The Balamand Conference (1993)

Many of the difficulties in modern Catholic missions can be traded to the little-known but immensely important Balamand Conference between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church held in June, 1993 at the Balamand Monastery in Lebanon. The talks were arranged by the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue and were called to deal with issues among Catholics and Orthodox that had emerged since the fall of Russian communism two years prior. Twenty-four Catholic members of the Commission and representatives of nine autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches discussed what they called the “problem” of uniatism.

Background: Orthodox Reunion on the Uniate Model

The Uniate Churches, also called the Eastern Catholic Churches, are comprised of autocephalous (sui juris) national churches in full union with Rome and considered part of the Catholic communion. The distinctive characteristic of the Uniate Churches is that they were, at one time, out of communion with Rome and part of the Eastern Orthodox communion but have since returned to the Roman fold. There are a total of 19 Uniate Churches with 253 bishops governing over 18 million worldwide. Some of these are very small, like the Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church (3,800 adherents) and the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church (2,400), while others are extremely large, like the Melkites and the Syro-Malankar rite, which each have near a million. The largest Uniate Church is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has 44 bishops spread over 31 eparchies governing over 5 million Ukrainian Catholics (1).

The history of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church provides an example of how these Uniate Churches often came into being. Faced with increasing political domination from the ascendant Russian monarchy in the 16th century, the Church in Ukraine was in a deplorable state morally and educationally. Meanwhile, due to the influence of the Catholic Polish monarch Sigismund III Vasa, who was encroaching upon Ukrainian lands from the west, the Ukrainians came into contact with the Catholic Jesuit missionaries. The Church at the time was in the midst of the Counter-Reformation and the formation and zeal of the Jesuit missionaries formed a strong contrast with the lax and simonaical Russian orthodox clergy. From 1590 to 1595, a series of synods were held at the city of Brest that resulted in the Union of Brest (1595), by which the Ukrainian Church (referred to at the time as the “Ruthenians”) were admitted into union with the Catholic Church while retaining their rites, customs, and hierarchy. The terms of the union stated that the Ukrainians-Ruthenians were free of the excommunications and censures inflicted by the Patriarch of Constantinople, that Ruthenian sees should be entrusted only to Ruthenian bishops, that the Ukrainian Church should retain the free possession of its property, that Ukrainian churches and monasteries could not be latinized, and that the Eastern prelates were thenceforward to have no jurisdiction over the Ukrainian clergy. Thus, a very large group of believers were brought into union with Rome whilst preserving intact their traditional customs.

Many other national churches reunited with Rome on this “uniate” model, and for centuries this was seen as the ideal means by which large groups of orthodox could be reunited with Rome. The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church, these Uniate rites, and the Orthodox was the focal point of the 1993 Balamand Conference.

The Content of Balamand

We will begin by examining the content of the Balamand document and then examine its implications in light of traditional Catholic missiology.

Specifically, the conference examined the following topics:

(1) The strategy of “uniatism” as a means of reconciling various eastern national churches with Rome.

(2) The issue of Catholics “proselytizing” among the Orthodox in previously communist countries.

(3) The problem of Catholic Church properties confiscated by the communists and given over to the Orthodox.

(4) The question of Catholics who had converted to orthodoxy under pressure from the communists returning to communion with Rome.

Balamand Monastery in Lebanon, site of the 1993 conference

Rejection of Uniatism

Regarding “Uniatism”, i.e., the practice outlined above as an means or bringing Orthodox back into communion with Rome, the Balamand document begins by strongly rejecting it. “We reject it as a method for the search for unity because it is opposed to the common tradition of our Churches”(2). Despite the successes of bringing back orthodox to the Catholic Faith through the uniate model, the document strongly condemns the practice of uniatism, saying:

“In the course of the last four centuries, in various parts of the East, initiatives were taken within certain Churches and impelled by outside elements, to restore communion between the Church of the East and the Church of the West. These initiatives led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their Mother Churches of the East. This took place not without the interference of extra-ecclesial interests. In this way Oriental Catholic Churches came into being. And so a situation was created which has become a source of conflicts and of suffering, in the first instance for the Orthodox but also for Catholics…Whatever may have been the intention and the authenticity of the desire to be faithful to the commandment of Christ : “that all may be one” expressed in these partial unions with the See of Rome, it must be recognized that the reestablishment of unity between the Church of the East and the Church of the West was not achieved and that the division remains, embittered by these attempts” (3).

This will be the basic objection that the Orthodox have against the uniate model: that it breaks communion with the orthodox “Mother Churches” and creates embitterment among the Orthodox, who are understandably upset when so many of their countrymen return to full communion with Rome. The document also takes a swipe at the Catholic missionary activity that often arose out of these uniate communities, by which Eastern Catholics attempted to convince their estranged brethren to return to full communion with Rome. Balamand says:

In the decades which followed these unions, missionary activity tended to include among its priorities the effort to convert other Christians, individually or in groups, so as “to bring them back” to one’s own Church. In order to legitimize this tendency, a source of proselytism, the Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted” (4).

