The Vatican on Tuesday announced the appointment of four auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, including one with an unusual ecclesiastical backstory.
Bishop-elect Albert Bahhuth was baptized, confirmed, and received first Holy Communion in Lebanon, as a member of the Melkite Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with roughly 300,000 members in Lebanon, and 1.5 million members worldwide.
According to his biography, Bahhuth came to the U.S. in the late 1970, becoming an accomplished chemical engineer, and then the owner of two Subway sandwich shops.
After a period of discernment, Bahhuth became a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1991, and was ordained a priest in 1996 — eventually becoming vicar general of the country’s largest archdiocese.
But before he could become an LA priest, or the archdiocesan vicar general, or an auxiliary bishop, Bahhuth needed to become a Latin Catholic.
And he did, three years before his priestly ordination, when — the Melkite Eparchy of Newton told The Pillar — Bahhuth transferred his ritual ascription, from the Melkite Catholic Church to the Latin Catholic Church.
What does that mean? And how is it accomplished?
The Pillar explains.
First, what is a Melkite, exactly?
The Catholic Church is actually a communion of connected Churches — 24 in all — each with its own hierarchy, spiritual jurisdiction, liturgical traditions, culture, and customs. They’re joined by a common faith in the teachings of the Church, along with a sacramental unity, and a common fidelity to the pope as head of the Church.
The largest of those Catholic Churches, by far, is the Latin Catholic Church, usually called the Roman Catholic Church.
But there are some 16 to 18 million Catholics who are members of the other 23 churches in the Catholic communion — they’re generally called Eastern Catholics, and they include churches like the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Maronite Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church in the Middle East, and the Ethiopian Catholic Church and the Eritrean Catholic Church, both in Africa.
Each of those churches has its own bishops and parishes, and is headed by some leadership figure — the patriarch, major archbishop, or a metropolitan — who holds hierarchical communion with the Bishop of Rome, the pope.
Among those churches is the Melkite Catholic Church, which has been formally a part of the Catholic communion since 1724.
The Melkite Church is Antiochan — its roots trace to the Christians of the city of Antioch, who were traditionally evangelized and led by St. Peter, before he went to Rome. The Church reflects the history of the Ottoman Empire, and its members include Catholics from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and other countries — while its spirituality includes the influence of Greek Byzantine Christians.
But these Melkites are Catholic, right?
Yes, the Eastern Catholic Churches are Catholic churches, whose leadership have formal communion with the Bishop of Rome, whom they recognize as the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth. While their ways of doing liturgy and theology are different from that of the Latin Catholic Church, Eastern Catholics are fully and completely Catholics.
They are subject to the leadership and authority of their own church hierarchies, in communion with the pope, rather than to the jurisdiction of the local Latin Catholic bishop.
When Bishop-elect Bahhuth came to the U.S. and started going to a Latin Catholic parish, did that make him a Latin Catholic?
Not automatically, no.
A person is enrolled, or ascribed, to a particular Church sui iuris at the time of baptism. Usually, but not always, a person is ascribed to the Church in which they are baptized — but the determining factor has to do with the parents, and their intentions.
If both parents of a newborn baby are Latin Catholics, their baptized baby will be Latin Catholics. If one parent is Latin Catholic, and the other parent is Eastern Catholic, their baptized baby will be a Latin Catholic if that’s what they agree on — but if they can’t agree, then their baby will be ascribed to the Church to which the father belongs.
If both parents are Eastern Catholics — say, one Melkite and the other Maronite, the child is enrolled in the father’s Church by default, or, in the mother’s Church if both parents freely request that.
There are other canonical rules which determine the Church to which a newly-baptized child would belong in complex situations.
But once a person is ascribed to a particular Church sui iuris, he belongs to that Church even if he doesn’t worship there.
It might be the case that a Ukrainian Catholic worships at a nearby Latin Catholic parish, or a Latin Catholic worships for years at a local Eritrean Catholic parish — but unless a person formally transfers from one Church to another, he belongs to the Church to which he was ascribed at baptism.
So then a person can change?
Yes, a person can petition for a “transfer of ritual ascription” from one Catholic Church to another — as Bishop-elect Bahhuth did on November 30, 1993, according to the Melkite Eparchy of Newton.
There are some situations in which a person can transfer ritual ascription easily — if they’ve married an Eastern Catholic, for example, a Latin Catholic can declare a transfer to the spouse’s Church.
Most of the time, transfers require the permission of the Apostolic See. But the law creates a kind of shortcut to that.
If a person wants to transfer from one sui iuris Church to another, canon law allows the Vatican’s permission to be presumed, so long as both the bishop of the Church he’s leaving, and the bishop of the Church he’s entering, agree to the transfer.
In practice, that bishop-to-bishop approach is a far more common approach to a transfer of ritual ascription than is actually making a petition to the Vatican.
But why would a person change?
Some people transfer their ritual ascription, as Bishop-elect Bahhuth did, in order to enter a religious institute or priestly formation in another Catholic Church. Others transfer at the time of marriage, or because of their long-standing practice in a particular sui iuris Church.
In the U.S., the Church today usually encourages that Eastern Catholics remain ascribed to their Churches, even if they generally worship in a Latin Catholic parish — but over time, many Eastern Catholics do begin practicing in Latin Catholic parishes, either because their own Church does not have a nearby parish, or because they identify more closely with the predominant Latin Catholic cutlure.
That points to the broad phenomenon of “Latinization” for Eastern Catholics living in the U.S. and other Western countries.
For more than a century, some Eastern Catholic Church leaders have lamented that members of their community have gradually shifted their identity and religious practice to the much larger Latin Catholic Church in the United States.
In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII urged respect for Eastern Catholic liturgical practice and spirituality, and a decree of the Second Vatican Council urged the same.
But Eastern Catholics have sometimes faced serious difficulty in the U.S. — most famously when Bishop John Ireland in the 19th century famously prohibited Eastern Catholic clergy in the United States, leading a large group of Eastern Catholics to decamp for the Orthodox communion.
While discrimination against Eastern Catholics within the Church is largely regarded today to have subsided, Eastern Catholic churches in the U.S. do face diminished numbers, in part because of the attrition of their members to the Latin Catholic Church.
On the other hand, some Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S., including the Melkite Church, have seen in recent years growth, in part through the evangelization of non-Catholics.