by David Bentley Hart
The division between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches—officially almost a millennium old, but in many ways far older—has often enough been characterized as the ineluctable effect of one or another irreconcilable and irreducible difference: political (Caesars and Czars as opposed to princes and popes), cultural (Greek or Byzantine as opposed to Latin or Frankish), theological (divergent views of nature and grace or original sin), doctrinal (the filioque clause, papal infallibility, and so on), ritual (leavened bread and icons as opposed to azymes and statuary), ecclesiological (patriarchal pentarchy and sobornost as opposed to universal papal jurisdiction and monarchia), even ‘ontological’—to cite the somewhat hermetic language once employed by the Oecumenical Patriarch. (I hope that this last was a case of mistranslation, I must note, as I should be inconsolable if I discovered that we do not even now have being in common.) And, because these various distinctions have been drawn only rarely in a spirit of critical detachment, uncontaminated by some element of squalid recrimination, it has usually proved difficult to separate matters of real significance from those raised for purposes either purely polemical or ultimately frivolous.
Every serious ecumenical engagement between the Orthodox and Catholic communions reveals depth upon depth of substantial agreement, and yet always fades upon the midnight knell, as each side ruefully acknowledges the perplexing refractoriness and stubborn persistence of differences that lie (apparently) deeper still.
Always an abiding sense of some ever more determinative—and yet, curiously, ever more indeterminate—essential difference overshadows every conversation (however charitable) that attempts to span the divide. And this sense serves constantly to temper our elation over whatever meager accords we strike, to imbue our continued division with an almost mystical aura of inevitability, and to resign us fatalistically to our failures and to the failure of our love.
By all rights, however, Pope John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint should have inaugurated a new era in the ecumenical relations between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. There is, of course, nothing remarkable in the author of Orientale Lumen—that hymn of love to Eastern Christianity—expressing so fervent a desire for reconciliation with the East; but nothing, I think, could have prepared anyone for the extraordinary overture John Paul made in stating that he wished for a conversation with other Christians (especially, it seems obvious, with those of the East) regarding papal primacy, one in which the issue of the pope’s ecclesial jurisdiction would be open. Indeed, it was so surprising a gesture that neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Catholic Church seems yet to know how to react to it. And yet, of course, it touches upon the one real issue that the two churches must address directly. If we are sufficiently reflective and free of absurd prejudices, most of us would grant that the truly central question that we must approach together is how we are to understand church authority, apostolic authority, and episcopal authority in relation to the Petrine office and to the papal privilege regarding enunciation of dogma. If we were allowed to discuss this, free from any anxiety regarding other concerns, many other issues surely would resolve themselves, as obviously subordinate to this one great concern. But here, as it happens, is the very question I wish to raise in what follows: Will we ever indeed be allowed really to have that conversation? I ask this, because, the most intransigent and extreme members of our respective communions—and those, I fear, who in the East are usually at present the most impassioned and obstreperous among us—seem often incapable or unwilling to acknowledge any recognizable distinction between substantial and accidental differences, between real and imagined difficulties, between obvious and merely suppositious theological issues, and between matters of negligible import and those that lie at the heart of our division.
As regards my own communion, I must reluctantly report that there are some Eastern Christians who have become incapable of defining what it is to be Orthodox except in contradistinction to Roman Catholicism; and among these are a small but voluble number who have (I sometimes suspect) lost any rationale for their Orthodoxy other than their profound hatred, deranged terror, and encyclopaedic ignorance of Rome. For such as these, there can never be any limit set to the number of grievances that need to be cited against Rome, nor any act of contrition on the part of Rome sufficient for absolution. There was something inherently strange in the spectacle of John Paul asking pardon for the 1204 sack of Constantinople and its sequel; but there is something inherently unseemly in the refusal of certain Eastern polemicists to allow the episode to sink back to the level of utter irrelevancy to which it belongs. (In any event, I eagerly await the day when the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a gesture of unqualified Christian contrition, makes public penance for the brutal mass slaughter of the metic Latin Christians of Byzantium—men, women, and children—at the rise of Andronicus I Comnenus in 1182, and the sale of thousands of them into slavery to the Turks. Frankly, when all is said and done, the sack of 1204 was a rather mild recompense for that particular abomination, I would think.)
