Melkite Catholic Identity and Relations with Orthodoxy

Earlier this week, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, Yusuf al-Absi, gave a very significant speech at an event celebrating the publication of a volume about the history of the so-called “Zoghby Initiative”, which sought to create a form of double communion for his church with both Rome and the Antiochian Orthodox Church. In it, he appeared to repudiate his church’s efforts at rapprochement with Orthodoxy over recent decades, stating that “We wanted, in all sincerity, to be a bridge, but in reality, from the very beginning we planted our feet on the Western side.” In order to understand the historical importance of this speech, it is useful to have an overview of the history of the Melkite Catholic Church’s orientation between Rome and Orthodoxy, with particular focus on the background to the Zoghby Initiative.

Over the course of its history, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church has vacillated between the Roman Catholic and Antiochian Orthodox poles of its identity. Its origin lies in the reform project of the sometime Metropolitan of Tyre and Sidon, Euthymius al-Sayfi, who sought to remake the Patriarchate of Antioch in the image of Tridentine Catholicism, radically transforming dogma, liturgical practice and monastic life in imitation of Latin Catholic norms. In fact, the creation of a separate, Roman Catholic Antiochian church should be dated to Sayfi’s time rather than to the events of 1724. In 1702, Sayfi secretly received permission from Rome to act as bishop for all Catholics in Syria without their own bishop, and he proceeded to singlehandedly consecrate a bishop for the Monastery of the Savior that he founded near Sidon. Sayfi was eventually excommunicated and anathematized in 1718 by a Synod in Constantinople with the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, and died in 1723. At the death of Patriarch Athanasius Dabbas in 1724, Sayfi’s supporters, with financial and political backing of the French consul in Damascus, managed to secure support from the Orthodox population of Damascus to elect Sayfi’s nephew and close collaborator, Seraphim Tanas, as patriarch under the name Cyril VI. When the Holy Synod of Antioch refused to elect him canonically, Latin missionaries in Damascus arranged for bishops created through single-handed consecrations in Sayfi’s line to perform the necessary episcopal consecration.

Tanas would continue his uncle’s extreme Latinizing policies, which was met with resistance from Rome, which rightly saw this tendency being unlikely to result in conversions of Orthodox outside the small Europeanizing urban merchant class that formed the core of the Catholic movement in the patriarchate. This, combined with the patently illicit (and, from an Orthodox perspective, invalid) nature of Tanas’ episcopal consecration meant that Rome would hesitate for twenty years before finally recognizing his patriarchal status and the creation of a wholly independent Melkite Catholic Church in 1744.

The early decades of the Melkite Catholic Church were marked by a tug-of-war over identity, with the Salvatorian Order founded by Sayfi pushing for maximal Latinization, while the Choueirite Order and Rome sought a slower pace of change. In the early 19th century, however, the deep ties between the Melkite Catholics and France had an unexpected effect: Jansenist and Gallican ideas filtered in through the influence of the Metropolitan of Aleppo Germanos Adam (d. 1809) and the 1806 Synod of Qarqafe emulated the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia of 1786, emphasizing the authority of councils over that of the Pope. Thus, through Western European influence, a door was opened for the Melkite Catholics to place greater emphasis on ideas more similar to Orthodox ecclesiology. Rome’s responses in matters of jurisdiction wereoften heavy-handed. Adam was forced to recant his views before his death and the Pope formally condemned the Synod of Qarqafe in 1835. After all Catholic bishops in the Middle East were placed under the authority of local Latin bishops and the Gregorian Calendar was imposed in the 1840s, there was even a brief schism in the Melkite Catholic Church and a significant movement for return to Orthodoxy.

In the early 20th century, further efforts were made to escape what Melkite Catholic authors (invariably writing in French) described as ‘uniatism’, a situation in which, in the words of Metropolitan Elias Zoghby, Eastern Churches “have not been united, but annexed to the

Roman Church, like branch offices of the Latin Church.”[1] Thus, in 1926 the French sometime Melkite Catholic priest Cyrille Charon published L’Uniatisme: définition, causes, effets, étendue, dangers, remèdes, in 1957 Oreste Kéramé published Unionisme, uniatisme, arabisme chrétien, and in 1963 Elias Zoghby published Uniatisme et oecuménisme.

While these authors sought to end ‘uniatism’ in their own church and reclaim, to one degree or another, what they considered to be an authentic Eastern ecclesiology, spirituality and liturgical practice, this discussion existed entirely within the Melkite Catholic Church, without any element of discussion with the Antiochian Orthodox. This situation would only change following the Second Vatican Council, which was perceived as opening more room for ecumenical dialogue. As it happened, however, it took a crisis—Rome’s successful effort to forcibly retire the politically outspoken Metropolitan of Beirut, Grégoire Haddad in 1974—to create circumstances that favored Orthodox-Catholic cooperation. As a gesture of solidarity with the Melkite Catholic Church, which found itself in a profound crisis, the Holy Synod of Antioch sent Metropolitans Elias Corban and Philip Saliba to attend the Melkite Catholic Synod’s meeting in May of 1975. The gesture was reciprocated, and Melkite Catholic Metropolitans Elias Zoghby, Neophytos Edelby and Grégoire Haddad visited the meeting of the Orthodox Holy Synod, which was taking place at the same time.

