Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Introduction by Robert F. Taft, S.J., Pontifical Oriental Institute

L’Eglise Grecque Melkite au Councile (The Melkite Greek Church at the Council) was the original title of this book, first published in French in 1967. Then as now, twenty-five years later, it would be difficult to imagine a book of this title about the role of any other Eastern Catholic Church at Vatican II. At that time no other Eastern Church in communion with Rome had as yet played any significantly “Eastern” leadership role in the wider Catholic Church. In the case of the Ukrainian and Romanian Catholic Churches, this was prevented by persecution. In the case of other Churches, their insignificant numbers or the vagaries of their history rendered any such corporate role unlikely, though outstanding individual bishops from these Churches, such as Ignatius Ziade, Maronite Archbishop of Beirut, and Isaac Ghattas, Coptic Catholic Bishop of Luxor-Thebes, gave eloquent voice to the aspirations of these Churches too. But if size or persecution explains why other Churches played no notable corporate role at Vatican II, this does not explain why the Melkite Church did.

To what, then, can one attribute the remarkable role of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church at the Council? In his Preface to the 1967 French edition of this volume, Patriarch Maximos IV attributes it, first, to the fact that the Catholic Melkites had never lost contact with their Orthodox roots, and thus never became closed in on themselves. This allowed them 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. Maximos IV also offers a second reason: the synodal cohesion of the Melkite hierarchy (at that time the patriarch with sixteen bishops and four general religious superiors) in its pre-conciliar discussions preparatory to Vatican II, and the consequent unity of its voice at the Council. We see this exemplary Eastern conciliarity from the start, in the letter of August 29, 1959, accompanying the first Melkite response to the Preparatory Commission of the Council: “We have believed it more useful to give our proposals together, in common…” This was collegiality ante factum, long before the later work of the Council had made this ecclesiology common coin.

With the advantages of hindsight, I would suggest adding to Maximos’ list three other reasons that facilitated Melkite leadership at Vatican II: 1) education; 2) courageous, intelligent, innovative leadership; 3) imaginative and universal vision. None of these can be considered traditional clerical virtues. By training and tradition, the clergy are more inclined to conservatism, obedience, regularity, stability, the attributes of any social organization, where too much imagination is a liability, and routine is prized above initiative.

First, education – All of us are at once the beneficiaries as well as the victims of our background and training. Eastern Catholicism is often criticized, sometimes exaggeratedly, for its “Westernization,” an accusation, every honest person must admit, that contains some truth. This Westernization has brought with it obvious disadvantages, specifically a certain erosion of the Eastern heritage.

But every coin has two sides, and contact with the “West,” a term some Orthodox writers use like a “four-letter word,” has also had decided advantages. It is “Western” culture that invented “modernity” with its traditional values of pluralism, civility, respect for individuals and their rights, and an intellectual, artistic and cultural life that strives to be free of outside restraint or manipulation, and seeks to be objective, even-handed, and fair. These ideals may not always be realized, but in the West they are at least ideals, and one cannot always say the same for the Christian East, where it is not uncommon even for representatives of the intellectual elite to engage in the most grotesque caricatures of the Christian West. But from that same bugaboo one can learn the “Western” secular values of intellectual honesty, coherence, consistency, self-criticism, objectivity, fairness, dialogue; moderation and courtesy of tone and language even when in disagreement; and a reciprocity which, eschewing all “double-standard” criticism, applies the same criteria and standards of judgment to one’s interlocutor and his thought and actions that one applies to one’s own. Such “Western” values lead to cultural openness and the desire to know the other. Just look at the endless list of objective, positive, sympathetic—yes—”Western” studies and publications on the Christian East, its Fathers, its spirituality, its liturgy, its monasticism, its theology, its history. How preferable this is to the ghetto-like insularity, the smug self-satisfaction of those convinced they have nothing to learn from anyone else!

So a dose of the “West” can be good medicine for the East, and Melkite bishops at Vatican II, imbued with what was best in the superb postwar French Catholic intellectual tradition, speaking French fluently and thus accessible to personal contacts and dialogue, were enabled to understand and appreciate what was happening in the Catholic Church in a way they never could have done with a simplistic caricature-image and paranoid rejection of the “West.” That is why the Melkites at Vatican II were repeatedly called a “bridge” between East and West: they knew both sides of the river and could mediate between them. Those who would deny this should remember that it is a question here of the lived experience of the Catholic Church, and only Catholics can judge that. So if Eastern Catholics at Vatican II were not a bridge between Orthodoxy and Rome—and only the Orthodox can decide that—Catholics experienced them to be a bridge that allowed the voice of the East to be heard at the Council sessions.