Now, on the one hand, I am obviously talking about a certain kind of ecclesial extremist, of the sort who can imagine no version of the Catholic faith that does not conform in every detail to the practices and prejudices of his childhood; and all of our churches contain such persons. Of course, in almost every case, the great irony of such persons—whether they be ultramontanist Catholics or what we call the ‘ultra-Orthodox’—is that what they generally take to be the immemorial heritage of the Catholic faith is the distinctly modern form of the church that happened to hold sway in the days when their infant minds still luxuriated in idyllic pliancy. Thus when a certain kind of militantly conservative Catholic priest is heard to claim that the celibate priesthood was the universal practice of the early church, established by Christ in his apostles, and that therefore even married Catholic priests of the Eastern rites possess defective orders, the historically astute among us should recognize that such a delusion is possible only for a person having no understanding of the priesthood more sophisticated than his pristine boyish memories of Fr O’Reilly’s avuncular geniality, and the shining example of his contented bachelorhood, and the calm authority with which he presided over the life of the parish church of St Anne of Green Gables. And when this same priest ventures theological or ecclesiological opinions, it is almost certain that what he takes to be apostolic Catholicism will turn out to be a particular kind of post-Tridentine Baroque Catholicism, kept buoyantly afloat upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles of an antiquity no hoarier than 1729. Similarly, when a certain kind of Greek Orthodox anti-papal demagogue claims that the Eastern Church has always rejected the validity of the sacraments of the ‘Latin schismatics’, or that that the real church schism dates back to the eighth century when the Orthodox Church became estranged from the Roman over the latter’s ‘rejection’ of the (14th-century) distinction between God’s essence and energies, the historically literate among us should recognize that what he takes to be apostolic Orthodoxy is in fact based upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles that reach back only to 1755, and upon principles of theological interpretation first enunciated in 1942, and upon an interpretation of ecclesiastical history that dates from whenever the prescriptions for his medications expired.
On the other hand, though it is true that such persons are extremists, it is also true that they represent merely the acute manifestation of a chronic pathology. In truth, the most unpleasant aspect of the current state of the division between East and West is the sheer inventiveness with which those ardently committed to that division have gone about fabricating ever pro founder and more radical reasons for it. Our distant Christian forebears were content to despise one another over the most minimal of matters—leavened or unleavened Eucharistic bread, for instance, or veneration of unconsecrated elements—without ever bothering to suppose that these differences were symptomatic of anything deeper than themselves. Today, however, a grand mythology has evolved regarding the theological dispositions of the Eastern and Western Christendom, to the effect that the theologies of the Eastern and Western Catholic traditions have obeyed contrary logics and have in consequence arrived at conclusions inimical each to the other—that is to say, the very essence of what we believe is no longer compatible.
I do not believe that, before the middle of the 20th century, claims were ever made regarding the nature of the division as radical as those one finds not only in the works of inane agitators like the altogether absurd and execrable John Romanides, but also in the works of theologians of genuine stature, such as Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, or John Zizioulas in the East or Erich Przywara or Hans Urs von Balthasar in the West; and until those claims are defeated—as well they should be, as they are without exception entirely fanciful—we cannot reasonably hope for anything but impasse.
