Different Types of Catholics
The Catholic Church is not a uniformity, but rather a unity. When we say uniformity we mean all things are the same within an organization. When we say unity, however, what we mean by that is that different things came together to be united, yet at the same time retain their unique and individual characteristics. The Catholic Church fits this later description more accurately, in that the Catholic Church is a unity of various churches that are in full communion with each other.
In this sense, the unity that is the Catholic Church could also be called a communion. As I explain this further, it’s important to understand that what unites all Catholics together in communion (unity) are basically two things. One, we all share the same beliefs. That means that all Catholics hold to the same creed and dogma. While we may be different in appearance and practice, our beliefs are identical. Two, we all share the same sacraments. We all profess, believe and practice the exact same seven sacraments of: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, healing, ordination and matrimony. You’ll find these exact same sacraments in all Catholic churches, regardless of the rite, form or ritual.
I find that diagrams are extremely helpful, so let’s start there. The Catholic Church consists of twenty-four individual and juridical churches, grouped together under 6 Ritual Families, for a total of 17 liturgical rites. Now, if you think that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Nobody planned the Catholic Church to be this way. It is rather, just the way it ended up, because that’s how it grew together in unity.
The first thing I want to call your attention to in the diagram is the white boxes. The grey box at the top correctly states this is the Catholic Church. As I said above, the Catholic Church is not a monolith or a uniformity. It is rather a communion or unity, of various different churches. The white boxes underneath illustrate these churches. These are called juridical churches, and as I said, there are 24 in all. Juridical simply means each of these churches has its own jurisdiction, or boundary, and respects the other jurisdictions (boundaries) of the other juridical churches. That means simply this. Bishops from one juridical church don’t tell bishops from another juridical church what to do. They each mind their own business, but at the same time, they’re usually very friendly and cordial to each other. Some of them might even be good buddies! When it comes to running their churches though, each respects the juridical boundaries of the other.
Being in communion (unity) with each other also means that Catholics of one juridical church can visit other juridical churches, and recieve the sacaments there. For example, if a Latin Church Catholic visits a Byzantine Church, said Latin Catholic can meet his Sunday obligation there, and receive communion there, without any problem. The same is true vice versa when a Byzantine Catholic visits a Latin Church.
Now, the colored boxes simply represent liturgical rites that these churches use. Stop. Let that sink in before we move on. The colored boxes only represent liturgical rites used by the juridical churches. That is all.
A rite is a “way” of being Catholic. It means the “way” we do things. It has to do with our traditions and customs, to the way we worship, to the way we sing, even to the architecture of our church buildings. One could rightly call it our “character.”
Now, the first thing you’ll notice by looking at the diagram is that it’s arranged differently in the East as it is in the West. The Latin Liturgical Family, which is used by the Latin Church is considered “Western,” while everything else is considered “Eastern.” You’ll notice that the Latin Church is just one juridical church using multiple rites. While in the East, there are many churches to one rite. Again, nobody planned this. That’s just how things worked out over the centuries. There is no right or wrong way of doing these things. Eastern Christianity simply organized multiple juridical churches under one rite, while as Western Christianity organized multiple rites under one juridical church — the Latin Church. Again, there is no right way or wrong way of doing these things. That’s just how it ended up. History is funny that way.
So where does Eastern Orthodoxy fit into all this? This can only be explained by a short history lesson. So here it goes. From about AD 800 to 1054, political tensions rose between the Latin Church and the Eastern churches. This culminated in a political split between the Latin Church, and most (not all) of the Eastern churches in AD 1054. A couple Eastern churches remained with the Latin Church in full communion, but most of them broke communion and became what we know today as the Eastern Orthodox churches. Basically, they’re pretty much the same as they have always been, which is Eastern Catholic in every way, but because of the political problems with Rome, they remain separate and called “Orthodox.” However, about five centuries later, a large number of Orthodox, in various places, decided to return into full communion with Rome and the Latin Church. So, together with those Eastern Catholics who never left, they form the Eastern Catholic Churches of today.
