Anyone who knows me or has read this blog for even a few days knows that I love the richness of Eastern Christianity: I love their liturgy, their theology and their spirituality. I try to attend an Eastern Catholic liturgy at least a few times a year, as much as my schedule allows. My favorite Eastern Catholic church is the Melkite church, which is the “sister” church to the Antiochian Orthodox church.
So it goes without saying that I was very excited when I found this:
(Yes, I am geek enough to be excited about finding hundreds of pages of documentation from church proceedings).
These texts are really a treasure-trove, as they document the great influence the small Melkite church had on the universal Church during Vatican II. As Fr. Robert Taft explains in the introduction, the Melkites, due to their history, were able to “discern what is essential (i.e., Catholic) from what is contingent (i.e., Latin) in Catholicism, enabling them at Vatican II to witness to a pensee complementaire, another, complementary way of seeing things, as a counterbalance to Latin Catholic unilateralism”.
Reading the documents is quite enlightening, as it shows that the Melkites were able to push for greater ecumenism, communion under both species, vernacular in the Mass, and many other changes that occurred at Vatican II or immediately following it. They were instrumental in preventing the Council from devolving into a strictly Latin and provincial affair. We Roman Catholics can be thankful in many ways for their contribution to the Council.
However, one section of this book is eye-opening in a more negative sense. In Chapter 15, there is the text of a Council speech from 1964 by Melkite Patriarch Maximos regarding birth control. In the speech, the Patriarch makes it obvious that he believes that the Church should relax their condemnation of artificial forms of birth control, stating, “Frankly, should not the official positions of the Church on this matter be revised in the light of modern science, theological as well as medical, psychological, and sociological?” In doing so, he joined a large chorus of voices of the time that were calling for such a relaxation. In fact, in his speech, he appears hopeful the Pope Paul VI will soon revise the Church’s teachings.
We all know what actually occurred: Pope Paul VI shocked just about everyone and issued Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s consistent ban on artificial forms of contraception.
In my mind, nothing is a more practical proof of the need for a true primacy of the Pope than these events. If the Pope did not have true authority, then the Patriarch would have been free to condone artificial birth control in his church, which it seems likely that he would have done (possibly along with other Eastern Catholic churches and as the Orthodox Church in America later did). But by its communion with the Pope (and acceptance of his authority), the Melkite church still upholds the traditional teaching of Christianity in this regard (as can be seen here).
During the 1960′s, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to see the destructive nature of artificial birth control. It is understandable that many good and devout Christians were calling for the relaxation of the Church’s condemnation. But the Lord in his divine goodness gave his Church a means by which to withstand short-sighted and culturally-influenced pressures: the rock of Peter on which he built his Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.