least one document from Vatican II which deserves honest appreciation (if not praise) even if falls a bit short in certain areas: Orientalium Ecclesiarum (OE).
Prior to OE (and in some instances for decades after), most of the sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches had undergone various processes of Latinization regarding their liturgy, theology, and governance structure. One of the principal effects of Latinization was to reduce Eastern Catholicism to a ritual form, thus obscuring the reality that the Eastern churches are true particular churches in full communion with Rome. OE, in continuity with calls from popes such as Leo XIII and St. Pius X, pushes back against Latinizations in the Eastern churches, particularly in the area of liturgy and the sacraments. Unlike the Roman Church, Eastern Christians have long administered all of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation, and the Eucharist) at the same time and to infants. Moreover, Eastern disciplinary practices regarding fasting, holy days, and liturgical norms have their own logic and history to them which were not always respected by neighboring Latin Catholic bishops and priests. OE helps remind the universal Church of the full integrity of Eastern Christianity and helps stem the tide of Latin chauvinism which has washed over the Eastern Catholic churches for centuries.
Another important feature of OE is its openness to reconciliation with the separated Eastern churches (Oriental and Eastern Orthodox). While some traditional Catholics have expressed dissatisfaction with the document’s positive (but tempered) tone toward communicatio in sacris, it’s important to note that OE is only restating and affirming the centuries-old reality of Catholics and Orthodox ministering to each other’s flocks, particularly in areas such as the Middle East where all Christians were and remain subject to Muslim persecution. Contrary to the claims of some hysterical traditionalists, nowhere does OE claim that the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox should stay separated from the Catholic Church. What OE does state, however, is that the Eastern churches should remain true to themselves. The goal of Catholic unity is not to impose a monolithic rite upon all of Christendom or discard practices which do not align perfectly with Latin disciplines, but to dwell together as one flock under one shepherd who is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world.
Now, none of this is to say that OE is a perfect document. From the Orthodox perspective delivered by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, OE is still subject to an overly Latinized ecclesiological and theological framework—an observation shared by a number of Eastern Catholics as well. Further, it is arguable that OE did not go far enough in granting to the Eastern Catholic patriarchs and metropolitans the autonomy they and their respective churches deserve by right. A simple, but telling, example is the ongoing “need” for the Pope to officially canonize Eastern saints—a process that flies in the face of ancient Eastern (or, for that matter, Western) praxis. Additionally, the continuing existence of the Congregation for Oriental Churches coupled with Rome’s all-too-frequent interventions into Eastern Christian affairs highlights the fact that there is still a long way to go before the Catholic Church will truly breathe with both lungs.