Some Comments on Taft and Sister Churches

Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., retired professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and world-renowned liturgical scholar, continues to vex some Catholics (mainly of a traditionalist variety) with his promotion of what he perceives to be Roman Catholicism’s new “Sister Churches” eccesiology. Taft’s most recent restatement of this position, “Problems in Anaphoral Theology,” 57 St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (2013), runs like this:

The Catholic Church considers [the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches to be] “Sister Churches,” which despite their rejection of communion with Rome, are ancient Churches tracing their roots, like those of the Roman Communion, to Apostolic Christianity, and are recognized by Rome as possessing the full panoply of what makes them merit the title “Church” as Catholics understand it: a valid apostolic episcopate assuring their apostolic heritage of valid Baptism, Eucharist, and other sacraments and means of salvation to sanctify their flocks.

Note that this new “Sister Churches” designation describes not only how the Catholic Church views those Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated for one reason or another in the course of history and held, simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to her maternal bosom. But the Vatican II Council, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality.

One prominent traditional Catholic blogger has likened Taft’s explanation to the old Anglican “Branch Theory or, in other words, rubbish. Others have pointed to the 2000 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) note, “On the Expression ‘Sister Churches’,” as proof that either Taft grossly misunderstands the “Sister Churches” eccesiology he purports to expound or that the doctrine is simply a figment of Taft’s ecumenical imagination. Both of these problematic conclusions appear to be based on paragraph 11 of the 2000 note:

One may also speak of sister Churches, in a proper sense, in reference to particular Catholic and non-catholic Churches; thus the particular Church of Rome can also be called the sister of all other particular Churches. However, as recalled above, one cannot properly say that the Catholic Church is the sister of a particular Church or group of Churches. This is not merely a question of terminology, but above all of respecting a basic truth of the Catholic faith: that of the unicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is but a single Church, and therefore the plural term Churches can refer only to particular Churches.

Consequently, one should avoid, as a source of misunderstanding and theological confusion, the use of formulations such as «our two Churches,» which, if applied to the Catholic Church and the totality of Orthodox Churches (or a single Orthodox Church), imply a plurality not merely on the level of particular Churches, but also on the level of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Creed, whose real existence is thus obscured.

The first point which emerges from these paragraphs—one which some individuals seem to ignore—is the particular Church of Rome is not tantamount to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church affirmed in the Creed. That is to say, the Church of Rome is “the sister of all particular Churches,” but the Catholic Church, which is more than just the Church of Rome (unless we wish to ignore the sui iuris Eastern Churches), is, as the note states in paragraph 10, the “mother of all particular Churches.”

The second, and more difficult, point is this: Does the 2000 note in any sense deny Taft’s central proposition, namely that, by Catholic lights, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches are still sister Churches even if full canonical communion has not been restored? Following the note (and Taft), it still seems possible to call the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople “sister churches” so long as one does not fall into the mistake of calling the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church “sister churches.” The distinction is subtle and not altogether clear with respect to its larger doctrinal and ecumenical implications, but there it is nevertheless. Taft’s presentation of his understanding of the Catholic Church’s “Sister Churches” eccesiology, admittedly, exhibits some Jesuitical murkiness and is thus probably prone to misinterpretation. Assuming that Taft adheres to the CDF note (and in the article I quoted from he claims he does), then it would have been better for him to stress that the Church of Rome (or, stated another way, the Roman Catholic Church) had made the historically problematic assumption of viewing itself “as the original one and only true Church of Christ[.]”

Whether or not any type of “Sister Churches” ecclesiology can or should shake out in the long run is a fraught question. To the extent such an ecclesiology can usher Catholics and Orthodox toward full communion on the basis of mutual doctrinal, theological, and ecclesiological respect, then history should judge it as a positive development. On the other hand, if it simply gives rise to an “I’m ok/you’re ok” mentality where the present state of division is simply tolerated or, worse, lauded, then may the “Sister Churches” ecclesiology die a swift death. No advancement is likely to occur, however, until the particular Church of Rome treats her communion with the sui iuris Churches of the East in an authentic fashion, one that recognizes their full autonomy and diversity while remaining united in a shared Apostolic Faith.


  1. I don’t see how Fr. Taft’s explanation is in line with the CDF Note. At best, he is creating confusion by switching back and forth between “church” understood as a particular church, and the one Church of Christ. The CDF Note also says,

    “Unfortunately, in certain publications and in the writings of some theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue, it has recently become common to use this expression [Sister Churches] to indicate the Catholic Church on the one hand and the Orthodox Church on the other, leading people to think that in fact the one Church of Christ does not exist, but may be re-established through the reconciliation of the two sister Churches.”

