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from the Secretary General

Classifying Catholics

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

The Catholic Church is actually a family of churches united not by discipline, customs or rites, but by their common faith and common understanding and acceptance of the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

This creates confusion in terminology: all Catholic churches are linked to the bishop of Rome, but every Catholic Church is not Roman Catholic.

The Roman Catholic Church. The largest Catholic Church by far and the most international is the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes called the Western or Latin Church, it refers to all those peoples, places and churches that trace their evangelization directly or indirectly to the Church of Rome.

The Roman Catholic Church is loosely organized into ecclesiastical provinces headed by the bishop of the metropolitan diocese (archdiocese) – who may use the title of metropolitan archbishop or simply archbishop. Also, in most countries there is a mechanism for collaboration among bishops called an episcopal conference or conference of Catholic bishops.

Strictly speaking each diocesan bishop in the Roman Catholic Church is not bound by these structures; his immediate superior is the pope, the bishop of Rome.

The patriarchal churches. From ancient times, the bishops of certain major cities like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem have been known as patriarchs. They have a special role of authority and preside over other dioceses and even over other metropolitan dioceses.

These patriarchal churches have their distinctive rituals, use particular languages in their liturgy and have their own internal discipline, with a special emphasis on the role and authority of the synod (assembly) of bishops.

The six Catholic patriarchal churches are the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac.

Major archiepiscopal churches. Similar to the patriarchal churches are those headed by a major archbishop, with authority a little less than that of a patriarch.

The four Catholic major archiepiscopal churches are the Romanian, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Ukrainian.

Metropolitan churches. Some smaller Eastern Catholic churches not yet canonically organized into major archiepiscopal churches are called metropolitan churches. At present, there are two: the Ethiopic and Ruthenian.

Bishops under Rome. In several countries, bishops have been appointed by the Holy See for Catholics who are not members of patriarchal, major archiepiscopal or metropolitan churches. Such eparchies and exarchates exist in Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Other Eastern Catholics. In Albania, Belarus, Georgia and Russia, there are some Catholics of the Byzantine tradition without a bishop of their own.

This rich variety of traditions, practices and disciplines is the precious patrimony of the whole Catholic Church. What an impoverishment it would be if there were no other Catholics than the Roman kind.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern



Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Diversity