Is There Just One “Catholic Church?”

Oxford University Press has just released the paperback edition of John Allen Jr.’s book The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Allen describes the book as a “one-stop shopping guide to the basic structures, teachings, and practices, internal tensions, and future prospects of the Catholic Church. . . . The approach is descriptive in nature, rooted in more than two decades of experience as a journalist covering the Vatican, the American Catholic scene, and the Catholic Church in various parts of the world.” (12) I found his answer to our question an interesting one. Here’s what he says:

“Theologically, yes, there’s only one ‘Catholic Church,’ unified under the Pope. Structurally, however, there are actually twenty-three separate churches that make up the one Catholic Church. By far the largest is the ‘Latin’ church, meaning the mainstream form of Catholicism that developed in Europe and later spread via missionary activity to the rest of the world. Yet there are twenty-two other, ‘Eastern,’ churches, meaning churches outside the orbit of Latin culture, which at one point or another accepted the pope’s authority. Historically, most of these Eastern Catholic churches began when a group inside a branch of Orthodox Christianity decided it wanted to enter into communion with Rome, while at the same time preserving its own liturgical, spiritual, and theological heritage.

The Eastern churches have sometimes been called ‘uniate’ churches, meaning churches in union with Rome, but most of them see that as a pejorative term. They’ve also sometimes been called the ‘Easter rites,’ although members of the Eastern churches don’t like that either, because it suggests they differ with the Latin church only in their rituals, as opposed to constituting proper ‘churches’ with their own traditions, leaderships, and structures. An Eastern church is generally led by its own ‘patriarch.’ In an effort to recognize the importance of the Eastern churches, recent popes have made several of these patriarchs cardinals. It’s a sign of how fiercely Eastern Catholics defend their distinctiveness that many of them object to this practice, insisting that a cardinal is an artifact of the Latin Church.

The three largest Eastern Catholic churches are the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church, with 4.5 million members; the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, centered in India, with 3.9 million faithful; and the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, with roughly 3.3 million members. Each of the twenty-two Eastern churches has its own clergy and bishops, and they’re fiercely protective of their autonomy. The Eastern churches also now have members outside their historical territories, in places such as North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, so they’ve created their own bishops and dioceses to serve them. These structures enjoy separated jurisdiction over their own members and properties.” (24-25)

Catholic Church

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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