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June 19, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 53




Pat Morrison Breathing with both lungs

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Every so often, this pope delivers an especially well-turned bon mot that gets us thinking. For me, one of these was John Paul II's recent description of the church's need to "breathe with both lungs" -- a reference to the equal and indispensable roles of the churches of both East and West.

The "both lungs" comment, reiterated in many ways during John Paul's Croatia trip last week, was his way both of affirming the Eastern churches and reminding the Latins that we're not the only game in town -- which is the rather parochial mindset of many Catholics, especially in the United States.

Perhaps the pope's focus on the need to "breathe with both lungs" caught my attention because I could relate to it. A friend who recently had a bout with pneumonia went to see a pulmonary specialist. After a battery of tests, the doctor said the situation wasn't serious, but my friend had what the doctor described in non-clinical terms as a "lazy lung." One lung was working great; the other wasn't quite up to par. Thus, the stronger lung was in some ways taking over the function of the weaker -- threatening to keep it in a lesser-functioning capacity. Simple breathing treatments and medication quickly rectified the problem.

What the pope is saying is that a healthy church, like a healthy pulmonary system, requires both lungs working at full capacity. Here the analogy limps, since one can't in any sense call the Eastern churches the "lazy lung." But looking at church history, recent as well as ancient, leaves little doubt that the Latin church has usurped much of the authority of its Eastern counterparts, in some cases with a not-so-Christian bullying that did violence to their liturgies, law and traditions.

A classic case is the celibacy issue. Most Eastern churches have a tradition of married clergy that dates back, in some cases, almost to apostolic times. What many U.S. Catholics don't know is that in 1928 the Latin-rite U.S. hierarchy strong-armed the Vatican into forbidding Eastern Catholic churches in the United States from ordaining any but celibate men. The American Latin-rite bishops, alarmed by the growth of some of the Eastern-rites, as they were then called, expressed concern that U.S. Latin Catholics would be "confused" if not outright scandalized by the active ministry of married clergy in these other Catholic churches. (Apparently the U.S. bishops' belief that their flock is easily "confused" is not a recent phenomenon.) This had sad ramifications: large numbers of Eastern-rite Catholics simply went over to the Orthodox churches or founded their own independent churches on U.S. soil.

In the decades since, the Latin Catholic church has made attempts to right some of the wrongs it has inflicted on the Eastern churches. John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II have taken major steps toward rapprochement with the churches of the East, both Catholic and Orthodox. Notable was John Paul II's 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen. In that letter, the pope minced no words: "A conversion is required of the Latin Church," he wrote, "that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians."

Perhaps the latest breakthrough (though largely ignored by the media) was the March 1999 release by the U.S. bishops' administrative committee of "Eastern Catholics in the United States of America." The document provides a helpful list of the various Eastern churches -- Byzantine, Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean and Romanian, to name just a few -- and background on their history and distinctiveness. It also clearly spells out for Latin Catholics that there's no ground for considering Eastern churches something akin to second-class cousins. The bishops note that contemporary legislation for both churches of East and West "makes it clear that we ought to speak, not of rites, but of churches. " In other words, these are not just branch offices of Rome, they are autonomous churches with their own distinctive liturgy, sacraments, law and pastoral practice.

We're not there yet. But Latin Catholics are on our way to understanding that we're just one small part of a universal, diverse community of believers. And much of that is due to a pope who's unrelentingly nudging us to "breathe with both lungs."

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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