Rejection of Mutual Proselytism

Following upon the document’s rejection of uniatism, it rejects attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to treat the Orthodox as legitimate targets for missionary activity and calls for an end of all Catholic attempts to evangelize the Orthodox. Though the document also rejects Orthodox efforts to convert Catholics, it is clear that it has in mind primarily evangelism on the part of Catholics. Consequently, unity based on return to Rome is rejected. It “can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking”(5).

The document gets more explicit, specifically condemning what it calls an “outdated” ecclesiology on which unity is based on full union with Rome:

Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Oriental, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other; that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytizing among the Orthodox. It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own faithful and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church…To pave the way for future relations between the two Churches, passing beyond the out-dated ecclesiology of return to the Catholic Church connected with the problem which is the object of this document, special attention will be given to the preparation of future priests and of all those who, in any way, are involved in an apostolic activity carried on in a place where the other Church traditionally has its roots. Their education should be objectively positive with respect of the other Church” (6)

The implications of the Balamand Declaration are clear: Roman Catholics are no longer consider the Orthodox as subjects for evangelization. The vision of Balamand is of two “sister Churches”, both with valid sacramental lives and legitimate hierarchies who mutually repudiate an “out-dated ecclesiology o return.” Union is not found in adherence to one Church over the other, says Balamand, but in the mutual cooperation of both churches working together. It is a kind of pan-Christianism between the Catholics and the Orthodox.

Return of Church Property

In the new cooperation the conference envisioned between Catholics and Orthodox, everything is to be avoided that could possibly be a source of confusion or ill will. This includes the sensitive question of the return of Catholic property confiscated during the Soviet era. Under the Soviets, Russian Orthodoxy was the only religious expression that was permitted, and a good number of the 50,000 authorized Russian Orthodox priests operative during this period were Soviet spies (more than 300,000 Russian Orthodox priests had been eliminated by the communists). Property belonging to other Christian bodies was confiscated and given over to the Orthodox, who at the fall of communism were nervous that thousands of acres of illegally obtained property would be returned to the Catholic Church.

Fortunately for the Orthodox, the new mood of cooperation means that the Catholic Church in Orthodox lands is willing to write off all the losses in land and property during the communist period. Balamand states the following:

Whatever may have been the past, it must be left to the mercy of God, and all the energies of the Churches should be directed towards obtaining that the present and the future conform better to the will of Christ for his own…The admonition of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians (I Cor 6:1-7) will be recalled. It recommends that Christians resolve their differences through fraternal dialogue, thus avoiding recourse to the intervention of the civil authorities for a practical solution to the problems which arise between Churches or local communities. This applies particularly to the possession or return of ecclesiastical property. These solutions should not be based only on past situations or rely solely on general juridical principles, but they must also take into account the complexity of present realities and local circumstances” (7).

What this means effectively is that what happened in the past should be left in the past, particularly as regards to land. Catholic authorities should not go to the courts to determine who actually has rightful ownership of the land (this would be looking at “past situations solely on general judicial principles”) but should merely acknowledge the current situation as the status quo and give up any recourse to legally obtain ownership of lands lost to the communists.

Corporate Reunion with Rome

If the Balamand Declaration breaks with traditional ecclesiology in insisting that Catholics not seek the conversion of Orthodox, it goes even further in insisting that Catholics not be too forward about seeking reunion with Christians who were already in fact Catholic. A little background is necessary here.

During the communist period when Russian Orthodoxy was the only permissible religion, many Roman Catholics went over to the Orthodox, but with the intention of someday returning to union with Rome. After the fall of communism, many of these individuals—sometimes entire parishes—came to Catholic bishops and sought to be readmitted to communion with Rome. Stunningly, Balamand states that, while religious liberty is to be respected, the Church of Rome ought not to go out of the way to try to encourage these individuals to come back to full communion:

In fact, religious liberty requires that, particularly in situations of conflict, the faithful are able to express their opinion and to decide without pressure from outside if they wish to be in communion either with the Orthodox Church or with the Catholic Church. Religious freedom would be violated when, under the cover of financial assistance, the faithful of one Church would be attracted to the other, by promises, for example, of education and material benefits that may be lacking in their own Church. In this context, it will be necessary that social assistance, as well as every form of philanthropic activity, be organized with common agreement so as to avoid creating new suspicions” (8).

