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THE ARMENIAN CHATHOLICS
Loc: Las Vegas, NV
by Hovannes M. Khosdeghian
(Window Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3, 1991 Copyright 1991 [Permission is granted to use, print, reproduce this article provided the following acknowledgment is given: From Window Quarterly 2, 3 (1991); ACRAG c. 1991.)
Presenting a historical outline of the Armenian Catholic Church is difficult, for two reasons,
a) because of the paradoxical concept of the existence of an Armenian "Catholic" Church per se, and
b) because of the time span that encompasses the history of this community.
Generally speaking, an Armenian's knowledge of this community does not go beyond the fact that an Armenian Catholic Church started to exist as a
separate entity in the mid 18th century. Even most scholars are not familiar with the accurate chronology of events, nor they are familiar with the figures who contributed to the establishment of a separate hierarchy.
At times, scholars do not even acknowledge any real, objective, administrative causes that led to the separation. They rather see it as the
institutionalization of the de facto differences that existed between Armenians leaning towards western civilization and culture and consequently
towards the Church of Rome.
At this point it is necessary to distinguish between the concepts of a hierarchical church and of the complex body of beliefs normally -though
not necessarily- associated with a "church." To understand the processes that led to the establishment of the Armenian Catholic Church as a separate hierarchical structure, one must distinguish between the administrative organization of a church and the church as the "gathering of believers." For our purposes, we will use the term "catholic," to indicate full
communion with Rome. As such, we could say that Armenian catholics existed for many centuries prior to the establishment of a separate hierarchical structure.
However, it is extremely important to understand these terms in their historical context, rather than their normal dogmatic implications. This is
a key premise of discussion in this article.
Direct diplomatic relations between Armenia and the West have been recorded in history from 1196-the coronation of Levon as king of Cilician Armenia-to 1375, when the kingdom of Cilician armenia ended. Exposure to Europe of the time was all pervasive, (exposure that was reflected in all aspects of life, government, social structure, judicial system, commerce) and the church of Armenia was not an exception. Many liturgical practices and vestments that are still in use-in both Catholic and Apostolic Armenian Churches-date from this period.
Parallel to this socio-political development, a religious "movement" was developed when western missionaries preached in the heartland of historical Armenia. Dominican friars preached in Armenia starting in the 13th century and eventually were successful in establishing an archbishopric (diocese) in Nakhijevan. However, they embraced the Latin rite and translated it
into Armenian. Similar missionary activities were followed by the Franciscans.
Later, in the 17th century, the Jesuits were active in Armenia Major- though in a more moderate and far less fundamentalist understanding of church unity.
In 1740, several bishops of the Armenian church gathered in the city of Aleppo and elected Abraham Ardzivian, Archbishop of Aleppo, as Catholicos of those who were Armenian rite catholics. This election was the formal act of establishing the Armenian Catholic Church with its own hierarchy. In 1742,the election was validated by Benedict XIV, the Bishop of Rome.
There is no doubt that the bishops who gathered in Aleppo intended to establish a separate hierarchy to administer and to institutionalize the existing catholic Armenian church. The abundant correspondence- existing since the 1680s between Rome and the Armenian prelates and priests-are evidence of the trend among certain elements of the clergy-who were graduates of Roman
schools-to establish a separate hierarchy.
The cause of such a definitive move was a complex one. Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), as part of his renewed educational reorganization, planned the establishment of a College in Rome for the
education of the Armenian clergy. While he was able to obtain the necessary funding-primarily a major contribution by the king of Spain-his death
prevented the implementation of the project.
However, Urban VIII (1623-1644)revived Gregory's plan by incorporating it into a larger institution, where clergy from all Eastern Churches could be educated. Thus, he chartered
the Pontifical Urbanian University, where Armenians were given 25 scholarships, endowed with donations collected by Gregory. Until 1887-when the Pontifical Armenian College was established as a separate institution-Armenian
clergy received education in this setting, where they were imbued with liturgical, canonical and doctrinal Latinism. This development necessitated the 1740 Aleppo election and was very significant to the missionary agenda of the Armenian Catholic hierarchy. The center for intellectual preparation for Armenian Catholic clergy was the Pontifical Urbanian University.
The other cause responsible of the schism in the Armenian Church was the practice of the Ottoman government, which recognized nationalities based on religious affiliation. This was a direct reflection of the Ottoman tribal order, according to which, the gods of each family gave identity to each tribe. This expedient policy-very useful in keeping large masses divided and therefore checked-was the juridical and administrative structure adopted by the Ottoman rulers to govern their empire. Thus they recognized their Armenian subjects by their religion, i.e.their "church."
