Catholicism in Russian Canonical Territory

in Russian en Francais


In 1991 the Russian Orthodox Church, with the support of the communion of Orthodox Churches, reacted strongly to the establishment of Apostolic Administrations in the Soviet Socialist republic of Russia, that is the present day Russian Federation. The Catholic Church was admonished for disrespecting the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate and of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church responded that the establishment of these Apostolic Administrations was a pastoral necessity and therefore the Catholic Church was within her rights to do so. The principle line of argumentation is that Catholicism has had an historical presence in Russia, and has the duty to care for those who are of traditional Catholic origins. Similarly many circles within the Catholic Church find difficulty with the idea of ‘Canonical Territory’.

It would seem that a deeper understanding and study of the idea and possible meanings of the term ‘canonical territory’ is essential for any real progress in Orthodox - Catholic relations. It is my firm conviction that the use of this term by the Russian Orthodox Church should be interpreted positively by the Catholic Church and not negatively, for this term essentially affirms the theological and ecclesial identity of Catholicism.

The term ‘canonical territory’

The concept of canonical territory has its roots in the first centuries of Christianity, an era when the Church was seen as one, as consisting of local Churches and of Patriarchal Churches. The ecclesial factor behind this concept is that there can be only one bishop in each local Church identified with a specific geographical area. In other words there can only be one head and one center, not two.

The second element within this concept is the cultural. In the Patristic period, local Churches or dioceses found a unity among themselves in the metropolitan of their geographical area. However this geographical area was identical to a cultural ambient. Consequently the metropolitan See represented the center of a geo-cultural milieu within the catholicity of orthodox Christianity. The metropolitan Sees also found a center of unity in the Patriarchates thus providing a simultaneous cultural-political identity within an ambient of Christian unity.

In the present context the term 'canonical territory is used with respect to those geographical areas in which local Churches with an episcopacy have been established through the missionary efforts of Russian Christianity. The term also quite rightly implies the historical process of the christianization of Russian culture and the essential determination of the Russian world view and the basic Russian conceptions of God, religion, man and the world by Russian Orthodoxy.

The Catholic Church has difficulties in understanding this concept for three reasons. The first is that the Catholic Church accepts the 'American model' of many bishops in the one geographical area. This model has no roots in Apostolic or Patristic traditions, nor in Biblical ecclesiology.

Secondly, the word 'Catholic' has been practically and verbally equated with the concept of the 'Latin Tradition'. Thus the word 'Catholic' is not understood as meaning the 'universality of the Church', but rather as the 'Latin Tradition' and the 'Western Patriarcate'. Due to the efforts of Latin missionaries and their strict adherence to the Roman Rite and to Roman Law and structures, the Latin Tradition strongly penetrated many European and non-European cultures, itself becoming a pan-cultural phenomenon. Historically, however, it has neither respected nor valued these cultures. Fortunately, the suggestions of the Second Vatican Council regarding the establishment of Episcopal Conferences and the various consideration of cultural values have been an attempt to overcome this weakness.

Thirdly, it is very questionable if Latin ecclesiology has any real understanding of a Patriarch. This is due to the absorption of the Western Patriarchal identity within the identity of the Primate.

Canonical Territories in the Catholic Church

However, the Catholic Church does have its own conception of canonical territory, but has failed to provide an adequate term or name for that which is silently present in its history and expressed differently in the various disciplines of Catholic theology. The clearest reference is, to dioceses and diocesan boundaries. The Church has basically divided the Catholic world into different territories of a canonical order called a 'diocese'. A more recent and more general type of division is that based upon 'ecclesiastical boundaries' and 'ecclesiastical regions'.

Canonical <cultural-ritual> Territory

In its Codes of Canon Law there is an implicit recognition of 'canonical cultural territory' or of cultural religious identity. Accordingly, parents who belong to one rite or Christian tradition (the difference between the various Christian traditions is primarily cultural) are to baptize their Children according to the rites of their own tradition. If the Children are baptized according to another rite, in an other tradition, they are automatically considered by Canon Law as belonging to the rite of their parents.

