Monday, February 15, 2016

The Joint Declaration of Francis and Kirill - Routine Diplomacy, or a Step in the Journey of a Thousand Miles?

The historical moment is least for now. The Patriarch of Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow have met and produced a joint declaration of their encounter.

Social Media predictably came alive when the text was released. This reaction was complemented with subsequent reactions by "the usual suspects" one would expect after reading the text in its entirety: 1) the so-called Uniates and 2) the traditionalists on both churches. Thus far, there has yet to be commentary (so far as I can tell) from any official ecclesiastical organ or theological group. Until such time as a commentary proceeds from one or the other it will be nearly impossible to forecast with any reasonable credibility as to how this declaration is received and interpreted in ecclesiastical circles and what impact, if any, it will have going forward. 

For now, we are left with having to read the thermometer to diagnose the popular reaction, and although ecclesiastical follow ups to such documents are slow as a matter of policy, one cannot help but suspect that there will be people on both sides taking the temperature of their respective church bodies to see how well or ill this moment was received. 

Traditionalists on both sides are, predictably, dissatisfied and dismissive. For such groups, the only solution is complete submission of one to the other. Robert Taft makes a well timed observation, the principle of which is applicable to Traditionalists on both sides: it is now time to put away childish fantasies of how the Church was, and come to reconcile with actual data we have. The actual quote is worth providing:
“It’s not true that at the beginning we had one Church centered in Rome, and then for various historical reasons certain groups broke off,” he said. “It’s just the opposite. At the beginning we had various churches, as Christianity developed here and there and someplace else, and gradually different units began to be formed.”
While one can debate Taft's proposals for the practical application of his historical research into the liturgy, his grasp of the data around the formation of liturgy and ecclesiology (two subjects ever entwined) is nearly indisputable. Though this statement was directed at Roman circles, the principle behind it is, as noted, applicable across the board.

The Uniate churches have found their position potentially compromised from the declaration. The relevant section is found in paragraph 25 of the declaration. These churches are referred to as ecclesial communities, a phrase that should ring in the ears of anyone who recalls Dominus Iesus. This is a "loaded term" and adds very precise qualification the document's candor that the path of uniatism was a mistake, cleaving a group away from the legitimate hierarchy in the region, "separating it from its Church" as the declaration states. Francis seems to given the Orthodox Church something it has sought, namely a clear statement that the Uniate churches are not Churches properly so-called and do not represent a continuation of the legitimate (and historical) hierarchy of the region. The document calls for co-existence between the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholics. It would seem, however, that the purpose and function of the hierarchies of these groups is now an open question. At the very least, if they do not constitute a proper Church, then there is considerable debate on the merit of appointing "Patriarchs" for said groups. If their hierarchy is in doubt, to which hierarchy would the role up? Should this paragraph survive the initial firestorm it produced, it will be of tremendous ecclesiological significance.

The more mainline (popular) reaction from both Catholics and Orthodox is somewhere between intrigue and hope. The document affirms the same Tradition and Mission in section 4, while section 24 states,
Orthodox and Catholics are united not only by the shared Tradition of the Church of the first millennium, but also by the mission to preach the Gospel of Christ in the world today. This mission entails mutual respect for members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism. 
We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world. We urge Catholics and Orthodox in all countries to learn to live together in peace and love, and to be “in harmony with one another” (Rm 15:5).
Once again we have a portion of the text that could have significance depending upon how this declaration is received and interpreted at the ecclesiastical level. Given the persistent view that seems the Roman Church as something intrinsically heretical in the Russian Church, this could function as the text that shapes the mainline view going forward. Whereas such a view is relegated to the fringe of the Antochian Church and the Greek Church, Russian Orthodoxy has little qualm with such a view bordering on mainline. If this document facilitates the Russian Church adopting Constantinople's approach, then a major hurdle is cleared and Francis has achieved something sought by every post-Vatican II pope. This is not to say reunion will happen in the near future. It is to say that, on paper (with signatures) an obstacle was theoretically overcome.

Granted, there are probably intra-Orthodox politics at play, namely the rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow, which may indicate that Kirill believes Constantinople's approach to Rome has some momentum behind it and he wants to position his patriarchate well and influence what, if any, further movement develops.

