Back to Forum

Doing Ethics in Eastern Churches


Doing ethics in the particular of contexts of Eastern Churches is an evolving approach in the field of Christian ethics. There are sufficient literatures in the West which deal with Christian ethics. But, very few literatures are available in the East about their understanding of morality. Bernard Häring observed that after the Great Schism, the West had developed its way in the field of moral theology with the influence of scholasticism, reformation and rationalism. Nevertheless, there was not enough development in the East as a whole.[1] An Eastern or an Oriental approach to Christian ethics is, in fact, a post-conciliar development. In the Eastern Churches, this is done with the help of their liturgy. They have preserved a way of life and thought through liturgy, which is rather different from the tradition of the West. In general, a liturgical approach to ethics means an understanding and interpretation of Christian liturgy with an end to the ethical life of the faithful. We discuss here why we need an Eastern or an Oriental approach to Christian ethics in the Catholic Church.

  1. Diversity of Ecclesial Traditions

An Eastern or an Oriental approach to Christian ethics is possible due to the diversity of the ecclesial traditions in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church subsists in the Church of Christ, which is the communion of individual Churches. The faith, as well as the morals of the Catholic Church, is the same everywhere in the world. At the same time, the way the deposit of faith and the revealed truths are expressed in various cultures is quite different (Gaudium et Spes, 62). The Church of Christ assumed diverse forms in different parts of the world due to cultural influences and so there are several local Churches.

The ‘one’ Catholic Church is an umbrella of different cultures from Africa, Asia, America, Europe, Oceania, etc. The same deposit of faith is expressed and experienced in these cultures differently. As a result, each sui iuris Church is an expression of the universal Church in a particularly given context. Moreover, the ethos of the given culture influences the ethos of the respective particular Church.[2] The universality of the Catholic Church “is manifested through the different individual or sui iuris Churches, each having its own identity, its ecclesial traditions and cultural backgrounds. Without affecting the substance of the Catholic teachings on faith and morals, there can be different approaches to or expressions of them which are not contradictory but complementary.”[3] Hence, “it is an existential theological reality that the faith and morals of the Church must be studied, explained and interpreted in the light of her different cultural backgrounds and ecclesial traditions.”[4]

For example, in the case of India, there are many Churches and Christian Communities in India due to historical, cultural, theological and liturgical differences. Syro-Malabar,  Latin and Syro-Malankara are the three Catholic individual Churches in India. All of them have their own historical existence.  Moreover, they are rooted in their own liturgical heritage and traditions. In this diverse ecclesial context, on the one hand we have to be faithful to the basic teachings of the Catholic Church and on the other hand each sui iuris Church has to find their own theological expressions to describe the one and same faith and moral of the Catholic Church. It means, “if Catholic moral theology is to be genuinely ‘Catholic,’ it must take into consideration, the plurality of human cultures and ecclesial reality of the communion of Churches.”[5]

  1. Diversity of Culture

The cultural diversity of the sui iuris Churches provides the possibility of doing an Eastern approach to Christian ethics in a particular culture. There is no single monolithic form of Christian life in the Eastern Churches. Each individual Church is different from the other. Considering the culture of India, Lucien Legrand opines that “never in the history of the Church has the Christian faith encountered a culture so solid and so comprehensive, a religion so living and so profoundly mystical, as it has been in today’s India.”[6] It is within this culture that we have three Catholic traditions co-existing side by side.

Amoris Laetitia elaborates the diversity of culture and its impacts on moral decisions.[7] The Church should and could not create a universal culture in terms of uniformity. If the Church gives any superiority to any single culture, then that one culture will swallow the other, and it will impose its language, thoughts, philosophy, morals and symbols on other cultures. It will create a kind of monopoly in all the areas of life, especially in the teachings of faith and morals. It would be equivalent to abominable cultural colonialism. Moreover, the Church would be, in so doing unfaithful to her mission.[8] In addition, “what seems normal for a bishop of one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another. What for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”[9] In this context, each culture or each region in a country should seek solutions which are suitable and sensitive to its culture, traditions and local needs because the desire for contextual moral theology is possible only by discerning local voices, people’s cries and their words of anguish and protests.[10]

  1. Theological Heritage of the Eastern and Oriental Churches

Like the theological developments in the West, there are theological developments and contributions in the Eastern and Oriental Churches. The Eastern or Oriental approach to theology is deeply biblical, patristic, liturgical, poetical and experiential. Moreover, theology and theological method in the East are centred around its liturgy. Their theology is expressed in the axiom called lex orandi lex Credendi.[11]

The Eastern or the Oriental Churches have contributed much to theological developments such as Trinity, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Anthropology, Mariology, liturgy, sacraments, mysticism, spirituality, iconography, etc. Hence, it is quite natural to argue that they need to have their way of life or ordering of Christian life and specific ethical thinking.[12] Since each Church has its unique context, culture and ethos, it is appreciable to have different theological and ethical expositions.