Now, speaking only for my tradition, I think I can identify fairly easily where Orthodox theology has fallen prey to this mythology. Eastern Orthodox theology gained a great deal from the—principally Russian—neo-patristic and neo-Palamite revolution during the last century, and especially from the work of Vladimir Lossky. Indeed, in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the very fate of Orthodoxy had become doubtful to many, and so the energy with which Lossky applied himself to a new patristic synthesis that would make clear the inmost essence of Orthodoxy is certainly understandable; but the problems bequeathed to Orthodox scholarship by the ‘Russian revolution’ in theology are many. And the price exacted for those gains was exorbitant. For one thing, it led to a certain narrowing of the spectrum of what many Eastern theologians are prepared to treat as either centrally or legitimately Orthodox, with the consequence that many legitimate aspects of the tradition that cannot be easily situated upon the canonical Losskian path from the patristic age to the Hesychastic synthesis of the 14th and subsequent centuries have suffered either neglect or denigration. But the most damaging consequence of Orthodoxy’s 20th century pilgrimage ad fontes—ironically, I think—has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic, or at least in the confidence with which it is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion of Lossky and others has on occasion led to severe distortions of Eastern theology; and it has often made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology all but impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine. The aforementioned John Romanides, for instance, has produced expositions of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas that are almost miraculously devoid of one single correct statement; and while this might be comical if such men spoke only for themselves, it becomes tragic when instead they influence the way great numbers of their fellows view other Christians.
In any event, I want to consider, in turn, three areas where this mythology has metastasized to unprecedented proportions in the past half century—theology, doctrine, and ecclesiology—and to
suggest a few possible (if unlikely) solutions to the difficulties that each presents.
This is the most spacious of the three categories, and the most fabulous. Theology, inasmuch as it need not possess the hard lucidity of doctrine nor claim for itself much authority or probative power beyond the stochastic, is fertile soil for false distinctions. It is here, consequently, that those who have devoted their lives to the perpetuation and apocalyptic mythologization of the division of the ancient churches are most indefatigable in their efforts. No sooner is one fantastical theological obstacle surmounted by the cool rationality of the historian or the impeccable logic of the theologian than another is erected; no sooner is one of the interminably pullulating vines of theological legend hacked away than another springs up from its inextirpable roots.
There is no area of Christian speculation where the truly creative agent provocateur is unable to find some vital difference between East and West, the profundity of which we have only now begun to grasp: the Trinity, nature and grace, sacraments, human nature, the divine image, heaven and hell, sanctification, original sin, soteriology, iconography, the vision of God, spirituality, even Christology.
And any suggestion that perhaps differences in terminology (say, between talk of’ created grace’ and talk of ‘divine energies’) might not necessarily betoken an irreconcilable antagonism between the two traditions is quickly lost in the ceaseless, swift, agile shifting of the conversation from one incorrigible difficulty to another. I shall take one example—Trinitarian theology—to illustrate two things: the power of interested scholarship to create false dilemmas whose only function is to keep contentious debates alive, and the power of such scholarship to distort the theological tradition of both sides of the divide in the process.
Since at least the time of Vladimir Lossky it has become something of a fixed idea in modern Orthodox theology that Western theology has traditionally forgotten the biblical truth that the unity of the Trinity flows from the paternal arche and come to believe instead that what constitutes the unity of God is an impersonal divine essence prior to the Trinitarian relations. It was Theodore de Regnon who, in 1892, first suggested a distinction between Western and Eastern styles of Trinitarian theology: the tendency, that is, of Latin thought to proceed from general nature to concrete Person, so according priority to divine unity, and of Greek thought to proceed from Person to nature, so placing the emphasis first on the plurality of divine Persons. This distinction was not made in order to suggest a dogmatic superiority on either side, of course; nor, I think, was it very true. But it was seized upon, rather opportunistically, by a number of 20th-century theologians, and now we find ourselves in an age in which we are often told that we must choose between ‘Greek’ personalism and ‘Latin’ essentialism. And, supposedly, this is a difference that goes all the way back to the patristic period (at least, if certain extremely misleading interpretations of Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa are to be believed). It has become so lamentably common among my fellow Orthodox to treat this claim that Western theology in general posits some ‘impersonal’ divine ground behind the Trinitarian hypostases, and so fails to see the Father as the ‘fountainhead of divinity’, as a simple fact of theological history (and the secret logic of Latin ‘filioquism’) that it seems almost rude to point out that it is quite demonstrably untrue, from the patristic through the medieval periods, with a few insignificant exceptions. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that the understanding of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit found in Augustine is not only compatible, but identical, with that of the Cappadocian fathers—including Gregory’s and Basil’s belief that the generation of the Son is directly from the Father, while the procession of the Spirit is from the Father only per Filium (sed, to borrow a phrase, de Patre principaliter). I have no wish to dwell very long upon the matter here, but I might observe that both Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa even distinguish generation and procession within the Trinity in terms primarily of the order of cause: that is, both claim that the procession of the Spirit differs from the generation of the Son principally in that the former occurs through the Son. As Gregory writes (in a passage that would fit very well in, say, Book V of Augustine’s De Trinitate):
… while confessing the immutability of the [divine] nature, we do not deny difference in regard to cause and that which is caused, by which alone we discern the difference of each Person from the other, in that we believe one to be the cause and another to be from the cause; and again we conceive of another difference within that which is from the cause: between the one who, on the one hand, comes directly from the principle and the one who, on the other, comes from the principle through the one who arises directly; thus it unquestionably remains peculiar to the Son to be the Only Begotten, while at the same time it is not to be doubted that the Spirit is of the Father, by virtue of the mediation of the Son that safeguards the Son’s character as Only Begotten, and thus the Spirit is not excluded from his natural relation to the Father.1
This is the very argument—made by Augustine in De Trinitate—that scores of Orthodox theologians in recent decades have denounced as entirely alien to Eastern tradition.
Again, I do not want to venture too far into purely technical matters, but I can think of no better example of an almost entirely imaginary theological problem, pursued with ferocious pertinacity solely because it serves to exaggerate and harden—or, rather, to rationalize—the division between Christian East and West, but that succeeds only in distorting the tradition of both almost beyond recognition. And I cannot emphasize this last point too forcefully. Since the time of Lossky, various modern Orthodox theologians have adopted an exaggerated ‘Photianism’ and have, in their assault on ‘filioquism’, argued that—though, within the economy of salvation, the Spirit is breathed out by Christ upon the apostles—the Trinitarian relations as revealed in the economy of salvation are distinct from the eternal relations of the immanent Trinity. This is theologically disastrous, and in fact subversive of the entire Eastern patristic tradition of Trinitarian dogma. Were this claim sound, there would be absolutely no basis for Trinitarian theology at all; the arguments by which the Cappadocians defended full Trinitarian theology against Arian and Eunomian thought—in works like Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto and Gregory’s Adversus Macedonianos—would entirely fail. Orthodoxy would have no basis whatsoever.
In any event, as I say, this is only one example among many. In the abstract, theology as such should throw up no impediments to the ecumenical enterprise between East and West; whatever differences may exist between the two traditions, none of them is of any appreciable magnitude, and even if they were they would still constitute only differences between theologoumena, not between dogmata. And yet it is in fact in the realm of theology that the greatest number of obstacles are thrown up to intelligent and charitable dialogue; for where there remains some desire to rationalize and deepen the division between the churches, the sheer speculative plasticity of theological reflection and language allows for an endless multiplication of ever newer ‘ancient’ differences. As for how to remedy this situation, I can offer only the weak recommendation of better education: perhaps we might find a way to force young Orthodox theologians to read Augustine and Aquinas, rather than fatuous treatments of Augustine and Aquinas written by dyspeptic Greeks, or to force young Catholic theologians to immerse themselves in Byzantine scholasticism and Eastern ecclesiology, and to force everyone involved to learn the history of the church in all its ambiguity. But, whatever we do, we have too long allowed bad scholarship and empty cant and counterfeit history to influence and even dictate the terms of the relation between Orthodoxy and Rome.