While we all understand that nobody can be coerced into accepting the Faith, what this declaration amounted to was discouraging Catholics who had gone over to the Orthodox from being encouraged to return to Rome. In many cases, whole parishes came to Catholic bishops asking to be readmitted to the Church of their forefathers and were told by the bishops to go back to the Orthodox communion, as the bishops did not want come across as pressuring them to reconcile. That would have been an “outdated ecclesiology of return” apparently.

Assessment and Implications

From the standpoint of traditional Catholic missiology, the Balamand Declaration represents a radical departure from tradition. Not only does Balamand reject the uniate model of reunification that has proven so successful over the past four centuries, but it rejects even the concept that there should be formal reunification in its condemnation of “the out-dated ecclesiology of return to the Catholic Church.” Yet the document continues to call for working together, cooperation and mutual charity in the search for an ever-elusive “full communion.”

While it is not surprising that the Orthodox would support such a document, it is alarming that Catholic prelates would affix their names to a document that so effectively erodes the rights of the Church in the East. Traditional-minded Catholics should reject the Balamand document and all it entails. And what does it entail?

To begin with, Balamand is offensive to every Catholic saint who ever labored to reconcile heretics or schismatics to the Church, because such a concept as being brought into full communion with the Pope has been labeled an “out-dated ecclesiology of return” to the Catholic Church.

Second, Balamand is itself poor ecclesiology because it views the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics as “sister churches” who are equal in every respect. The document basically asserts that the Catholic Church’s unique role as the Church of Christ in whom all the means of salvation are found is a man-made doctrine when it teaches that “the Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted.” The document, if accepted at face value, implies that the Roman Catholic Church claims no greater authority than the Orthodox communion, which is very problematic from a Catholic perspective.

Third, in so bitterly attacking uniatism, the authors of the document demonstrate that they place more value on building temporal good relations between Orthodox and Catholics than the good of souls. Uniatism has been the most successful means of restoring the Orthodox to full communion; as mentioned above, the Uniate Churches today represent 18 million Catholics, 18 million souls whom the Orthodox and Catholic prelates at Balamand see as brought into the Church from “outside pressures” due to an “out-dated ecclesiology of return.” To attack uniatism is to attack to the most successful means of reconciliation with the Orthodox the Church has ever devised. It is a direct attack on her Unity.

Fourth, by suggesting that the schismatic Orthodox are no longer to be objects of evangelization, it narrows the evangelical mission of the Church and detracts from her Catholicity. All men and women without exception are called to be part of Christ’s Church, in which all the fullness of grace and salvation are found. but then again, if Balamand has already stated that the Church’s belief that it and it alone is the Church of Christ is a man-made doctrine, then it does follow that there is no strict reason why anyone should become Catholic versus anything else.

Fifth, Balamand, while calling for full communion, evidently substitutes a novel concept for the traditional idea of full communion, which hitherto had historically meant formal reconciliation with Rome. Instead, Balamand proposes a purely worldly cooperation between the two communions.

After rejecting attempts at proselytizing to convert the Orthodox, the authors of the document have the audacity to conclude the statement by saying:

The International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, at the plenary meeting in Balamand, strongly recommends that these practical rules be put into practice by our Churches, including the Oriental Catholic Churches who are called to take part in this dialogue which should be carried on in the serene atmosphere necessary for its progress, towards the re-establishment of full communion. By excluding for the future all proselytism and all desire for expansion by Catholics at the expense of the Orthodox Church, the commission hopes that it has overcome the obstacles which impelled certain autocephalous Churches to suspend their participation in the theological dialogue and that the Orthodox Church will be able to find itself altogether again for continuing the theological work already happily begun” (9).

In light of the statements against Catholics evangelization among the Orthodox and against an ecclesiology based on return to Rome, one would very much like to know what sort of full communion the authors of the Balamand conference had in mind.

Finally, the Balamand document goes specifically against the wishes of Our Lady of Fatima who, in 1917, requested that the Russia be consecrated so that they would be converted. Note that this was in 1917, prior to the takeover of the communists in Russia, and that when Our Lady speaks of the “conversion” of Russia, she does not necessarily mean the conversion from atheism to faith generically (though that can be implied), but of the conversion of the Orthodox to Catholicism.

In weighing Balamand in the balance, Catholics should instead prefer the words of our Lord, who said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

The Balamand document is available online here.

(1) Ronald Roberson (source: Annuario Pontificio) (August 22, 2010). “The Eastern Catholic Churches 2010”. Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Strictly speaking, the Maronites, Italo-Albanians and Syro-Malabar are not Uniate Churches because they were never out of union with Rome.
(2) The Balamand Statement: Uniatism and the Present Search for Full Communion, 2
(3) ibid, 8-9
(4) ibid, 10
(5) ibid, 12
(6) ibid, 22, 30
(7) ibid, 23, 31
(8) ibid, 24
(9) ibid, 34-35

Phillip Campbell, “The Balamand Conference (1993),” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, September 10, 2012. Available online at: