When many Catholics think of the “Eastern Church” or the “Eastern Churches”, they usually think of the largest among them, the Eastern Orthodox Churches. But the latter is by no means the only Eastern Church. There are also the lesser Eastern Churches. Among them there is the small but ancient and venerable “Assyrian Church of the East” (as it now calls itself) which broke communion with both Rome and Constantinople after the theological controversies which followed the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars have long noted that the major dogmatic difference impeding the Reunion of their Churches concerns the governmental constitution of the Church, specifically the Catholic claim that the Bishop of Rome as the Successor of Peter possesses an universal authority and jurisdiction over the entire Church and that is of divine institution. The more ecumenically minded Eastern Orthodox theologians such as Oliver Clement may have been led to admit that:
“By the time of Leo the Great, pope from 440-461, the doctrine of the Roman primacy was complete... At the time of the ecumenical councils it acknowledged a true Roman primacy and the petrine charism which that presupposes. And this was by no means a simple ‘primacy of honor’, a ‘primus inter pares’.”
However, this acknowledgment of a “certain primacy of jurisdiction” on the part of Peter’s See is regarded as being of essentially ecclesiastical institution (based on canonical enactments by various Church councils or on the historically conditioned consensus of patriarchs and bishops) and not on the express words of Christ to Peter establishing him and his successors as the visible head of the Church Universal. (Cf. the famous Petrine texts: Matt. 16:18-19; Luke 22: 31-32; Jn. 21:15-17).
A recent Letter to his flock in San Jose, California, by Bishop Mar Bawai Soho of the Assyrian Church of the East is of particular interest as offering a remarkable testimony to the divine institution of the Roman Primacy by a prelate of this ancient Eastern Church which can trace its origins to the time of apostolic preaching in the Persian Empire (becoming known as the “Church of Persia” (modern Iran). Before long, it became isolated from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Greek Empire which was at that time in communion with Rome. This Assyrian Church of the East thought to be stained with Nestorianism would constitute the oldest major schism in the East and would become separated from both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Assyrian Christians in Mesopotamia-Persia (modern Iraq and Iran) appear to have been evangelized by the Apostle Thomas and his disciple St. Mari. Based in Seleucia-Ctesiphon under its leading prelate the Catholicos-Patriarch, the Assyrian Church of the East, once a vast communion but decimated by wars, hostile invasions, and Muslim persecutions, currently numbers about 400,000 faithful divided into 90 parishes in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, India, Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Interestingly, its present Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV now has his patriarchal seat in Roselle, Illinois.
In the 5th century, the teaching of Nestorius would make inroads among the Assyrians facilitating by the 7th century their separation from the See of Antioch and the rest of the Catholic Church. In the 8th century this “Nestorian Church” would begin a remarkable missionary expansion into India, China, Tibet and Formosa which would see the establishment of many bishoprics that would soon leave no trace. The Assyrian Christians who entered into communion with Rome in 1553 would take the name Chaldean Church. The separated Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church are the heirs of the same ancient Syrian theological liturgical, and spiritual tradition, and it is one of the successes of the ecumenical movement that Catholics and Assyrians took a great step to full ecclesial union in agreeing to a Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East that was signed on November 11, 1994, by Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV. In this document the Assyrian Church confessed the same doctrine concerning the divinity and humanity of Christ as held by Catholics, thereby repudiating any misconceptions or ambiguities held in the past regarding attachment to the Nestorian heresy which divided Christ into two persons.
In the afore-mentioned Letter to his people, Bishop Mar Bawai Soho, the present Assyrian Bishop of San Jose, California, has expressed his determination to do what he can to further the union of Christian Churches, noting that the “sacred objective of the unity of Christ’s Church must however be developed from an ecclesiological mentality not political, but from an apostolic way of thinking, not secular.” He went on to note the genuine tradition of his ancient Eastern Church concerning the Petrine Primacy in the Church:
“The Church of the East attributes a prominent role to Saint Peter and a significant place for the Church of Rome in her liturgical, canonical and Patristic thoughts. There are more than 50 liturgical, canonical and Patristic citations that explicitly express such a conviction. The question before us therefore is, why there must be a primacy attributed to Saint Peter in the Church? If there is no primacy in the Universal Church, we shall not be able to legitimize a primacy of all the patriarchs in the other apostolic churches. If the patriarchs of the apostolic churches have legitimate authority over their own respective bishops, it is so because there is a principle of primacy in the Universal Church. If the principle of primacy is valid for a local Church (for example, the Assyrian Church of the East), it is so because it is already valid for the Universal Church. If there is no Peter for the Universal Church, there could not be Peter for the local Church. If all the apostles are equal in authority by virtue of the gift of the Spirit, and if the bishops are the successors of the Apostles, based on what, then, can one of these bishops (i.e., [our own] Catholicos-Patriarchs) have authority over the other bishops?
The Church of the East possesses a theological, liturgical and canonical tradition in which she clearly values the primacy of Peter among the rest of the Apostles and their churches and the relationship Peter has with his successors in the Church of Rome. The official organ of our Church of the East, Mar Abdisho of Soba, the last theologian in our Church before its fall [he is referring to the 14th century canonist who was the last prominent theologian before the Mongol invasion], based himself on such an understanding when he collected his famous Nomocanon in which he clearly states the following: “To the great Rome [authority] was given because the two pillars are laid in the grave there, Peter, I say, the head of the Apostles, and Paul, the teacher of the nations. [Rome] is the first see and the head of the patriarchs” (Memra; Risha 1). Futhermore, Abdisho asserts “...And as the patriarch has authority to do all he wishes in a fitting manner in such things as are beneath his authority, so the patriarch of Rome has authority over all patriarchs, like the blessed Peter over all the community, for he who is in Rome also keeps the office of Peter in all the Church. He who transgresses against these things the ecumenical synod places under anathema” (Memra 9; Risha 8). I would like to ask here the following: who among us would dare to think that he or she is more learned than Abdisho of Soba, or that they are more sincere to the Church of our forefathers than Mar Abdisho himself?”Miriam S. Shimoan would write in “The Assyrian Advocate”:
“The Middle East has a long history, and a long memory. Arabs, Persians, Jews, Armenians, Turks have all fought endless battles, urged massacres and genocides, been subject to their own vicious rulers, and lost massive numbers of their populations. Assyrians in general, have been the victim to all the above. No group in the Middle East has been abused like the Assyrians, considering the small size of their population.”
She also observes that Assyrians are all of the Christian faith, be they Assyrians of the Church of the East, Jacobites (Syrian Monophysites), or Chaldean Catholic.
“They do not identify with Arab culture like other Middle Eastern Christians (for example, the Lebanese or Palestinian Christians).”
It should be remarked that Assyrian Christians are, in fact, the indigenous people of Iraq, and continue to be oppressed and persecuted by their Muslim neighbors in the present troubles in Iraq.
Prayers for all the Christians in the Middle East are desperately needed, as they continue to flee from war-torn areas dominated by oppressive governments that have little respect for human rights, especially the right to religious freedom. May God protect the Assyrian people in the Church of the East whose venerable attachment to their ancient Christian traditions may lead them in the providence of God to the fullness of Catholic Unity. As has been seen, the testimony to the Universal Primacy of Rome reflecting the ancient faith of the “Church of the East” and strikingly acknowledged by the Assyrian bishop Mar Bawai Soho represents a welcome harbinger to the restoration of full communion between the Chair of Peter and one of the most venerable of the Eastern Churches.
The above article appeared in The Wanderer, 9/21/06.
James Likoudis is the author of a trilogy of works on Eastern Orthodoxy. His latest books “The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome: Letters to a Greek Orthodox” ($27.95 includes S&H) and “Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter” which details his own spiritual journey to the Catholic Church ($24.95 includes S&H) are available from the author: P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865.Also visit his Website for other articles of interest at: James Likoudis' Homepage