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Father Andrew's Corner: What is a Uniat?
By Father Andrew Harrison

This is a prejudicial name coined by Orthodox Christians for former Orthodox Christians who are in union with the Roman Catholic Church. They call themselves Greek Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, and Byzantine Catholics. They originated from a union which was signed between Eastern Orthodox Bishops and the Pope of Rome at the Council of Florence on July 5, 1439 AD.

The official date for the Great Schism between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church occurred on 1054 AD when representatives of the Pope of Rome excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and then the Patriarch excommunicated the Pope. Since that date there have been many attempts to heal the schism. The council of Florence was the last official attempt. A lifting of the mutual excommunications occurred in the 1950s as a gesture of friendship between the Pope and the Patriarch.

When the Ottoman Turks were about to conquer what remained of the Byzantine Empire, the last Emperor, John the 8th, and the Patriarch, Joseph the 2nd, believed that if a union could be formulated then the Pope would send armies from Europe to save the empire. The Pope, whose authority was being threatened by the consular movement within the Latin Church, was interested in a union because he could assert his supremacy. It was under these dire political conditions that the Bishops of the Orthodox Church signed a union which accepted the rather one-sided position of the Latin Church that the Pope is the supreme pontiff of the entire Christian Church. As supreme Pontiff he had a right to add words to the Nicene Creed which had been mutually agreed upon at the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Also under discussion were such innovations as purgatory and indulgences, which eventually led to the Protestant reformation. The Orthodox Church had rejected these teachings as innovations and therefore heresy. Since Mark of Ephesus, the main spokesman of the Orthodox Church, refused to sign the union, it never took universal effect. The Bishops who did sign either recanted or were deposed when they returned to their diocese. The word that was circulated around Constantinople after the council was - "Better the turban of the Sultan than the Tiara of the Pope." The action of the Orthodox Bishops who attended the Council destroyed the councilor movement and established once and for all the rule of the Pope over Western Christian Church. This became doctrine in 1870 AD with the declaration of infallibility. Further negations ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD.

The aftermath of the Council left the Orthodox faithful in confusion. Before that council there had been attempts with the support of Latin Kings and Nobles in Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and Romania to force Orthodox Christians into the Latin Church. The Hapsburg government in Austria refused to grant legal status to Orthodox Christians which meant they did not have any civil rights. The faithful bitterly defended their Orthodoxy but when some of their own clergy (both Bishops and Priests) sold out, they did not know where to turn. Some remained Orthodox while others went along to form the so-called Uniat church. Under the agreement of union they could retain their Eastern Rite Liturgy in their native language and have married clergy, but they must accept the Pope as supreme Pontiff and the other innovations of the Latin Church.

The turmoil continued in Eastern European countries until the Soviet Union banned the Uniat church. Greek Catholics were given a choice, either be Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Most chose to be Orthodox. After the fall of the Soviet Union there was a resurgence of Uniatism related to ethnicism and national identity as the Russian Orthodox Church was associated with the former Soviet Union and seen as the oppressor.

This has again caused confusion and turmoil. Those who came from families who were Greek Catholic wanted to return to their Catholicism with their church buildings causing court battles and dissention among the faithful. In some villages Orthodox were forced to build new churches while in other villages Greek Catholics had to build new churches. The problem of Uniatism is a hot item whenever Orthodox and Roman Catholics sit down to restart talks toward a valid union on an equal footing.

In south suburban Chicago there is a large Byzantine Catholic Church on Bell Road in Homer Glenn. It has a Russian style cupola with a three bar cross. On the inside the church is decorated with excellent Byzantine iconography. The parish has been growing by attracting Roman Catholics who like the more traditional Eastern Rite Liturgy. For more information on Uniatism in America and its relationship to the Orthodox Church in America please read an article on our website: Separated by Force and Reunited by Love by Fr. Vladimir Borichevsky.

There is also an article written in 1915 that describes the main points which separate the Orthodox and Roman Churches. Our Place In Christendom East And West.

Address questions to Fr. Andrew Harrison - frandrew@stlukeorthodox.com

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