Doctrine presents us with another kind of obstacle, at once more concrete and more minimal in form. These differences, once one puts aside purely tendentious attempts to magnify or multiply the doctrinal divergences of the two traditions, are very few indeed, easily identified, and in some cases easily resolved (if there is a will to do so). One of the great virtues of the Roman Catholic approach to doctrinal pronouncements is that, in their official formulae, these pronouncements are often so scrupulously pure of detail that they are capable of a vast variety of theological receptions. Of the two modern Marian dogmas—the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception—the first is obviously perfectly in accord (though too vague to be identical) with the story that the Orthodox Church celebrates every Feast of the Dormition; the second, it has often been noted, seems to imply a doctrine of original sin quite different from that common to the East, but here two points need to be made: first, theological differences are not doctrinal differences and, second, the doctrine is again stated with such chaste minimal ism that it is an error to imagine that any particular historically conditioned understanding of original sin must necessarily attach to it. In truth, it is not so much the substance of such doctrines that must remain issues of contention between us, but simply the question of whether there was ever sufficient authority to promulgate them in the first place: and that, of course, takes us back to the issues of papal infallibility, and papal primacy, and the nature of Oecumenical councils.
That said, doctrines do divide us, and I think that, in the nature of things, the Eastern church inevitably has a keener sense of this. I have among my Roman Catholic theologian friends, especially those who have had little direct dealings with Eastern Christianity, some who are justifiably offended by the hostility with which the advances of the Roman Church are occasionally met by certain Orthodox, and who assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion of the churches is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of ‘psychology’, and the only counsel offered one of ‘patience’. Fair enough: decades of communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every ‘alien’ influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives. But psychology is the least of our problems. Simply said, a Catholic who looks eastward should find nothing to which to object, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Oecumenical Councils (but—here’s the rub—for him, this means the first seven of twenty-one, at least according to the definition of Oecumenical Council bequeathed the Roman Church by Robert Bellarmine). When an Orthodox Christian turns his eyes westward, however, he sees many elements that appear novel to him: the filioque clause, the way in which papal primacy is articulated, Purgatory, etc. Our divisions do truly concern doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. And we need to appreciate that this creates an essential asymmetry in the Orthodox and Catholic approaches to the ecumenical enterprise. No Catholic properly conscious of the teachings of his Church would be alarmed by what the Orthodox Church would bring into his communion—he would find it sound and familiar, and would not therefore suspect for a moment that reunion had in any way compromised or diluted his Catholicism. But to an Orthodox Christian, inasmuch as the Roman Church does make doctrinal assertions absent from his tradition, it may well seem that to accept reunion with Rome would mean becoming a Roman Catholic, and so ceasing to be Orthodox. Hence it would be unreasonable to expect the Eastern and Western churches to approach ecumenism from the same vantage: the historical situations of the churches are simply too different.
To show what I mean, I suppose I should point to the two areas where I suspect the most important dogmatic progress needs to be made, one of which is very obvious—the filioque clause—and the other of which is less so—the doctrine of Purgatory. In the first case, actually, doctrinal concord should not (in ideal circumstances) be elusive. Indeed, were this simply a matter of theology, my impulse would be to defend the clause, so long as it is understood to mean that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (the Father being, as scripture clearly reveals, the soul wellspring of Godhead), because I believe that that is the authentic Eastern teaching as well, and the only teaching that can at once be made congruent with the evidence of scripture and the logic of Orthodox theological tradition. Not everyone here agrees: as I have said, Vladimir Lossky and others have argued the opposite; but I find their arguments not only unpersuasive, but historically absurd and theologically catastrophic. But this is not solely a matter of theology, and where doctrine is concerned a much narrower set of standards must apply. That the insertion of the phrase in the creed was irregular Rome freely acknowledges, and John Paul II as much as said that it should be taken as no more than a theological gloss upon the Spirit’s procession from the Father, and he was himself obviously quite happy to revert to the Greek half of the diptychs in his own usage. But, given that we are talking about doctrine, I must be honest and point out that on this matter half measure will avail us nothing, and anything short of a total ablation of the phrase from all Catholic rites will prove fruitless. For really it does not matter how sophisticated we become in our grasp of theological history, or how subtle in our dogmatic negotiations with the past; it is simply a fact that so long as the clause is used in any quarter of the Roman communion, there will not be reunion with the East. It has too long served as the historical symbol par excellence of what divides us, and around the ambiguity and irregularity of its insertion in the universal symbol of Catholic faith, without the assent of the Eastern churches, cluster so many of the most divisive issues of theological history, that it will remain an insurmountable obstacle to unity for not only the foreseeable, but the imaginable, future. Orthodox hierarchs could undertake reunion only at the price of massive internal schisms—and what then would be gained? It may seem unfair to ask Rome to make so immense and possibly disruptive a gesture without any reciprocal move on the part of the East, but—given the asymmetry of the ecumenical situation mentioned above—this cannot be treated as an occasion for a quid pro quo. A decision must be reached about what is most important: if it is unity, the phrase must be expunged from all confessional use; if the phrase is, however, to remain, we may as well resign ourselves to disunity in perpetuity.
