Friday, June 01, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Sacraments and Catholic/Orthodox Relations

As part of the dialog with Sherry W at Intentional Disciples and in response to a request from Amber in the "Where Are You From?" comment box, I thought I would offer some personal reflections on Catholic & Orthodox ecumenical relations. Though in many ways the tense between our two Churches has decreased--but we still have far to go.

While not underestimating the importance of formal ecumenical discussions, I think we also need to try and find some common spiritual ground. For me at least, that common ground can be found in the sacraments common to each tradition.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches both formally acknowledge the validity of each other’s sacrament. But this raises a question: In accepting each other’s sacraments are we also willing to accept each other’s prophetic witness, especially in those moments when that witness contradicts are own personal and/or ecclesiological desires and interests?

We live in an age when, for better and worse, people are free to move between religious traditions, or even to abandon any and all semblances of religious life. Specifically that means that Roman Catholics can become Orthodox Christians and Orthodox can become Catholic and there’s nothing either community can do to prevent the transfer of its members to the other community.

While the question of conversion is often phrased in terms of the freedom of an individual’s conscience, this misses what I think is the larger issue: Conversion, or actually more specifically, reception, is not primarily a personal action. Reception is the communal affirmation of the life that God has called this person to live. Yes, I might feel drawn to become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, but it is the Church (Catholic or Orthodox) that must first discern, and then confirm, that it is God Who is calling me to become Orthodox or Catholic.

Because the Christian Church is a prophetic community, it is also necessarily a sacramental tradition. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics all understand (or should understand), that sacraments are first and foremost divine actions. It is God

Who adopts us in baptism,

Who forgives our sins at confession,

Who feeds us on His Body and Blood at Holy Communion,

Who unites us as husband and wife in marriage and

Who sets us aside as deacons, priests and bishops in holy orders.

Yes, our freedom is actively involved in all of these actions, but as a response to the divine initiative. Human freedom is not the “cause” of the grace revealed in the sacrament.

To put it more simply, it is God Who makes Christians, the Eucharist, husbands and wives, deacons, priests and bishops; it is the Church who assents—who says “Amen”—to that which God has done.

In the main, both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches acknowledge the validity of each other’s sacraments. What this rather dry and legalistic language means is that each Church acknowledges that God acts the same way in the life of both Churches AND we each acknowledge that, like ourselves, the other Church responds rightly to God’s action.

To put things a bit more provocatively: In acknowledging the validity of the other’s sacraments, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches see not only themselves but each other as prophetic communities who are able not only hear, but obey, the Word of God.

Our arguments about the validity of each other’s sacraments, our objections to the receptions of each other’s faithful and clergy to say nothing about our posturing over jurisdictional boundaries, all reflect an unwillingness to accept in full the prophetic nature and vocation of the other community. If we accept the validity of each other’s sacraments, are we not also, by that very acceptance also acknowledging and accepting the prophetic witness of the Church who celebrates those sacraments?

God is not bound by human desires, even if those desires are the desires of Christians. As we read in the prophet Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55.8-9)

While I would not minimize the importance of such discussions, I would also suggest that our arguments about sacramental validity, reception of each others faithful and clergy and our respective jurisdictional privileges, all reflect the need of both communities to imitate the people of Nineveh who

believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3.5-9)

It is I think almost unbearable ironic that of all the things that unite us, it is our lack of faith and trust in the work of God in the life of the other Church in which we seem closest. Certainly we can attempt to adjudicate blame, though I have yet to see any family conflict where that was effective. Free of the desire to blame how can we not acknowledge that our divisions reflect our mutual lack of faith?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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