Sister Churches

The notion of sister Churches can be confusing to Catholics and Orthodox alike. Each tradition has claimed, in the past, to be the sole inheritor of the historical Church, with all other Christian communities breaking off from the one trunk.

Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras
The reason Catholics can call the Orthodox Churches, sister Churches, is because they share the same apostolic faith, sacramental tradition, holy priesthood, and apostolic succession. These Eucharistic facets, in particular, set Orthodox and Catholics apart from all other Christians.
Despite the fact that Vatican II clarified the Catholic Church’s understanding of herself, popular misconceptions still exist. A synthesis of renewed Catholic ecclesiology since Vatican II can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Part One, Paragraph 3: The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

The following excerpts from the CCC 814-816, 819, 820, 825, 832-35, and 838 and an interview with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF; June 2007) may serve to explain how it is the Catholic Church views herself and how her renewed understanding pertains to other Christians – especially the oriental Churches.

814 From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God's gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together. Among the Church's members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life. "Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions.” [Lumen gentium (LG) 13.2]

‘Particular Churches’ refers to the Churches which practice the oriental Orthodox liturgical and sacramental traditions (Rites): Alexandrian (Coptic), East Syrian, West Syrian, Byzantine (Greek), and Armenian. These are the sister Churches of the Latin Church of the West.

814 cont. The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church's unity. Yet sin and the burden of its consequences constantly threaten the gift of unity. (see 817, 818) And so the Apostle has to exhort Christians to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph.4:3)

815 What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity "binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col.3:14) But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion:

-         profession of one faith received from the Apostles;

True, the “filioque” remains an obstacle to unity between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, but a joint commission has recommended that the Roman Catholic Church drop the “filioque” from the Creed, because the clause is not found in the Greek expression of Faith canonized at the Council of Constantinople in 381. (read more)

-         common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;

Coming together to worship liturgically on Sundays and Holy Days sets us apart as Christians and fulfills our obligation to obey the 3rd commandment. The entire sacramental life of the Church flows from the Eucharistic communion of One Body. As stated in CCC 814, Divine Liturgy is celebrated within a diversity of traditions. Roman Catholics are becoming more aware of the liturgical diversity within the Roman Rite (‘novus ordo’ liturgy and the ‘extraordinary form’ in Latin), and within the four oriental Rites listed above. (read more)

-         apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God's family. (LG 14)

Sister Churches are those Churches who are spiritually led and canonically governed by the successors to the Apostles. So if the visible bonds of communion are shared by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, what is it that hinders actual unity - the understanding of the papacy?

816 "The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” (LG 8.2)

On June 29, 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the presidency of William Cardinal Levada signed an official document called "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church". It was published July 10, 2007.
Benedict XVI ratified and confirmed these responses and ordered their publication. The document clarifies the Latin term, subsistit in, its implications for Catholic ecclesiology, and the concept of sister Churches (Orthodox) and ecclesial communities (Protestants):

What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church?

The Vatican: Christ "established here on earth" only one Church and instituted it as a "visible and spiritual community", that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. "This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him". In number 8 of the Constitution Lumen Gentium "subsistence" means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth. It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the Churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word "subsists" can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the "one" Church); and this "one" Church subsists in the Catholic Church.

Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term "Church" in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

The Vatican: The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. "Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds", they merit the title of "particular or local Churches", and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches. "It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature". However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches. On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realized in history.

Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of "Church" with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

The Vatican: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 816 concludes with a quote from Unitatis redintegratio (UR) 3.5:

The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.”

In other words, all things being equal, Catholics believe they have the best chance of getting to heaven because they enjoy apostolic faith, sacramental life through apostolic succession, and because their bishops remain united to Peter:

816 cont. “It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God."

But being Catholic is not a guaranty of salvation:

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” (LG 8.2) are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” (UR 3.2) Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation... All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, (UR 3) and are in themselves calls to "catholic unity.” (LG8)

825 "The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect.” (LG 48.3) In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: "Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state - though each in his own way - are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect.” (LG 11.3)

Each particular Church is "catholic"

832 "The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament. . . . In them the faithful are gathered together through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord's Supper is celebrated. . . . In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present, through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is constituted.” (LG 26)

833 The phrase "particular Church," which is first of all the diocese (or eparchy), refers to a community of the Christian faithful in communion of faith and sacraments with their bishop ordained in apostolic succession. (Code of Cannon Law #368-369) These particular Churches "are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists.” (LG 23)

834 Particular Churches are fully catholic through their communion with one of them, the Church of Rome "which presides in charity.” (St. Ignatius of Antioch Ad Rom. 1,1) "For with this church, by reason of its pre-eminence, the whole Church, that is the faithful everywhere, must necessarily be in accord.” (St Irenaeus, Adv. Haeres. 3,3,2) Indeed, "from the incarnate Word's descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior's promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her.” (St. Maximus the Confessor, Opuscula theo.: PG 91:137-140)

835 "Let us be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the simple sum, or . . . the more or less anomalous federation of essentially different particular churches. In the mind of the Lord the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she put down her roots in a variety of cultural, social, and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world.” (Paul VI, EN 62) The rich variety of ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and theological and spiritual heritages proper to the local churches "unified in a common effort, shows all the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church.” (LG 23)

The communion Orthodox Christians share with Catholics is profoundly close:

838 "The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” (LG 15) Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” (UR 3) With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound "that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist.” (Paul VI)

In one sense, both Orthodox and Catholic Christians can claim they lack nothing in faith or substance because each of these Churches is able to offer apostolic, sacramental faith and life for the salvation of sinners. But on the other hand, “because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realized in history.” (CDF)
Although not an impediment to individual salvation, the division of the apostolic college is a poverty within the Church of Christ that is deeply felt. For example, how can the Church hold a truly ecumenical council again without the full ecumenical college of apostolic bishops?

820 Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit. (UR 1)

821 Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:

·         a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity

·         conversion of heart as the faithful "try to live holier lives according to the Gospel"; (UR 7.3) for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ's gift which causes divisions;

·         prayer in common, because "change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name 'spiritual ecumenism;" (UR 8.1)

·         fraternal knowledge of each other;

·         ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;

·         dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;

·         collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind. "Human service" is the idiomatic phrase.