Are we Orthodox united with Rome? Several different people have written in asking some variation on this most fundament of questions. Since each question was directed in a slightly different way, Bishop John has chosen a rather more complete answer.
Bishop John’s Answer
Sometimes I think that the Melkite Catholic Church, as well as other Byzantine Catholic Churches, enjoys the best of two worlds: Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We rejoice in the affirmation of the good Pope John XXIII that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.”
When the Patriarchate of Antioch was divided into two branches in 1724, one branch kept the name Orthodox and the other branch which sealed its union with the Holy See of Rome, kept the name Melkite given to it since the Sixth Century and called itself Catholic. It became known as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In the Middle East, although both branches claim orthodoxy as well as catholicity, however being Catholic means not Orthodox and being Orthodox means not Catholic. To be a Catholic Christian means that one accepts the primacy of the Pope of Rome, because he is the successor of St. Peter. To be an Orthodox Christian means that one does not recognize the primacy of the Pope of Rome, but considers him as “first among equals.”
According to the Catholic teaching, Christ did not create a church with five heads of equal importance. He established One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church whose invisible head is the Lord, but whose visible head is the Pope of Rome.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states it in these terms: “The bishop of the Church of Rome, in whom resides the office (munus) given in a special way by the Lord to Peter, first of the Apostles and to be transmitted to his successors, is head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the entire Church on earth; therefore in virtue of his office (munus) he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church which he can always freely exercise.” (Canon 43 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches)
If an Orthodox subscribes to the Canon quoted above, he/she can be called Catholic and be considered “united to Rome” or in full communion with the Catholic Church.
An illustration may help: Is the Province of Quebec a province of France united to the British Crown through Canada, or a Canadian province with special relations to France? Is the Melkite Church a hundred per cent Catholic with special relations with the Orthodox Churches or a hundred per cent Orthodox with special relations to Rome. Certainly, the first case is true:
The Melkite Church is a hundred per cent Catholic, but not a hundred per cent Orthodox.
Independence and sovereignty or dependence on another Church? Such a decision is difficult to make. However, the Melkite Church has chosen dependency as a price for unity, in order to comply with the will of our Lord who prayed repeatedly “that all may be one.” (John 17)