    It seems to me that Fr. Taft implies this, even if he doesn’t say it explicitly.

    The two paragraphs you quoted above from Fr. Taft do not follow each other logically. In the first he states a truism, but the conclusion he draws, that the Catholic Church no longer holds “that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to her maternal bosom” does not follow from anything in the first paragraph.

    Of course, the individual Orthodox churches are particular churches, and of course the particular church of Rome is a sister to all other particular churches, e.g., to the particular church of Moscow. This doesn’t seem to me any momentous change of the Catholic Church’s understanding of herself. Sometimes in the past, as you know, the term “Church of Rome” was used to refer to the entire Catholic Church. This is not a precise use, but is understandable, and I think defensible, as when we say someone has submitted to Rome or to Constantinople, using those Sees to refer to the entire Catholic or Orthodox communions.

    Also, the July 2007 CDF, “Responsa ad Quaestiones de Aliquibus Sententiis ad Doctrinam de Ecclesia Pertinentibus,” is pertinent here.

    1. I think Taft is being terminologically sloppy, though he’s certainly not the first person to do that. Moreover, in listening to several talks he has given along with reading his various ecumenical pieces, I have never walked away with the sense that he is at all comfortable with allowing the divisions to rest where they are. What he is uncomfortable with is the Roman-centric perception that (A) The Roman Church is the full Church of Christ in and of itself; and (B) That the Eastern churches are just vassal bodies rather than true particular churches. I believe that Taft would acknowledge that there is only “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” in line with the Creed, but perhaps, more controversially, assert that the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox are already a part of it, even if full visible communion between them, the Church of Rome, and the Eastern Catholic churches, has not been officially reestablished.

      In a sense this is a very “Eastern” way of looking at things. Among the Eastern Orthodox Church is, to the exclusion of Catholics and Oriental Orthodox, the one Church of Christ, it is not unheard of it that sister churches within that confession break communion with each other even though there is neither a declaration of formal schism nor an assertion the one particular church or another has fallen into heresy and thus lost the faith. Typically the breaking of communion is due to some canonical issue or another, such as the breaking of communion among the various Russian/Russian-descended churches following the Soviet Revolution, or the more recent break between the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch over the status of Qatar. Neither patriarchates would assert, however, that the other one is now outside of the Church. (Of course, there are more than a few Orthodox who are glad to assert that Roman Catholics are definitely outside of the Church.)

      In the end I don’t mean to defend Taft in all of his ways and means. He certainly has some rather “exotic” ideas about East/West relations and ecumenical councils that I am hardly prepared to follow. I do believe, at its core, that the “Sister Churches” ecclesiology he promotes (albeit in a form tempered by the 2000 CDF note) is useful for reminding Roman Catholics that the Church is larger than their immediate ecclesiastical reality. That reminder should not obscure the fact that there remains significant doctrinal hurdles to fully reestablishing communion with the Orthodox, but this idea that they need to “Romanize” their ecclesiology or become ecclesiastical Indian reservations charged to the supervision of the Congregation for Oriental Churches does need to be put down. In the end, I think that is what Taft is up to, even if he’s not being as careful as he ought. “Ecumenical exuberance” and all that jazz.

      1. Gabriel,

        You wrote, “I do believe, at its core, that the “Sister Churches” ecclesiology he promotes (albeit in a form tempered by the 2000 CDF note) is useful for reminding Roman Catholics that the Church is larger than their immediate ecclesiastical reality.”

        May I suggest that their are ambiguities here, or may be? If by “Roman Catholics” you mean Latin Catholics, then, of course, what you say is true. But if you mean Catholics in communion with the See of Rome, then I have to demur. The instruction Dominus Jesus states, “The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches . . . even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church . . .” (no. 17). and the Catechism (834) says, “Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome ‘which presides in charity'”.

        Sure, one can legitimately complain about the treatment of Eastern Catholics in communion with the Holy See, one can think that the Congregation for the Oriental Churches is a demeaning institution – can one imagine it existing before 1054? – but all these legitimate complaints, which I largely agree with – do not affect the idea that the one Church of Jesus Christ is co-extensive with the Catholic Church, and that particular churches can indeed remain such but lack catholicity precisely because they are not united with the Church of Rome.