  1. Complementarity and Mutual Appreciation in Theologization

The theological wisdom of the East and West are not contradictory but complementary. Hence, we need a healthy appreciation of their theological achievements. “Mutual appreciation of the riches of the Western and Eastern theological traditions will result in the enrichment and organic growth of both traditions, rather than the supremacy of one at the expense of the other so that we can have a fuller understanding of the mystery of Christ and the life in Christ.”[13] St. John Paul II says, “the words of the West need the words of the East; the words of the East need the words of the West so that God’s Word may ever more clearly reveal its unfathomable riches.”[14] St. John Paul II further highlights this mutual appreciation and complementarity. According to him, “the Church by God’s providence, gathered in the one Spirit, breathes as though with two lungs, of the East [it includes the Syriac Orient also] and West, and burns with the love of Christ in one heart, having two ventricles.”[15] Unlike in the past where one tradition would suppress the other and create severe imbalances, we have to keep in mind now that each tradition needs to acknowledge and recognize the value and uniqueness of other traditions and should be enriched by them.[16] Thus, there is a scope of doing ethics in the particular context of the Eastern and Oriental Churches.


It is true that the particular Christ experience of a group of people in a particular place takes a unique form of life, a distinctive way of worship and spirituality, a specific form of theology and discipline. They are incorporated into the socio-cultural milieu of the people. A sui iuris Church lives with the ethos of a specific culture. Due to this, there will be a unique manner of living the faith of the Church and a specific understanding of the Christian moral life.[17] Besides, “the different cultures have given and are continuously giving themselves Christian forms and expressiveness, without losing their own identity but always growing towards a greater communion and better understanding of truth.”[18] The diversity of cultures goes hand in hand with the different rites within the Eastern and Oriental traditions that “pave the way for a particular modus proprius fidei vivendi or ethos of a Christian community.”[19] Based on the above points it can be argued that doing ethics in the particular context of every Church is indeed the need of the time.

[1] Bernard Häring, Free and Faithful in Christ, Slough: St. Paul’s Publications, 1979, 2:317-318

[2] Mathai Kadavil, “Cultural Foundations of Eastern Ethics,” in Ethical Perspectives of Eastern Churches, Edited by Scaria Kanniyakonil, Changanassery: HIRS Publications, 2004, 105-118.

[3] Joseph Perumthottam, “The Moral Ethos of the Syro-Malabar Church,” in Doing Asian Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and an Interreligious Context, Edited by Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, James F. Keenan, and Shaji George Kochuthara, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2016, 162.

[4] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” in Indian Moral Theology: Historical Studies and Future Prospects, Edited by Mathew Illathuparampil, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2017, 102.

[5] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 104.

[6] Lucien Legrand, Mission in the Bible: Unity and Plurality, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2016, xii.

[7] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 3 (AAS 108:312).

[8] Bernard Häring, Free and faithful in Christ, 3:221; Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 3 (AAS 108:312).

[9] Pope Francis, “Concluding Address of the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” # 17.

[10] Mathew Illathuparampil, “Moral Theology Encountering India: Scope and Relevance,” in Indian Moral Theology: Historical Studies and Future Prospects, Edited by Mathew Illathuparampil, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2017, 4.

[11] Kuncheria Pathil, “Theologizing in India: Trends and Methods,” in Moral Theology in India Today: The DVK National Workshop on Moral Theology, Edited by Shaji George Kochuthara, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2013, 39.

[12] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 104.

[13] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 104.

[14] John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, 28 (AAS 87:773-774).

[15] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Sacri Canones, (AAS 82:1033-1044); Baselio Petrà, “Church with ‘Two Lungs’: Adventures of a Metaphor,” Ephrem Theological Journal 6 (2002): 111-127.

[16] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 106.

[17] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 106.

[18] Dominic Vechoor, “Breathing with ‘Two Lungs’ in Moral Theologizing: Promises and Challenges,” 107.

[19] Dominic Vechoor, “Catholic Moral Theology from Eastern and East Syriac Perspectives,” in East Syriac Theology: An Introduction, Edited by Pauly Maniyattu, Satna: Ephrem Publications, 2007, 347.