Friday, February 8, 2013

Byzantine Catholicism, Orthodoxy and the Unifying Factor between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to two priests in the Latin rite mulling over what to do in response to a parishioner from the Greek Catholic Church (or rite, as the Latins are prone to call them). Being from the Melkite community, his children were appropriately baptized, chrismated and eucharized. He has since had to relocate his family and would like to enroll his children in the local religious education program. His young children have already received their sacraments, as such, they will not repeat first communion in a year or confirmation in their teens. A proposed solution was to impose a restriction upon the Melkite children, forbidding them the reception of communion until the Latin rite children of the parish have done so. I was, at the time, shocked into silence that this scenario was honestly being entertained as a solution. The children have been validly and licitly baptized, chrismated and eucharized, according to immemorial custom. There can be no justification for a disciplinary measure to deny them communion until their Latin rite peers have fulfilled the requirements of the Roman Church. Yet, this was honestly entertained. An immemorial custom for receiving the sacraments, a method of initiation that predates the severed Roman steps of initiation, was seriously being devalued in deference to Roman custom.

To some extent, it doesn't surprise me. The Roman Church has a long history of viewing the earlier Greek tradition with suspicious or condescending eyes. When thinking about it, the conversation I've recounted above illustrates two notable trends in Western Christianity: the Greek/Byzantine/Orthodox struggle for legitimacy in Western eyes and the "Latin" homogeneity that covers the expanse of Catholicism and Protestantism.

Greek Catholics continuously fight for legitimacy under the weight of the overwhelming Latin or Roman Church. They choose communion with the bishop of Rome and tread a minefield of attempts to Latinize their traditions, sometimes by means of benighted Vatican measures, most often by pressure applied by popular ignorance. This largely stems from the close proximity of Orthodoxy to the Byzantine Catholics. Stemming as the do from smaller Orthodox churches who sought to reestablish communion with Rome, Byzantine Catholics of all varieties have historically been under pressure to affirm both Papal authority and the preeminence of the Latin tradition over the Greek tradition, even where history often points to the Byzantine tradition having earlier precedence. Vatican II denoted a shift in the official stance of the Roman Church to the Orthodox and the Byzantine Catholics. Byzantine Catholics were encouraged to pursue a policy of delatinization and the Orthodox were counted as part and parcel of the same Church. Since then, at its highest levels, the Roman Church has kept the same policy. John Paul II was a great admirer of the Orthodox and sought to have Orthodoxy inform Roman Catholicism. We can see as much in Orientale Lumen, particularly with regard to methods of liturgical methods. Benedict XVI, though not expressing as much desire for pollination from the Orthodox,  still profoundly respects the Orthodox Church. Be this as it may, on a popular level there is much disparity. Paranoid suspicion of Byzantine Catholics persists as does the pressure to include such Latin practices as the rosary and other devotions. Additionally, we are slowly seeing a return of popular fear of or animosity towards the Orthodox Church on the part of many lay Catholics and a return to a position of Latin supremacy among lower ranking clergy.

As much as Western Christianity likes to make much of apparent divisions, the Orthodox are quick to point out there is more unity between Catholics and Protestants than may often occur to most adherents. Namely, both Catholicism and Protestantism (and this runs through the many Protestant denominations) maintain the conviction that a Western interpretation of Christianity is the correct reading of the religion's origin and development. Both Catholicism and Protestantism go so far to say that these uniquely Latin or Western accounts of Christian origins are present and recognizable at the very inception of the Christian movement. Roman Catholics read papal authority, priestly celibacy, Roman ecclesiology into the very beginnings of Christianity. Protestants read such propositions as sola scriptura into the Canon itself. In both cases, scholarly evidence argues to the contrary. A monarchial episcopacy cannot be established in Rome until (safely) the third century, let alone the notion that the bishop of Rome is the supreme juridical authority in the Church. The notion of a self authenticating Canon hardly stands its ground when faced with the amount of material the New Testament authors utilize as Scripture, a great portion of which falls outside of the boundaries of the Canon excepted by most Protestant denominations. This does not even consider the varieties of Scripture utilized among proto-orthodox groups in the early centuries.

If there is any mark of unity between Catholicism and Protestantism, it is that, to a large extent, both are distinctly Western models of Christianity divorced from the earliest Greek expression of the religion and its predecessor in late Second Temple Judaism. The gulf between the two began as early as Augustine; the renowned bishop of Hippo openly acknowledged his deficiency in Greek, a major block to maintaining a connection with Christianity's earliest expression.  Nevertheless, Augustine maintained a healthy respect for the Greek tradition, even if he often times could not engage it without the aid of a translation. With Gregory the Great, the gulf has not only widened. Gregory is openly suspicious of the Greek tradition and, like Augustine, the linguistic barrier had something to do with it (although Gregory found Greek theology itself to be too adventurous). Gregory had no knowledge of Greek and even found the Greek material incomprehensible in translation, whether due to the translation quality or Gregory's own intellectual faculties is uncertain. Gregory openly derided the Greek language (and hence the original composition of the New Testament) and extolled Latin as the optimum language for the religion. While the Renaissance brought renewed interest in the Greek language and various pre-Reformation translations from the original Hebrew or Greek text, the Reformed traditions followed the Roman Church's path of continual divorce from the Greek or Orthodox tradition, which in many places could claim greater antiquity than the Western Church.