The Eastern Churches are those that are rooted in the foundation of the Churches that existed eastof the Catholic Church of Rome in the beginning of Christianity. “Eastern Church” is a term that, in a broad sense, describes those Churches that originated in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe, Africa and Southern Asia; that is, in areas regarded then as east of Rome, even though subsequently existing in places not east of Rome. They have customs and liturgical traditions distinct from that of the Western (or Latin) Catholic Church. The Western Church includes those Churches whose liturgical traditions and customs are derived principally from Rome.
The Eastern Churches can be broadly divided into three distinct communions: Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox.
- The Eastern Catholic Churches are those Churches which are in union with Rome (for example: Antiochian: Maronite, Chaldean, etc.; Byzantine: Melkite, Ukrainian, etc.; Alexandrian: Coptic, Ethiopian/Abyssinian).
Like the Western Catholic Church, they are fully Catholic, they subscribe to the same doctrines and recognize the same Vicar of Christ but have their own Canon Law (known as the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches) and their own customs for ceremonies, liturgical worship and administration of the Sacraments. The Eastern Catholic Churches, also known as the Oriental Churches (but not to be confused with the Oriental Orthodox Church), are referred to as the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church.
All the Churches in union with Rome, East as well as West, are called the Universal Church or Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Rite Catholics, in confessing their unity in the one Church via obedience to the Vicar of Christ in Rome are genuine “Roman Catholics,” but are not obliged to call themselves “Roman” Catholic if they reserve the term “Roman Catholics” to designate those in the Western Church.
Those in schismatic Churches in the East, upon their return to unity with the Universal Church commonly call themselves “United.” United in the East is more or less the equivalent to Roman Catholic in the West.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church is a communion of independent national churches who accept the first seven Ecumenical Councilsand who separated from the Catholic Church during the eleventh century. They have seven valid Sacraments and share the same faith as the Western Church but do not accept the authority of the Pope. They are not in communion with the Oriental Orthodox Church.
- The Oriental Orthodox Church is a communion of independent Churches who accept the first three Ecumenical Councils (the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Ephesus in 431), but refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and went into schism in the fifth century. They include the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches.
All of the Eastern Churches have seven valid Sacraments and apostolic succession, and are thus Churches in the true sense of the term. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church were all, at first, in union with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but they currently deny the authority of the Holy See and, therefore, are in schism. (For Advanced Course lessons 19 & 23.)
(Also see definition for Western or Latin Catholic Church.)