It is surprising how much weight can be put on a single, limited analogy, like the notion of sister Churches. There are several images of the Church of Christ that have been set forth by the Fathers throughout the ages: the Ark, New Israel, Chosen People, Assembly, Mystical Body of Christ, Sheepfold, Vineyard, Temple, Jerusalem, Mother, Spotless Spouse, Family/Household of God, Army, Pilgrim, etc. (see CCC 751-757; LG 6) All of these images fall short of the reality yet help us recognize certain aspects of the nature of Christ’s Holy Church.
In Catholic-Orthodox dialogue it is silly to get wrapped up in squabbles over words like “sister” or “mother”. These are metaphors that say something important about the Church, but no single image completely captures the essence of the Church. As a married man I may talk about how I am the king of my household, but obviously I am no more a ruling monarch than the Church is my biological mother.
The Seventh Plenary Session of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church took place at the school of theology in Balamand, Lebanon ten years ago: June 17-24, 1993. This session, although it does not hold the same weight as canonical phraseology or an official Church document, used the phrase “Sister Churches” several times:
12. Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in their relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches…
13. On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church – profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops – cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches.
14. It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches recognize each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity. According to the words of Pope John Paul II, the ecumenical endeavor of the Sister Churches of East and West, grounded in dialogue and prayer, is the search for perfect and total communion which is neither absorption nor fusion but a meeting in truth and love (cf. Slavorum Apostoli, n. 27).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) also has a few things to say about Sister Churches as did John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The focus ought to be on the word “Churches”, not “Sister”. The question is not whether we ought to use the phrase “Sister Churches”, but rather, “What does the proper adjective, ‘Sister’, say about the nature of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches?”
The point is that Orthodox and Catholic Christians have common origin in the pre-schism Church of Christ and are unique from other Christians in that they share apostolic succession, profess one apostolic faith (with post-schism nuances), celebrate the same sacraments, and participate in the same Eucharistic Communion (although, not usually from the same table).
This last mark of unity seems to be the most important. While we all hold that each sister Church maintains fully licit and valid sacraments, under ordinary circumstances, we exclude each other from sacramental communion. This is a tragedy, but as the 2010 North American joint declaration states, “Conscience holds us back from celebrating our unity as complete in sacramental terms, until it is complete in faith, Church structure, and common action.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Eucharistic communion:
1397 The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church.
1396 The unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church. Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ… In Baptism we have been called to form but one body. (1Cor 12:13) The Eucharist fulfills this call: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread:”(1Cor 10:16-17)
1398 The more painful the experience of the divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord, the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return.
1399 The Eastern Churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. “These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.” A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, “given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.”[Unitatis redintegratio (UR) 15.2; CIC canon 844.3]
Yet, “suitable circumstances” cannot be interpreted as loosely as one might wish them to be. As long as there is a Catholic minister available, Catholics must go to Catholic priests for the sacraments. This is particularly difficult for an Eastern Catholic who might prefer to attend an Orthodox Divine Liturgy over a Roman rite Mass when traveling to a place that does not have an Eastern Catholic parish, or be able to receive communion while visiting one of his Orthodox friends.
Protestants, on the other hand, may not approach the sacraments under any circumstances, but it is important to note that the Catholic Church does recognize that Christ is present in some way when Protestant Christians celebrate the “Lord’s Supper.”
1400 Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”(UR 22.3) It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible. However these ecclesial communities, “when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper . . . profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.” (UR 22.3)
The canons make it clear that Catholics cannot approach an Orthodox priest for the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, or Anointing unless the situation is “necessary” or gives “spiritual advantage” in the absence of a “Catholic minister.” Similarly, Orthodox Christians may approach a Catholic priest for the sacraments if “grave necessity arises” and the Orthodox bishop permits it:
1401 When, in the Ordinary’s judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions.(CIC canon 844.4)
The Balamand Statement also addresses a key issue for healing schismatic wounds between the Churches. It is difficult to heal history, but being honest about the past, recognizing the abuses and sins of our own Churches, and asking one another’s forgiveness is crucial:
23. The history of the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Catholic Churches has been marked by persecutions and sufferings. Whatever may have been these sufferings and their causes, they do not justify any triumphalism; no one can glorify in them or draw an argument from them to accuse or disparage the other Church. God alone knows his own witnesses. Whatever may have been the past, it must be left to the mercy of God, and all the energies of the Churches should be directed towards obtaining that the present and the future conform better to the will of Christ for his own.
30. [Seminaries] should offer a correct and comprehensive knowledge of history aiming at a historiography of the two Churches which is in agreement and even may be common. In this way, the dissipation of prejudices will be helped, and the use of history in a polemical manner will be avoided. This presentation will lead to an awareness that faults leading to separation belong to both sides, leaving deep wounds on each side.