        1. Tom,

          When I use the term “Roman Catholics” I mean those Catholics who, in a juridical sense, fall under the Roman Canon Law (as opposed to the Eastern Code of Canon Law). When I use the expression Catholic Church, I mean in its full, universal sense, which includes not only Roman Catholics, but all of the Catholics of the sui iuris Eastern churches as well. Given the messiness of history and terminological usage, maybe it’s not the cleanest way to go, but for nearly two centuries it has been common to not refer to Eastern Catholics as “Roman Catholics” but rather, for instance, Greek Catholics (if they follow the Byzantine Rite) or Chaldean Catholics and so on, and so forth.

          As for your final paragraph, I agree in full. Sometimes I need a bit of terminological correction myself.

          1. Gabriel,

            Thanks much for the clarification. If I’m not mistaken, the correct canonical term for Catholics subject to the Codex Juris Canonici (1983) is Latin, not Roman, and I fear the indiscriminate use of Roman for Latin has led to confusion in the past. As you know, it’s not uncommon for Protestants (and Orthodox?) to refer to all Catholics as Roman Catholics (I always made a point of doing so when I was an Episcopalian). Of course, many of these are not aware of Eastern Catholics or do not advert to them, but in my opinion the term should be abandoned as at best unclear.

            I suppose in its strictest and only proper sense, it refers to those Catholics living in a certain important city in central Italy and the surrounding countryside!

            1. Tom,

              Good point. I don’t know if there is an easy way to sort this out. Maybe I am sensitive to the use of the term “Latins” because it has often been used in a pejorative sense by polemical Orthodox. But I suppose it would avoid some misunderstandings with the use of the term “Rome.” Hmm…

              Perhaps someone can sort this out after the Synod.

      2. On the idea that two sister churches can be out of communion with each other but not outside the Church, I think it’s important to clarify the differences between situations. For Antioch and Jerusalem to be out of communion with each other for a relatively short period of time over what is largely an administrative matter cannot accurately be compared to whole bodies of churches being out of communion for hundreds of years because of serious theological and ecclesiological divergences. In the former, we are talking about a dispute among brothers. In the latter, we’re talking about a history of tribal fighting. Saying that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are really in communion even though the communion is not expressed visibly might be more fittingly compared to a situation wherein after hundreds of years of dispute in North Africa, Catholics and Donatists decided that, in fact, they were not really separated in the first place. In addition, if the two communions — Catholic and Orthodox — are already in communion with each other, then it is either fear of man or love of schism which keeps full visible communion from being restored. Admittedly, schism and heresy muddy the waters of ecclesiology, especially separation or difference in two things that are remarkably alike; but hundreds of years of separation in which Orthodox and Catholic have understood the other to be clearly wrong or at fault in some serious matter suggests more likely that there is a real divergence somewhere however much convergence there may be elsewhere.

        It would be nice if, by reviewing ecclesiastical history in a greater light, both sides could come to see that, in fact, they were saying the same things all along. But this is impossible to do if the two parties are trying to be both honest and truthful. The schism occurred because something/s went wrong, and the only way it can be healed is by a recognition of the fault/s and sincere correction. I believe this is possible.

        What does ‘being in communion’ mean? I have taken it to mean the freedom and the reality of sharing the Eucharist. If such freedom does not exist, then, in what sense, is there a common existence in communion?

        I don’t believe there is anything lost if Catholics or Orthodox state or accept that they are not in communion, so I don’t quite understand the push by some to acknowledge this state of affairs. On the other hand, there is much to be lost if, in attempting to clarify how Catholics and Orthodox are in communion without being in communion, we advance an ecclesiology that implies either that the Church can remain One while being broken into many or that Schism pursued over hundreds of years can be a fiction.

        I do hope for the restoration of communion between these two bodies, and I think progress has been made, but I believe progress can only continue if both bodies come to recognize more clearly what’s not cohering between them.


        1. “Saying that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are really in communion even though the communion is not expressed visibly might be more fittingly compared to a situation wherein after hundreds of years of dispute in North Africa, Catholics and Donatists decided that, in fact, they were not really separated in the first place.”

          Say what? I am unaware of any place, time, or synod at which “after hundreds of years of dispute in North Africa, Catholics and Donatists decided that, in fact, they were not really separated in the first place.” After about 410 AD the Roman imperial gov’t made determined efforts to suppress the Donatists (who had themselves been rent by two or three schisms) and force them back into the Catholic Church. After the Arian Vandals completed their conquest of North Africa they suppressed, and occasionally persecuted, Catholics and Donatists alike. After the Byzantine reconquest of North Africa in 533-34 there remained, in rural areas, a remnant Donatist Church, which may have persisted until the Arab conquest in 698, or indeed later. Catholic Christianity itself survived in parts of north Africa down to the 14th Century.

