Friday, July 31, 2015

Walking Along the Fragile Bridge Towards Unity

I recently extended an invitation to view this blog to a person who was formally very active in the online world. It was declined because his person added that his interest is in "cooperation, not polemics." That I will openly critique Roman ecclesiology was a cause of some concern for him.

Fair enough. But I also don't tie myself in knots over any "one true church" argument. So, if one happens to be Roman Catholic, I am not rejecting your religion, or your tradition. The premise I reject is that which concerns the position of the Roman Church in relation to other churches, including the ancient Patriarchates. Conversely, the Orthodox Church's own "true church" claims seem, from a scholar's perspective, a little off base as well.

Back to the point, this exchange reminds me that the current construction of the bridge towards eventual unity is fragile and could easily give way if the current trajectory continues. Amid all of the doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion, it becomes readily apparent that a frame work of doctrinal unity requires that someone ultimately gives up something - and it is not a fair exchange. Orthodoxy demands Rome renounce its doctrine of the papacy and reintegrate itself into the system of Patriarchates. Rome demands Orthodoxy adopt the doctrine of the papacy and make the system of the Patriarchates subservient to the papacy.

The papacy is the sticking point. Yes, there are other issues; the Immaculate Conception, Augustine's doctrine of original sin, the Filioque, etc. The papacy, however, is THE issue; it is a point upon which a religion's identity hangs. Does Roman Catholicism exist without the papacy? Can Orthodoxy exist with the Roman doctrine of the papacy? Clearly the answer is "no." Yet it is also clear that Orthodoxy and Catholicism derive from the same source. This said, you can't ask for a radical change which amounts to a disavowal of their past. Rome tried tinkering with the religion in recent history and the end result demonstrated that one ought to be cautious before toying with the faith. Much as the corpus of Patristic appears to me to be weighted more towards Orthodox ecclesiology than Rome's, it seems to me to be any "victory" in talks around doctrinal unity carry with them the potential to destroy much of what is left of the Western tradition. So ingrained is the papacy in the consciousness of Roman Catholicism that it is impossible to imagine how the Roman Church can function if the bishop of Rome is one among many Patriarchs.

To illustrate the point, consider the number of liberal or progressive Catholics prone to ecumenical discussion who have demonstrated clearly identifiable ultramontanism under the current pontiff. His word has become de facto law and his speeches, writings, gestures, etc., have taken on a force of influence unthinkable in Orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome is constant reference in Roman Catholicism. This reference appears in the pulpit, theological discussion, and in three particular dogmas that the Church of Rome holds uniquely to itself. The force of the pontiff has defined dogma, convoked a council designed to shift the Roman Church's intellectual paradigm, and set out a program of religious re engineering. Orthodoxy cannot assimilate itself to such a system, nor should it.

Christian Unity, in the form of doctrinal unity, is a win-lose game. To have unity of doctrine across Roman Catholic and Orthodox lines eventually brings you to the point at which one side must effectively surrender to the other. For its part, Orthodoxy is at least honest about the end point of doctrinal talks. The more liberal strands of the Roman Church may offer lip service to "live and let live," but they make it very clear that a condition for unity is for Orthodoxy to accept Vatican II and the subsequent developments in the Roman Church. In other words, even the more liberal sectors of the Roman Church find anything other than assimilation to the Roman model intolerable. Although Constantinople has demonstrated some degree of amicability with the Council and its aftermath (mainly in an attempt regain lost influence and ward off the clout of Moscow), Orthodoxy by and large is skeptical of Vatican II and, more importantly, its interpretation and implementation. Even when led by more liberal compartments, doctrinal unity eventually hits a dead end - there are propositions neither side wishes to concede or adopt.

So what solution is there?

Christian unity, if it ever comes, will likely not be doctrinal nor doctrinally inspired. Socio-political conditions (even in the West) are forcing a re-examination of both dividing lines and inherited animosity and creating a very visceral understanding of commonality. In the midst of these conditions while ecumenical dialogue as currently practiced stalls, two movements will likely gain traction.

The first option will be increased calls for simply restoring communion without reaching any doctrinal unity. There will be appeal to some common understanding of the Eucharist among Catholics and Orthodox as sufficient for intercommunion, with an additional appeal to necessity born out of current circumstances.

The second option will involve a development of the concept of mystical communion between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I see this as being the option most amicable to Orthodoxy, and one that will involve a lot of "ground up" development. There will likely appeal to its tradition of prayer and the modes and effectiveness of prayer thereby a model of mysticism by which communion through prayer is given pride of place in lieu of doctrinal solutions.  It will be acknowledged that it is impossible to undue the historical developments in both Orthodoxy and Catholicism. As such, appeal will be made that communion must happen in the realm of the supernatural through prayer.

I anticipate there will be a number who disagree with my analysis. By all means, share your thoughts. It goes without saying that I could be wrong, and if I am the future will aptly demonstrate this.


  1. Many years ago I functioned as the MC at my AOCANA parish. I often noticed a group of visitors attending the Divine Liturgy, they would regularly make their confessions and receive the Eucharist yet their actions and their appearance indicated they were not Eastern Orthodox. Rather they were Oriental Orthodox, some were Ethiopian the others were Indian. At the time they had no church of their respective ethnicities in the city and attended my Antiochian parish until they were able to acquire priests and build their missions. My Antiochian priest was willing to overlook the "official doctrinal differences" and admit them to the sacraments. Is this the solution you propose between EOs and RCs?

  2. We have a similar situation in my parish. A family from the Ethiopian tradition attends divine liturgy and receives at the Antiochian cathedral. As I understand it, Antioch grants such an exception to the oriental orthodox if they regularly attend liturgy at an Antiiochian parish (I could be mistaken here) after the priest has made the determination.

    If communion were involved, then that would be one type of scenario or something very similar.

    Otherwise, by mystical communion, it would be recognizing that communion between the two could happen via prayer, but the reception of the body and blood is not possible at this historical juncture.

    As I mention above, I think the socio-political climate will "force our hand" so to speak.

    1. I think the Islamic threat should be enough to force everyone's hand, yet I am not one to trust Rome. I know from personal experience.

  3. I am not in any position to offer a perspective on the merits of trusting or distrusting Rome. I know that there are those who lived through the sagas surrounding the SSPX/post-Vatican II aftermath and establishment of the Anglican ordinariate who have a very critical position regarding Rome. For my part, I cannot attest to any critical position.