On the second matter, Purgatory, it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to place this issue alongside something of such enormous consequence as the filioque clause; but here I think is one area where Roman doctrinal pronouncements have not been as marked as one might wish by that formulary minimalism I praised above. The Eastern church believes in sanctification after death, and perhaps the doctrine of Purgatory really asserts nothing more than that; but Rome has also traditionally spoken of it as ‘temporal punishment’, which the pope may in whole or part remit. The problem here is it is difficult, from the Orthodox perspective, to see how it could be both. That is, if it is sanctification, then it is nothing other than salvation: that is, the transformation of our souls, by which the Holy Spirit conforms us to God, through all eternity, and frees us from the last residue of our perversity and selfishness. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches are as one, after all, in denying that salvation is either a magical transformation of the human being into something else or merely a forensic imputation of sinlessness to a sinful creature: it is a real glorification and organic transfiguration of the creature in Christ, one which never violates the integrity of our creatureliness, but which—by causing us to progress from sin to righteousness—really makes us partakers of the divine nature. Very well then: what then could it mean to remit purgation? Why, if it is sanctification, would one want such remission, and would it not then involve instead the very magical transformation of the creature into something beyond itself that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches both deny? These are not, granted, unanswerable questions, but they are questions as yet unanswered, and there is genuine need for a serious engagement on what the doctrinal formulation regarding sanctification after death should be, and whether Roman and Orthodox traditions can be reconciled in a more than superficial way on this one issue.
Let me turn, finally, to the real root of our division, ecclesiology. It may be the case that the one singular failure of the early church was in not convoking a council to deal with the matter of ecclesiology as a properly doctrinal locus. It is here, perhaps, where all other problems come to rest. Papal primacy, and especially the doctrine of papal infallibility, of course, remain at the very center of what separates us:
Does the one imply universal jurisdiction, and if so of what sort? Does the other absolve the Pontiff of any responsibility to conciliar authority? And so on.
Catholic ecumenists, I should point out, often misconstrue the nature of the Orthodox distrust of their good will. It is not simply the case that the Orthodox are so fissiparous and jealous of their autonomy that the Petrine office appears to them a dangerous principle of homogeneity, to which their fractious Eastern wills cannot submit. Rather, it more often than not appears to be a dangerous principle of plurality. After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter.
An obvious example: three men are called Patriarch of Antioch in the Roman communion (Melkite, Maronite, and East Syrian)—which suggests that the very title of patriarch, even as regards an apostolic see, is merely honorific, because the only unique patriarchal office is the pope’s. To Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire. Now, of course, this plurality of patriarchs is an accident of history; but it is also an insufferable situation. We surely must acknowledge that the apostolic dignity of a patriarchate should not be reduced to an honorary title attached to a metropolitan responsible for one rite among others within his jurisdiction. And the very notion that the pope could possibly possess the authority to ‘appoint’ a patriarch in another see is an historical and theological nonsense for which the Orthodox should rightly have no patience whatsoever. So this too we must address: What is the unique dignity of the apostolic office of patriarch, and what is its jurisdictional authority, and how does it relate to the preeminent patriarchate occupied by the Bishop of Rome?