There are about 300 million Eastern Orthodox in the world. Likewise, there are approximately 18 million Eastern Catholics in the Catholic Church, but that number could grow exponentially as soon as various Eastern Orthodox Churches decide to return to communion with Rome and the Latin Church. (The Latin Church alone, however, consists of about 3.2 billion members.) So for example, if the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox jurisdiction, ever decided to reunite with Rome and the Latin Church, the number of Eastern Catholics would grow by 90 million members virtually overnight, putting the number of Eastern Catholics at about 108 million, or over 10% of the entire Catholic Church. Such a boost in numbers would not only change the overall image of the Catholic Church, but also the makeup of the College of Cardinals, making the eventual election of an Eastern Catholic Pope far more plausable.
Most people, who live in the West, are most familiar with the Latin Church, and the largest liturgical rite of the Latin Church is the Roman Rite. So that’s what most people, in the West, associate with Catholicism. When they hear the word “Catholic,” they automatically think: “Latin Church, Roman Rite.”
Again, there is nothing wrong with thinking that way, because that’s what most people in the West experience. However, people do need to understand that is not the ONLY way of being Catholic. There are variations of rites within the Latin Church, and there are multiple Eastern Catholic Churches too, that use various Eastern rites. They even have different disciplines and different ways of doing things. For example, in the Eastern rites, married men can be ordained as priests. They often dress differently, and frequently grow long beards too. We don’t see a lot of those here in the West, and most of them are in large cities, but they do exist, and it’s important to recognize that.
So why is all this important? It’s important for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike because people need to understand that the Catholic Church is not a monolith, and there are different ways of being Catholic. No one type of Catholic is better than the other, and the Catholic Church itself is a model of Christian unity that other Christians ought to aspire toward. If Eastern and Western Christians can get along as well as they do in the Catholic Church, then certainly there is hope for the unity of all Christians someday. Primarily, that would apply toward the Eastern Orthodox, who are the most likely to reunite with Rome one day, but it’s not impossible for it to happen with Protestant communities as well, as we’ve already seen with groups of Anglicans who have corporally reunited with Rome under what was commonly known as the “Anglican Use,” before the usage was renamed “Divine Worship.” My point here is that Christian unity is possible. There only needs to be a will to pursue it, accompanied by prayer and the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, on a small note, there is no such thing as a “Roman Catholic” in the proper understanding of those terms. One can be a “Latin Church Catholic,” or just a “Latin Catholic,” or one could be a "Roman Rite Catholic," or just "Roman Catholic," but only if one is referring specifically to the Roman Rite. Sometimes, the terms “Latin” and “Roman” are used interchangeably in colloquial settings, but this is not the proper use of those terms. One can be a Roman Catholic, if of course we are specifically talking about the Roman Rite. This is important because the term “Roman Catholic” was originally invented by non-Catholics (in England) for the purpose of distinguishing their own “catholic” practices in Anglicanism from those in the Catholic Church. Some used it in a derogatory way. Others used it merely as a classifier. Either way, regardless of the intent, it’s just bad English and technically inaccurate.
The Catholic Church has never officially referred to itself as “Roman Catholic” in a universal sense, as this is confusing, even to the point of making it appear as if Eastern Catholics aren’t really Catholic because they’re not “Roman.” I know this might seem like splitting hairs to some, but words are important, and they do have unintended consequences. For example; I am a Catholic, but if you want me to be specific, I am a Roman Rite Catholic of the Latin Church. I use Divine Worship (formally the “Anglican Use”) of the Roman Rite. I know this may seem technical, but only because such terminology is uncommon in everyday use. That can change, and it should change. If you just call me a “Catholic,” it makes more sense, and it doesn’t alienate my fellow Byzantine Catholics or Maronite Catholics, or Coptic Catholics, etc. Suffice it to say, I’m just a “Catholic” and so are they.
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.