Any mention of politics necessarily raises the spectre of Putin's involvement in the meeting. Is Putin somehow behind this? Possibly. However, if there is one thing I've learned is that church commentators and theologians are grossly out of their league when discussing either deep politics or economics.With this in mind, a few points should be mentioned. 1) If Putin has anything to do with the meeting and joint declaration, the people in the know aren't talking - this would be a little higher than George Weigel or John Allen. 2) It is also to be remembered, the Bishop of Rome is a head of state. 3) John Paul II demonstrated that the modern papacy can be utilized for political purposes. 4) Francis has returned to the political power-playing of his larger-than-life predecessor for such issues as migrants/immigration, climate change, and economic inequality/disparity.

Did the declaration demonstrate a consensus on ecclesiology by which the prospect for reunion can move forward? The declaration of the shared Tradition and mission, and referencing brotherhood between the two bishops seems to favor the Orthodox understanding of equality among the patriarchs as opposed to a model of papal supremacy. The list of reasons behind the continued schism avoids such topics as the recent Marian dogmas on the Roman side, favoring instead historical events, cultural divergences, and the Filioque. This could or could not indicate some progress related to ecclesiology, but caution is to be favored - documents such as these are not comprehensive or conclusive, nor is an argument from silence necessarily credible.

Is there, all things considered, reason to hope for reunion or shared communion now that the meeting and declaration are behind us? Institutional change is a slow and arduous process, wrought with significant internal push-back along the way. Whatever theoretical appeal reunion has, one wonders if anyone involved REALLY wants to the concrete results of a thousand year old schism healed. For Rome, the stakes involve a cognitive disruption as the cult of the papacy is reduced in role and importance and the possible de-emphasis on recent Marian dogmas that were thoroughly engineered into much of Catholicism's self-understanding. Whereas academics or those with considerable theological background will not be too disturbed (or may even be happy to see them go) a sizable segment of the Roman Church would be left struggling with such change. Orthodoxy faces a similar problem. Although Western countries are familiar with (and somewhat admiring of) the very pre-modern feel to the Orthodox liturgy (which is only half true as most Orthodox churches in the West do not celebrate it in the same way as they would have either in the old country or a century ago), the pre-modern mentality of Orthodox faithful "in the old country" or among reactionary converts poses a significant problem. Russia is actually fine example of both problems; rampant superstition persists that every facet of Latin Christianity emerged after the schism and is intrinsically heretical. To a lesser extent, this same phenomenon exists in Greece as well. The only churches that appear immune to this phenomenon are those located in the Middle East where the shared experience of being a minority religion and suffer persecution seems to have made the schism effectively obsolete.

The experience of the Middle East perhaps offers the route by which functional reunion will occur. Where institutional change moves on a time frame of centuries (if at all), personal inter-confessional experience (the boots on the ground) sporadically raises challenges that threaten to rupture institutional policy. Scholarship into the Great Schism and its aftermath has largely come to the consensus that the schism was foremost a hierarchical affair. For the most part, the laity and the average parish continued on as though nothing had really changed. It took centuries for the idea of a schism to have any immediate impact "on the ground" and influence the common understanding between Catholics and Orthodox. In developed Western societies where the principle of the open society reigns, the schism is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the understanding between Catholic and Orthodox. As people increasingly marry outside of their religion of origin and thereby integrate Catholicism and Orthodoxy into their family experience (the primary unit of society), institutional policy denying shared communion increasingly comes under pressure and dismissed as irrelevant. The Roman Church, to its credit, read the tea leaves correctly when it started opening up communion to the Orthodox. The patriarchs of the old country can only ignore the development of Orthodoxy in the West for so long. In age where quantifiable data equates to the verification of knowledge and theology's relevance relates to how it can help improve society, the justification for a continued ban on shared communion seems wanting, especially in the light of family experience and personal relationships. Reality seems to say that those upholding the schism are living in "unreality," guided largely by theological propositions in the head but of little substance in real life. It is similar to the pressure felt by the Roman Church in the United States or Germany, where family ties between Catholics and Lutherans, Catholics and Anglicans, or Catholics and Evangelicals (or social bonds between the same groups) is increasingly putting pressure on Rome to provide a concrete rationale as to why the ban on shared communion should persist. The categories of knowledge have changed and the value of theology or religion has shifted as both concepts are seen as things which should better the individual and better society.

In a very real way, the schism is over in the West on the most intimate societal levels. The same may hold true for the Reformation. In this respect, reunion is already happening on an emotional, intellectual, societal and perhaps spiritual level. If the hierarchies of either Church continue to lag behind this development, they will be greeted with irrelevance first with animosity to eventually follow. The declaration between Francis and Kirill may prove to be another proforma exercise of inter-confessional diplomacy. It may also prove to the first step in the long journey of catching up with historical scholarship and the confessional reality of the primary unites of society, a challenge neither hierarchy can avoid much longer.

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