Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Role of the Theotokos in the Catholic/Orthodox Dialog

Fr Maximos, a hieromonk at Holy Resurrection Monastery (Byzantine Catholic) and the lead voice behind the blog The Anastasis Dialogue, this morning posted an audio file of a sermon by the abbot of the monastery Fr Nicholas. If you have a moment, I would encourage you to listen to the sermon here: Dormition Sermon.

In his sermon, Fr Nicholas argues, not convincingly to my mind, that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches share the same basic faith about the Mother of God. I have heard that before and, like arguments that advance the notion that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God, I wish it were so, but it just isn't or to be fairer about it, it isn't true without qualifications.

Yes, Catholics and Orthodox Christians give Mary the first place in the communion of saints. And yes, we both see the Virgin as the Mother of God, the icon of the Church and the exemplar of Christian discipleship. And while both Churches would refer to Mary as "sinless" (Panagia, "All-holy" in Greek), the Orthodox see the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary being conceived in the womb of St Anna without stain of original sin) as at best theologumena (theological opinion, albeit not necessarily an opinion without value), if not outright innovation.

We also both hold to the virgin birth and her perpetual, lifelong, virginity. And while we both celebrate liturgically her birth, her presentation in the Temple, and her conception of the Christ, we diverge somewhat about the facts pertaining to the beginning and the end of her earthly life, specifically her conception (see above) and her death.

For the Orthodox, Mary dies, she "falls asleep," and so we celebrate her "Dormition." Roman Catholic celebrate Mary's Assumption. For me at least (and I am more than willing to be corrected) the question of her death is not as clear in the Roman Catholic teaching that only says "when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory." To my reading the fact of her death is left open to interpretation.

So yes, there is much convergence--but also some divergence. Whether this divergence is minor enough for us to say we hold to the same faith about the Theotokos is for the Orthodox Church, at least, an open question.

Where I agree with, or at least am intrigued by, Fr Nicholas is his contention that rather then looking to the icon of SS Peter and Paul as the icon of Catholic/Orthodox relations, we should look instead to the icon of the Dormition. In his reworking of the icon, he envisions Latin priests on one side of Mary and Orthodox priests on the other. And slowly, the two sides slowly come together in the regard for the Theotokos. Leaving aside the absence of the laity in his sermon, I think there is some merit to Fr Nicholas's image.

Ecumenical dialog is often undertaken in a masculine key--it is as if Peter and Paul are still arguing. Might not there be something to be said for taking a more Marian key in our conversation? Might it not advance the cause of reconciliation if we focused not simply on doctrine, but also on how can we help each conceive and give birth to God the Word?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory