Since I have captioned the topic for this discussion as, “The two lungs of the Catholic Church”, let me begin by saying something briefly about the human lungs. This, I believe, would help us appreciate the importance of the lungs to human life.
Experts say, “The lungs are a pair of spongy, air-filled organs located on either side of the chest (thorax). The trachea (windpipe) conducts inhaled air into the lungs through its tubular branches, called bronchi. The bronchi then divide into smaller and smaller branches (bronchioles), finally becoming microscopic.”
They continue that, “The lungs are covered by a thin tissue layer called the pleura. The same kind of thin tissue lines the inside of the chest cavity — also called pleura. A thin layer of fluid acts as a lubricant allowing the lungs to slip smoothly as they expand and contract with each breath.”
Let us take the last info from our experts, after which we shall delve into our topic proper. They say, “The lungs’ main role is to bring in air from the atmosphere and pass oxygen into the bloodstream. From there, it circulates to the rest of the body.”
This is a vital role for survival. It means that if the lungs do not function well, a person may eventually die. Whereas a person may survive, even with one lung, it is always safer to have the two functioning together. No wonder, in this era of COVID-19, doctors keep telling us that, the virus attacks the lungs, and that makes it dangerous.
Church breathing with two lungs
Sometimes when we hear the term “Catholic Church”, we assume that it is made up of a monolithic structure, in which everything is done in the same way. No, there is a lot of variety and creativity in the Catholic Church.
St. Pope John Paul II of blessed memory once used an analogy and declared in the document “On Commitment to Ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (# 54) This is profound, turning our minds to the other lung of the Catholic Church.
The very first canon of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is an eye-opener because it states,
“The canons of this Code regard only the Latin Church.”
This should set us thinking, because if the Catholic Church is one, then stating that the canons regard only the Latin Church is superfluous, if you like, unnecessary. But since it has been categorically stated as such, we must now look out for the other branch, or lung, of the Catholic Church.
At my recent check, I found out that the Catholic Church consists of twenty-four autonomous (or sui iuris) churches. Autonomous and sui iuris, meaning, “of its own law”, are synonymous. This means that, each autonomous or sui iuris church has its own hierarchy, traditions, and discipline. That notwithstanding, they are all united under the common headship of the Roman Pontiff, the Pope.
Latin Church and Eastern Catholic Churches
The two lungs of the Catholic Church are the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Latin Church is also known as the Western Church or the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Catholic Churches, on the other hand, are also known as the Oriental Catholic Churches.
Pay attention: we said Roman Catholic Church (singular), but in the case of the East, we said Eastern Catholic Churches (plural). That should tell us that the former is made up of one huge block, whilst the latter is made up of many autonomous churches. In comparison, then, we can say that the Latin Church is the largest autonomous church.
With this background we can now understand Canon 1 which states,
“The canons of this Code regard only the Latin Church.”
The Two Codes
In other words, the 1983 Code of Canon Law does not bind the members of the Eastern Catholic Churches, even though some of the canons make allusions to them. They have their own distinct liturgical, spiritual, and theological traditions, as well as a code of law common to all of them. Their code of law is called the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. This was promulgated on October 18, 1990.
Let us pause here and clarify something. The code of law for the Western Church is called the Code of Canon Law (or the 1983 Code of Canon Law). It was promulgated on January 25, 1983 by St. Pope John Paul II of blessed memory. Now, the code of law for the Eastern Catholic Churches is called the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. This, too, was promulgated on October 18, 1990 by St. Pope John Paul II of blessed memory.
Which Church is Superior?
We may be wondering, are these twenty-four autonomous churches equal? Let us hear what the Decree On The Catholic Churches Of The Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Solemnly Promulgated By His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964 say. Number three states,
“These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite (to use the current phrase), that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church.
They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16, 15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.”
There is no competition among the churches. They are of equal dignity.
The Various Rites
The Latin Church sui iuris observes the Roman rite liturgy or a variation of it, the most notable variation being the Ambrosian rite of Milan (in Italy).4
For the Eastern Churches, we have the following rites:
1. Alexandrian rite: Coptic church, Ethiopian, and Eritrean churches
2. Antiochene rite: Syro-Malankara, Maronite (we have one here at Osu – St. Maron’s
Catholic Church), and Syrian churches
3. Byzantine rite: Albanian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Greek Catholic Church of Croatia
and Serbia, Greek Byzantine, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Macedonian, Melkite,
Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Slovakian, and Ukrainian churches
4. Chaldean rite: Chaldean and Malabar churches
5. Armenian rite: Armenian church
Anytime you hear “Catholic Church”, don’t be quick to think of only the Latin, Western, or Roman Catholic Church, but remember there is also the Eastern, or Oriental Catholic Churches. These are the two lungs of the Catholic Church.
4 John P. Beal et al.