Of the other qualities, courageous, intelligent, innovative leadership was not proper to the Melkite bishops alone but shared by all the great progressive leaders of Vatican II, to the discomfiture of the conservative minority and the astonished admiration of the rest of the world. Peculiar to the Melkites, however, was the disproportion between their conciliar leadership and their numbers, a patriarch and a mere sixteen bishops awash in a Latin sea.

Equally unique to the Melkite Council Fathers as a group was the truly remarkable imaginative and universal vision they showed. Altogether too often, Eastern Christians think only within their own frame of reference, address only their own problems, protest only against injustices done to them, further only their own interests. Not so the Melkites. In addition to being among the first to state categorically that the Council should avoid definitions and condemnations, the list of important items of general import on the Vatican II and post-conciliar agenda that the Melkite bishops first proposed is simply astonishing: the vernacular, eucharistic concelebration and communion under both species in the Latin liturgy; the permanent diaconate; the establishment of what ultimately became the Synod of Bishops held periodically in Rome, as well as the Secretariat (now Pontifical Council) for Christian Unity; new attitudes and a less offensive ecumenical vocabulary for dealing with other Christians, especially with the Orthodox Churches; the recognition and acceptance of Eastern Catholic communities for what they are, “Churches,” not “rites.”

But for the Melkites, perhaps none of the above qualities would have “worked” without the audacious yet unfailingly courteous courage of Maximos IV and his close collaborators. I first encountered this in 1959, I think it was, just after returning from three years teaching in Baghdad. I was doing Russian studies at Fordham University in New York, preparing for theological studies and ordination in the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite. With barely repressible glee the late Father Paul Mailleux, S.J., then superior of the Byzantine Jesuit Community of the Russian Center at Fordham, showed me a copy of a letter Maximos IV had sent to an American cardinal. For some time the Byzantine Rite Jesuits of that community had, on occasion, been following the lead of the U.S. Melkites in celebrating the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in English, in accordance with the age-old principle of the Byzantine Churches to use whatever language, vernacular or not, was deemed pastorally most suitable in the circumstances. The cardinal had written Patriarch Maximos to challenge this practice, surely not because of any special concern for the East, but, as with the issue of married clergy, from fear of “contamination.” This was before the vernacular debate at Vatican II, and if U.S. Catholics were exposed to Eastern Catholic Eucharists, especially in their own parish churches on the dies orientales or “Oriental Days” held in those years to acquaint Western Catholics with the East, they might be led to the ineluctable conclusion that vernacular liturgy was not only possible, but a good thing.

Here as elsewhere, Melkite attitudes and usage were prophetic, and the cardinal’s fears real. Maximos IV, fully conscious of being an Eastern patriarch and not some curial dependent, responded with dignity and courtesy, but with great firmness and unambiguous clarity, that the liturgical languages of the Byzantine Church were none of His Eminence’s business. It is of such stuff that leaders are made. And prophets too. For it is thus that in North America, Melkites and others, celebrated Catholic Eucharistic liturgies in English long before anyone ever heard of Vatican II.

But Maximos IV did not stand alone at Vatican II. He was the first to acknowledge the synodal, collegial nature of the Melkite enterprise, and other major Melkite council figures like Archbishops Elias Zoghby, Neophytos Edelby, Peter Medawar, and our own Archbishop Joseph Tawil, also made the trenchant and eloquent “Voice of the East” heard at Vatican II.

In this same context I must mention one of my own heroes, Archimandrite Oreste Kerame (+1983), who, though not a bishop, was a major source of Melkite thought at Vatican II. A former Jesuit, he left the order in 1941, in the name of a higher fidelity, when it was not so easy to be a member of a Latin religious order and at the same time a convinced ecumenist totally dedicated to preserving and living the traditions of the Christian East. In long conversations in French with him in his later years, I had confirmed what had always been a guiding principle of my own double vocation as an Eastern Rite member of a Latin religious order: whenever there is a conflict, real or apparent (i.e., so perceived by superiors), between the demands of my rite and those of the order, the rite, an ecclesial reality superior to the contingent customs of any religious order, congregation, or monastery, must always take precedence. Fortunately, the problem has never arisen for me in any substantive way, for times have changed since the early 1940s. The December 25, 1950, letter and decree of the Jesuit General John Baptist Janssens, Pro ramo orientali Societatis Iesu (On The Eastern Branch of the Society of Jesus), can be considered the Magna Carta of Eastern-Rite Jesuits. It legislates explicitly that they are to live their rite in its integrity, and elements of the Jesuit Institute that by nature pertain to the Latin Rite do not apply to them. Kerame, whose love for the Society of Jesus never lessened in spite of the painful choice he was forced to make, not only lived long enough to witness this greater openness in the Catholic Church. His life and thought prepared for it.