At that meeting, Zoghby made a speech where he called for active steps to be taken for unity between the two churches, saying:

I would like to remind you that, even if your Church has many sisters, she only has one sister from the same mother and father, our Church. We pride ourselves on this title and are attached to it; all the more: we look to the Orthodox Church of Antioch as our Mother Church. […] we feel a certain reluctance on your part regarding this rapprochement and collaboration. We understand this reluctance and its motives. Indeed, everyone knows that our Church was born and developed to the detriment of your people. You were obliged to be on your guard. Now we feel that your reluctance has diminished with regard to the past, but we would like for it to disappear. And, so that it may disappear, we would like to work to create in stages a real unity between our Churches, without waiting for union between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Churches.

A month later, Orthodox Patriarch Elias IV Mouawad and Melkite Catholic Patriarch Maximos V Hakim met and discussed possible practical steps toward uniting the churches, including a common date for Easter and Catholic adoption of the (then newly-adopted) Orthodox regulations for parish and diocesan councils. That fall, the Melkite Catholics also sought to establish contacts with the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem.

At the same time, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch attempted an almost unbelievably bold move: requesting that the Pope allow the Melkite Catholics to freely return to the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Georges Khodr later described his 1975 mission as follows:

Patriarch Elias IV delegated me to go to Rome on a visit he intended to be secret, bearing with me the issue of Jerusalem and the issue of the Greek Catholics. Pope Paul VI received me for 57 minutes in the presence of Fr. Pierre Duprey. I proposed to His Holiness the idea that the Greek Catholics suspend – with his good pleasure and blessing – their communion with him. I invented this phrase, suspension of communion, basing my argument on the fact that the Greek Catholics, by joining with Rome, created a schism in the Church of Antioch. I said that the Second Vatican Council affirmed the importance of the local (or regional) church and that in it the universal Church is realized in all its attributes. I continued by saying that there is a problem – on account of the theology of the local church – in the Greek Catholics not being with us and that they will restore their unity with the Papal See when we ourselves restore it. Paul VI kept silent and I understood that he was not prepared for such an opening.

Tragically, 1975 also marked the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War and world events did not permit further ecumenical efforts. With the end of the war, however, a final effort was made, culminating in the famous “Zoghby Initiative” of 1995. At that year’s summer meeting of the Melkite Catholic Holy Synod, Zoghby distributed a French-language pamphlet entitled “United Orthodox, yes! Uniate, no!” which included a statement of faith that had received the pre-approval of Georges Khodr (who also was responsible for its Arabic translation):

  • I believe everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.

  • I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first among the bishops, according to the limits recognized by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.

This statement was approved by twenty-three of the twenty-five bishops in attendance. The only two who did not sign it were diaspora bishops who had been directly appointed by Rome. The synod furthermore decreed that:

1. The abolition of the uniate ecclesiastical split effected within the Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724 according to the methods of a bygone era (in the words of the Mixed Commission of Balamand in 1993).

2. Full communion of faith of the signatories with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and, consequently, the recovery of communicatio in sacris.

3. The continuation of the signatory bishops’ ecclesiastical communion with the Holy See of Rome, recognized by Orthodoxy itself as being the first of all; but communion as it was recognized and lived by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium and before the Great Schism.

N.B. The Patriarchate of Antioch should be progressively reunified.

Without endorsing the specifics of this resolution, the Orthodox Holy Synod nevertheless responded positively, stating: “It is time that Antioch’s wound be closed in the land where it appeared. In the hope of our full union, we look forward to joint actions capable of raising us from a distress that has for too long separated us from each other.” To further this, a joint committee was created, made up of the Orthodox Metropolitans Georges Khodr and Elias Audi and the Catholic Metropolitans Elias Zoghby and Cyril Bustros. Further contacts were made in Rome and with the other Orthodox Churches, but it quickly became evident to the Orthodox side that Zoghby’s idea of „double communion” was inherently self-contradictory and would lead to intra-Orthodox disunity, and that the Melkite Catholic inability to clearly repudiate Latin councils and dogmas called into question the seriousness of their identification with Orthodox theology and canon law.

As Georges Khodr explained in a talk he gave in 2011:

An attempt at rapprochement with the Melkites completely failed despite the evident progress of the Greek Catholics toward the Eastern tradition. The challenge proposed by these brothers was to live within a double jurisdiction, that of the Papacy and that of the Orthodox Church of Antioch. The Orthodox saw in that proposal an impossible duality, that of accepting Orthodox doctrine without pronouncing on the doctrine of infallibility.

In this context, the weight of Patriarch Absi’s words become clear: it is a complete swing of the pendulum away from the heady ecumenism of the 1990s. What remains to be seen, however, is if his declaration that “in dogma and canon law, we are Catholics, and in liturgy and sacramental life we are Byzantines” marks a return to what Elias Zoghby and many others once decried as “uniatism”: a church Latin in substance and Byzantine in ornamentation.

[1] Here and below, all primary source citations are taken from Samuel Noble, “Going beyond the Balamand Document: Obstacles to Orthodox-Catholic Convergence in the Patriarchate of Antioch,” in Skira, De Mey and Teule (eds.), The Catholic Church and Its Orthodox Sister Churches: Twenty-Five Years after Balamand. (Leuven: Peeters, 2022), 227-239.

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