          1. Hi,

            Sorry, I don’t think I emphasized the ‘hypothetical’ form of that statement enough. I simply meant that claiming a present communion between Orthodox and Catholic today would be sorta like Donatists and Catholics having claimed that they were in communion after hundreds of years of separation. I didn’t mean to suggest that this actually happened. Of course, there are historical details that would moderate such a comparison, and I’m not at all trying to set up a strong comparison between the two, only suggesting that such a comparison might be a bit more apropos than comparing two Orthodox churches that might sever communion briefly on account of administrative disputes.

            I don’t believe it is possible for two or more bodies of Christians to actually be in communion which have ceased sharing Eucharist for so long while accusing one another of heresy and schism. In addition, I believe an examination of their relative teachings does, in fact, indicate certain real divergences of faith. I also believe that Catholics and Orthodox are on a path which can bring about real restoration for which I hope and pray. I just don’t understand why some try to claim that the two are, in fact, in communion: As Gabe suggested, perhaps this is just a looseness with language.


  2. What, then, is one to make of St. John Paul the Great’s usage of “two lungs” to speak of the Catholic and Orthodox serving the Body the Christ optimally together? Is one lung more important than the other?

    And, at the other end of the spectrum, Orthodox speak of the fullness of Christ residing in each diocese surrounding its bishop. Is it not conceivable, then, that a Church in Rome, or Constantinople, or anywhere is NOT a requirement to identify where the true Church of Christ is? That the Orthodox would answer “yes”, and I would guess Catholics “no”, is a real chasm between the two.

  3. “What, then, is one to make of St. John Paul the Great’s usage of ‘two lungs’ to speak of the Catholic and Orthodox serving the Body the Christ optimally together? Is one lung more important than the other?”

    I do not have the reference at hand to St. John Paul the Great’s usage of “two lungs” in its original context, but I have the strong recollection that he was not speaking about the “Catholic and Orthodox” churches, or communions, but about “the Latin Church” and “the Eastern Church;” and I have seen it alleged that he was referring not to the Orthodox at all, but to the Latin Church and the Eastern Church(es) in communion with Rome. Perhaps someone might search out the question.

    1. Bill,

      He has used it in various statements, though one might argue his most “official definition” is found in Ut Unum Sint.

      “54. The other event which I am pleased to recall is the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ (988-1988). The Catholic Church, and this Apostolic See in particular, desired to take part in the Jubilee celebrations and also sought to emphasize that the Baptism conferred on Saint Vladimir in Kiev was a key event in the evangelization of the world. The great Slav nations of Eastern Europe owe their faith to this event, as do the peoples living beyond the Ural Mountains and as far as Alaska.

      In this perspective an expression which I have frequently employed finds its deepest meaning: the Church must breathe with her two lungs! In the first millennium of the history of Christianity, this expression refers primarily to the relationship between Byzantium and Rome. From the time of the Baptism of Rus’ it comes to have an even wider application: evangelization spread to a much vaster area, so that it now includes the entire Church. If we then consider that the salvific event which took place on the banks of the Dnieper goes back to a time when the Church in the East and the Church in the West were not divided, we understand clearly that the vision of the full communion to be sought is that of unity in legitimate diversity. This is what I strongly asserted in my Encyclical Epistle Slavorum Apostoli on Saints Cyril and Methodius and in my Apostolic Letter Euntes in Mundum addressed to the faithful of the Catholic Church in commemoration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Kievan Rus’.”

      It seems to me that John Paul II’s references to the Christian East have less to do with any Eastern confession in particular (Catholic, Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox) and more with the patrimony of the Eastern Christianity as a whole.

  4. I think that perhaps Fr Taft has been too long in the Let’s-play-nice-with-one-another ecumenical gatherings. I am not really opposed to his theory of sister churches, but it would have to be reciprocal, from many, if not most of the Orthodox, it is not.

    Of course, in defense of the Orthodox, whenever I attend the novus ordo with balloons, serving girls and all around banality, well, I find it hard to be charitable as well (what exactly do these people believe in?). Not to mention women and men swooning at the presence of the person of the Pope. if the the more fanatical did that during Benediction before our Lord’s presence in the Sacrament, that I could understand, but the present cult-like behaviour before the Pope’s person is rather off-putting to say the least.

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