But when all is said and done, our basic point of reference will always remain the great figure of Patriarch Maximos IV and the role he played in his own and the broader Church during the twenty critical years (October 30, 1947-November 5, 1967) of his historic patriarchate. Among the dozen or so most quoted Council Fathers in the published histories of Vatican II, he gave from the start a hitherto unimaginable importance to the Eastern Catholic minority at the Council by the content and elan of his interventions. The legendary Xavier Rynne first brought him to the attention of Americans in his gripping account of Session I serialized in The New Yorker, awakening the Western mass-media to the importance of this hitherto ignored minority. Rynne described Maximos as “the colorful and outspoken Melchite patriarch, His Beatitude Maximus IV Saigh, of Antioch,” and spoke of His Beatitude’s conciliar interventions as “laying the cards squarely on the table as was his custom, and speaking in French, as was also his habit.”

At Session I of the Council, Maximos’ electrifying opening speech on October 23, 1962, set the tone for the Melkite onslaught on the one-sided, Latin vision of the Church. He refused to speak in Latin, the language of the Latin Church, but not, he insisted, of the Catholic Church nor of his. He refused to follow protocol and address “Their Eminences,” the cardinals, before “Their Beatitudes,” the Eastern patriarchs, for in his ecclesiology patriarchs, the heads of local Churches, did not take second place to cardinals, who were but second-rank dignitaries of one such communion, the Latin Church. He also urged the West to allow the vernacular in the liturgy, following the lead of the East, “where every language is, in effect, liturgical.” And he concluded, in true Eastern fashion, that the matter at any rate should be left to the local Churches to decide. All this in his first intervention at the first session! No wonder numerous Council Fathers, overcoming their initial surprise, hastened to congratulate him for his speech. And no wonder it hit the news. That was a language even journalists impervious to the torturous periods of “clericalese” could understand. Maximos spoke simply, clearly, directly—and he spoke in French.

Has the post-conciliar Melkite Church lived up to its promise at Vatican II?

Indeed, have any of us? Ideals always have a head start on reality—that is why we call them ideals, something not yet fully attained, that towards which we strive. So it is natural that certain Melkite ideas advanced at the Council remain undeveloped and unrealized in the Catholic Church: the principle that collegiality should be operative not just among bishops, but on the diocesan level, between the bishop and his presbyterate; that the laity, especially women, should be given their proper dignity and role in church life; that adequate hierarchical provision be made, as a pastoral right and not as a concession dependent on the good will of anyone, for the pastoral care of Eastern Catholics in the diaspora; that a more supple, nuanced view, like that of the Orthodox Churches, be allowed regarding the remarriage of unjustly abandoned spouses; that the problem of the date of Easter be resolved in ecumenical agreement with other Churches; that the Roman Curia assume its proper place within a healthy ecclesiology, no longer operating as a substitute for the apostolic college of bishops, or pretending to possess and exercise incommunicable powers which belong by divine right to the supreme pontiff alone, and cannot be delegated to or arrogated by anyone else.

As for the Melkite Church itself, there can be no denying that Melkites, like many others, are often better at giving speeches and making proposals than at observing them. Even before the Council, Melkite rhetoric and Melkite reality have often been miles apart.

So much work remains to be done. May this welcome translation of an historic book be a stimulus to getting on with it.

Robert F. Taft, S.J.

Pontifical Oriental Institute




  1. Cited in “Vatican II: 25 ans apres,” Le Lien 55.1-2 (janvier-avril 1990) 37.
  2. Further documentation in N. Edelby, “The Byzantine Liturgy in the Vernacular,” in Maximus IV Sayegh (ed.), The Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity (New York: Herder & Herder 1963) 195-218.
  3. X. Rynne, Letters from Vatican City (London: Faber & Faber 1963) 26, 85.
  4. Ibid., 102-5.

Table of Contents

Click on the Chapter to read online – or Click on “DOWNLOAD” for the PDF version of the document


Chapter 1 – Preparation for the Council – Download

A. At the stage of the Ante-preparatory Commission

Note on Reconciliation with the Orthodox

Questions to be Submitted to the Council

Calling upon Non-Roman Collaborators

B. At the Stage of the Preparatory Commissions

For a Permanent Roman Organization on Ecumenical Matters

The Language of the Council Organization and Internal Regulation of the Council Invitation of Non-Catholics to the Council Remarks concerning a New Formula for the Profession of Faith

C. Patriarchal Letter on the Eve of the Council

Chapter 2 – Divine Revelation – Download

Sources of Revelation

The Absence of Eastern Theology

Growth and Progress of the Living Tradition in the Church

Scripture and Tradition in the Eastern Perspective

Chapter 3 – The Liturgy – Download

Various Aspects of Liturgical Reform

For the Use of Living Languages in the Liturgy

Concelebration and Communion under Both Species

Setting the Date for Pascha

Chapter 4 – The Mystery of the Church – Download

The Unilateral Aspect of Roman Ecclesiology

The Absence of Eastern Theology

The Church and the Churches

The Call to Holiness in the Church

Mary and the Church

Chapter 5 – The Constitution on the Church – Download

Priority for the Question of the Episcopate

Episcopal Collegiality

The Pope and the Origin of the Bishops’ Powers

The Divine Constitution of the Church

Five Declarations of Principle

What Eastern Theology Says

Primacy and Infallibility

Chapter 6 – The Patriarchs in the Church – Download

The Rank of the Patriarchs at the Council

Memorandum on the Rank of the Patriarchs in the Church

For an Amelioration of the Conciliar Schema

The Patriarchate and the Cardinalate

Latin Patriarchs of the East

Final Declarations on the Patriarchate


Chapter 7 – The Episcopate and the Roman Curia – Download

The Pope, the Roman Curia, and the Episcopate

For a “Synod of Bishops” around the Pope

Episcopal Conferences

Episcopal “Faculties” or Pontifical “Reservations”?

Dividing Dioceses

Internationalization of the Roman Curia

Reform of the Holy Office

Ecclesiastical Censures and the Holy Office

Restoring the Free Election of Bishops in the Eastern Church

Memorandum on the Interpretation of a Conciliar Decree

Chapter 8 – Formation and Life of the Clergy – Download

The Formation of Priests

The Diaconate

Priesthood and Celibacy2

Fair Remuneration for Priests

Chapter 9 – The Religious Life – Download

Chapter 10 – The Laity – Download

The Apostolate of the Laity

Concrete Examples of Lay Apostolate

The Place of Non-Christians and of Women in the People of God

Chapter 11 – The Eastern Catholic Churches – Download

The “Rites” in the Church

Observations of the Synod on the First Conciliar Schema

Observations of the Synod on the Second Conciliar Schema

The Rite of Easterners Desiring Union with Rome

The Multiplicity of Catholic Jurisdictions in the Catholic Near East

Hierarchies for Eastern Immigrants

Public Discussion of the Conciliar Schema

Chapter 12 – Ecumenism – Download

The Requirements for Union

The Importance of the Secretariat for Christian Unity and Christians of the East The Ecumenical Movement

“Communicatio in Sacris”

Chapter 13 – The Missionary Church – Download

The Missions and the Roman Pontiff

For an East That Is Again Missionary

Mission in Eastern Theology

Chapter 14 – The Church and Other Religions – Download

The Jewish Problem at the Council and the Arab Reactions

Chapter 15 – Marriage and the Family – Download

Indissolubility of Marriage

Birth Control

Mixed Marriages

Chapter 16 – The sacraments of the Church – Download

The Minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation

The Sacrament of Penance

Penitential Discipline of the Church


Mass Stipends

Non-Catholic Ministers and their Admission to Holy Orders

Chapter 17 – Catholic Education – Download

The Infallible Magisterium


Catholic Schools

Chapter 18 – Codification of Canon Law – Download

Against the Drawing up of Single Code for East and West

Chapter 19 – The Church and the Modern World – Download

For a New Presentation of Morals

The Profound Causes of Atheism

The Serving Church

The Church of the Poor

The Church and Human Rights

Condemnation of War


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