Contrary to the views expressed by historians, it seems that the dogmatic aspect of the issue presented a potential negative impact. While for
the Ottoman rulers, the term "patriarch" did not have any ecclesiastical implication (it was rather a transliteration of the Latin word patricius (=government administrator), the Armenian Patriarchs of Constantinople identified their status and administrative capacity in terms of their personal belief and faith. Thus, as long as a moderate person was the Armenian Patriarch, there were no problems. But when extremists held
the position or led the "Patriarchal See," antagonism between apostolic Armenians and "Romans" or "francs" erupted in all its viciousness, sometimes culminating in physical persecution and executions of the catholic
Under the circumstances, the Armenian catholics were not administered justice by the Patriarchs of Constantinople. The more the persecutions
continued, the more catholic Armenians leaned towards establishing a separate hierarchy and church-since this was the only juridical way
allowed to bypass the Armenian Patriarch's jurisdiction.
The recognition of the Armenian catholic hierarchy by the bishop of Rome was an expedient way to secure the protection of Catholic powers of Europe, which in turn presented enough political muscle to force the Sublime Port in
halting the persecutions against the "faithful."
The Armenian Patriarch obviously opposed such a move. But in 1829-under British and French pressure-with article 12 of the Treaty of Edirne, the Ottoman Empire granted the status of "nation" to the Armenian catholics [Katholik Millet.] After
the administrative separation of the two "nations," the only ground uniting them was ironically-and seldom witnessed in history-their common cultural and religious heritage. Both "nations" dedicated themselves to cultivating
and advancing the knowledge of the same heritage.
Having set the historical context of the schism in the Armenian Church, we should now outline the theological aspect of the separation, i.e., doctrinal, liturgical, canonical, and administrative differences. Depending on the times, the doctrinal aspect of the schism in the
Armenian Church was treated and viewed differently. Most notable, a list of "117 errors of the Armenian Church" was compiled by a certain priest Nersess and divulged during the tenure of pope John XXII. While this document does not have any doctrinal or dogmatic weight today, it is a good example that shows the degree of frictions of the time. In fact, in 1341, Catholicos Mekhitar
convened the council of Sis to answer these accusations.
The main doctrinal problems that have been disputed during the process of the Armenian church schism could be summarized in the following issues:
+Acceptance of the ecumenical councils that followed the first three.
+Acceptance of the Chalcedonian definition of the christological dogma.
+Acceptance of the Roman definition of the dogma on the procession of the Holy Spirit.
+Acceptance of the Roman definition of rewards after death.
+Acceptance of the dogma of papal infallibility, as defined during the Council of Vatican
Interestingly, all but one of the above mentioned doctrinal issues are concerned more about definitions than substance. It is precisely for this reason that today they have been abandoned and there are no serious dogmatic challenges between the two sides. The only point that stirs controversy is the issue of papal infallibility.
Again, it is important to note that the problem is not infallibility per se, but it is the connection that western theologians make with the practice of the Roman Church to centralized government, that follows the model of absolute monarchy.
As for the liturgical aspects of the two churches, it has taken a visible and palpable dimension. In the past liturgical issues were as prominent as dogmatic issues. The following is a list of the most important items that Rome demanded conformity with:
+Mixing water in the wine, during the Divine Liturgy/Mass.
+The preparatory prayers of the Divine Liturgy up to the Introit.
+The elevation, prior to the blessing of the people with the consecrated wine and bread.
+The Minor Orders.
Starting in the 12th century, all these points were accepted by the Armenian Apostolic Church.
However, the practice of mixing water with wine did not continue to our days. Vestments and insignia were introduced in the same period, and did not pose major problems. Later on, in the beginning of the 18th century, Armenian catholic clergymen tried to impose the use of Latin vestments, but did not succeed.
Although not yet recognized, a far serious problem has come to exist between the two churches in terms of church canons. The Armenian Church, both Apostolic and Catholic, do not have a systematic code of canon law. There are various collections of canons which do not bear any official authority, since the Armenian Apostolic Church is not governed by them.
The existence of this vacuum is mainly due to the forced Constitution by the Muslim Sultans of the Ottoman empire in western Armenia, and the
Russian Church Constitution (Bolojenia) imposed by the Czar in Russian Armenia. On the other hand, the Armenian Catholic Church has been governed by the Roman Code of Canon Law, which in itself negates some of the cardinal concepts that identify the Armenian Church. For example, the
hierarchical nature of the communion in faith, the privileges of the Catholicos, and the general philosophy of "freedom of movement," are not defined in the Roman codes. As such, whether at the simpler level of normative differences or the
more complex issues on the juridical-canonical level, the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches stand far apart.
There are still many important concepts which lack clarity and understanding: for example, the issue of separation of church and state, church and culture, church and nation, church and man, etc. The Armenian Catholic Church anchored in the Roman Code of Canon Law-a product of modern
jurisprudence-has maintained its status as a separate entity for centuries.
I believe, once the rigidity of the Roman Code is successfully modified with the traditional armenian "warmth" and ethos, then we may have a good model for flexible administration, which in turn will guarantee the "normal" growth of the Armenian Church as a whole. Only then we may have a mechanism capable of balancing the abundance of genius in individuals and their integration in a structure that will ultimately contribute to the
growth and spiritual welfare of the Armenian people.