As regards the doctrine of papal infallibility, and especially the claim that the definition of dogma by the pope proceeds ex sese et non ex consensu ecclesiae, two comments seem worth making. The first is that, taking the doctrine again in its most minimal form, the claim of infallibility is inoffensive: if indeed the Holy Spirit speaks to the mind of the church, and the church promulgates infallible doctrine, and the successor of Peter enjoys the privilege of enunciating doctrine, then whenever he speaks ex cathedra of course he speaks infallibly; this is almost a tautology. It is the question, obviously, of how one gets to that point that is all the object of our contention. As for the claim that it is not reached ex consensu, the only real question is whether this is a prior or a posterior condition. That is to say, what does it imply regarding the authority of councils, or other patriarchates, or tradition? Obviously Rome denies that the pontiff could generate doctrine out of personal whim. And, after all, clearly it is true that no doctrine could possibly follow from the consensus of the church, if for no other reason than that the church is not democracy, and truth is not something upon which we vote. That said, I do not wish to conjure this issue away, and I would that the definition had never been pronounced; but this I can say: it is not clear to me that, as formulated, the doctrine destines us to perpetual division. It can, I suspect, be integrated into a fully developed teaching regarding conciliarity, one that can accommodate a certain magisterial privilege that is unique, but not isolated from the charisms of episcopal collegiality.
These, however, are familiar questions and need not be more fully addressed here. There is, though, one final ecclesiological issue that it seems to me should be raised, and that rarely is, and that bears directly upon the way in which the matter of papal jurisdiction is phrased in Ut Unum Sint. It is no great secret that the popular picture of the division between East and West—the myth, that is, of a sudden definitive catastrophic breach between the churches that immediately created two distinct communions—bears little relation to history. We know that, even after the excommunications of 1054, both Rome and Constantinople were—as far as anyone could tell- in communion with the Patriarchate of Antioch, for instance; that this estrangement between two patriarchs affected next to nothing in the northern Balkans; that even after the sack of Constantinople the boundaries between Catholic and Orthodox were fluid in much of the oekumene; that as late as the time of Nicholas Cabasilas, and well beyond, the sacramental validity of the Western church could not credibly be challenged, or vice versa. As I have said, it was only in the 18th century that denigrations of the orders or sacraments of the respective ‘other’ church became part of theological discourse; and those who still cling to this view of a hermetically sealed sacramental order—Orthodox or Catholic—over against a now invalid anti-church are in fact not defenders of tradition, but rank modernists. The worst manifestation of this is the practice among some Greek parishes—which I would not call irregular but heretical, if I had the authority so to do—of rebaptism. The attempt of certain modern Orthodox to justify this practice from Cyprianic principles would be compelling were it not so manifestly a thoroughly contemporary development, out of keeping with the thinking of the Eastern church right through the high middle ages, and if it were not for the absolute absence of any analogy between the two situations.
Chrysostom Frank published an article some years ago that laid out quite compactly, but with a wealth of detail, how porous (or, in some cases, nonexistent) were the partitions between the churches for centuries after the excommunications of 1054.2 Communicatio in sacris between Orthodox and Catholics, Frank notes, continued in some places till the 17th century. At the Council of Florence (1438–39), for instance, both sides spoke of the division between East and West as a wall of separation erected within the one Catholic Church. In various reaches of the Ottoman Empire, Frank observes, great numbers of Orthodox and Catholic believers—among the clergy no less than among the laity—proceeded as if there were no division. Latin missionaries were even known to regard the local Orthodox bishop as their ordinary, and Catholic priests were allowed to preach in Orthodox churches, catechize, hear confessions, and even on occasion administer the Eucharist. Orthodox Christians did not hesitate to show their reverence for the Catholic sacrament at corpus Christi processions, and on the Island of Andros the Orthodox bishop and his clergy—fully vested and bearing candles—participated in the procession itself. In the 17th century, Frank shows, there were abundant signs of cordiality between the communions: a former Athonite abbot in 1628 asking Rome to open a school on the Holy Mountain, the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in 1644 inviting the Jesuits to open a house in Damascus, the Metropolitan of Aegina in 1690 petitioning the pope for
Jesuits to undertake pastoral work in his diocese. And then, Frank sadly observes, in the 18th century both churches hardened in their positions, and soon this history of accord was forgotten.