 Canonical <missionary> territory

 The history of the Catholic Church contains another occasion of canonical division of geographical territories, into canonical missionary territories, governed by Propaganda Fidei. One of the most renowned, occurred in the middle ages due to various political forces at play in the world, when the papacy granted the Lands to the west to Spain and its missionaries and the lands to the east to the Portuguese.

 Canonical <cultural-missionary> Territory

 One of the aspects behind the problematic phenomenon of uniatism is the very concept of a canonical missionary territory based upon culture and religious tradition. In so far as the Roman Church incorrectly proposed that it is identical with the Mystical Body (Church) of Christ, and all other Christians including the Orthodox were considered to be outside the only vehicle of Salvation. Accordingly it was felt necessary by people of past ages to convert the Orthodox world and bring it to the fullness of Salvation. Thus the Orthodox world was considered as a missionary territory. However, the Roman Church held to the principle that ancient Christian traditions (and cultures) are to be permitted and are deserving of respect. Consequently uniatism was proposed as the way of bringing the Orthodox Christians into the fold of the Catholic Church. This way was to be carried out using the religious and cultural forms of the Eastern Traditions, and not those of the Latin Tradition. Accordingly, there was an affirmation of a cultural canonical territory within the missionary policies of the Catholic Church.

 One of the more difficult aspects for present day ecumenicity, is that the Catholic Church continues to recognize this particular form of canonical territory. According to Canon Law, an Orthodox believer who becomes Catholic, does not become a Catholic of the Latin Rite, but is automatically and rigidly considered a Catholic of the Eastern Rite.

 Canonical Patriarchal Territory

Within the same code of canon law for Eastern Catholic Churches, there is a section dealing with the territory of the Patriarchal Churches and the power of the Patriarch and synods outside of this territory The canons strongly identify the geographical territory and the rite (religious tradition) proper to the Patriarchate. Likewise the Patriarch has juridical rights and duties regarding the faithful over which he presides, who live outside the territorial boundaries. Within the present ecumenical maturity in Catholic-Orthodox relations, a similiar recognition of the patriarchal territory of the Moscow Patriarchate would be in unison with the ancient Christian principles upon which the formulation of the canons of the Code find their foundation.

Canonical <pastoral> Territory

The reason for the establishment of the Apostolic Administrations for Latin Rite Catholics in Russia is, from a cultural perspective, an implicit recognition of the abstract concept of canonical territory. The Apostolic Administrations were created for the pastoral care of both Catholics and people of Catholic descent living in the former USSR. These people were primarily from German, Polish and, Lithuanian cultural milieus. Likewise the majority of baptized Catholics in Russia, represented in the foreign communities (students, diplomats, business people etc.), living principally in Moscow and St. Petersburg are part of the non-geographical, but rather cultural-pastoral canonical territory of the Roman Church.

Theoretically, the Apostolic Administrations in Russia are essentially respectful of the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and the various local Churches through out the Russian geographical-cultural area


The Latin rite community in Russia, should above all be conceived, both internally and externally, as an affirmation of the true catholicity of the Church of Christ, which consists of various religious traditions. The largest two traditions, are respectively, those of the Latin (Catholic) Church and the Russian Church, who have not yet reached the ecumenical climax of full communion between each other.

It is feared that the failure to recognize the Russian Orthodox claim of canonical territory is based on a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology. As we have seen, within the Church of Christ there are canonical divisions into various geographical and non-geographical territories. If the Orthodox Churches are a part of the Church of Christ they have a right and a duty to assert their canonical territories and the boundaries of the same. A failure to acknowledge this right, suggests a similar failure to accept the principles of the Second Vatican Council and the posterior evolution in ecclesial and ecumenical understanding.

Accordingly, it is felt that the more the Roman Church comes to a clearer conception and appreciation of the concept of 'canonical territory', the easier it will be to overcome the real cultural and quasi-political obstacles which have been hindering growth towards full Christian accord between Western and Russian Christianity.

Return to the ecumenical and theology page

or go to Church-Unity Internet Center