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.