That said, it is still not the case, even in the modern period, that an absolute division between the two communions has ever existed. Under communist rule in Russia, for instance, Orthodox and Catholic communicants sometimes received from the same chalice, with tacit episcopal consent, and there are parts of Syria and Lebanon today where this fluidity of boundaries is an open secret and intercommunion a simple fact of life. In fact, I know of two Syrian parishes in the United States that have passed from the jurisdiction of an Orthodox to a Catholic bishop or in the opposite direction where communicants who consider themselves either Catholic or Orthodox belong to one church and one altar. To put it simply, there has never been a time when a perfect and impermeable wall has stood between the sacramental orders of East and West.
Perhaps none of this is very important: local irregularities, after all, are not an index of church discipline. But all of this raises a question for me. To wit: when and where can we really locate the schism? Not only in time and space, that is, but within dogmatic and canonical norms? We are divided, we know, but how, when, and by what authority? And, while it is a social and cultural and political fact that we are divided, what is its theological rationale? Can the failure of communion between two patriarchs or bishops—a frequent event in the early church—create a real division of sacramentally united communions from one another? Could, for instance, the Orthodox really believe that the pope could excommunicate another patriarch and his flock? By what provision of Eastern canon law? And if Rome cannot, how much less Constantinople? And if communion has never truly wholly ceased, how can we actually identify the moment, the cause, or in fact the possibility of that division?
And this, I think, may be the real question that a discussion of papal jurisdiction must ultimately broach, the least obvious or expected question of all: not how we can possibly discover the doctrinal and theological resources that would enable or justify reunion, but how we can possibly discover the doctrinal and theological resources that could justify or indeed make certain our division. This is not a moral question—how do we dare to remain disunited?—but a purely canonical one: are we sure that we are? For, if not, then our division is simply sin, a habit of desire and thought that feeds upon nothing but its own perverse passions and immanent logic, a fiction of the will, and obedience to a lie.
In any event, my last remark is only this: reunion of the Orthodox and Roman Churches has become an imperative, and time is growing short. I say this because I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. And it is, I think, a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism, possessing a singular power for absorbing the native energies of the civilization it is displacing without prompting any extravagant alarm at its vacuous barbarisms. And I suspect that the only tools at Christianity’s disposal, as it confronts the rapid and seemingly inexorable advance of this nihilism, will be evangelical zeal and internal unity. I like to think—call it the Sophiologist in me—that the tribulations that Eastern Christianity has suffered under Islamic and communist rule have insulated it from some of the more corrosive pathologies of modernity for a purpose, and endowed it with a special mission to bring its liturgical, intellectual, and spiritual strengths to the aid of the Western Christian world in its struggle with the nihilism that the post-Christian West has long incubated and that now surrounds us all, while yet drawing on the strengths and charisms of the Western church to preserve Orthodoxy from the political and cultural frailty that still afflicts Eastern Christianity. Whatever the case, though, we are more in need of one another now than ever. To turn away from ecumenism now may be to turn towards the darkness that is deepening all about us. We are called to be children of light, and I do not think that we will walk very far in the light hereafter except together.
1 Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium, 55–6.
2 Chrysostom Frank, ‘Orthodox-Catholic Relations: An Orthodox Reflection’, Pro Ecclesia, VII, 1, Winter 1998.