Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thoughts on Some Recent Comments

The recent posting of an article by Deacon Keith Fournier, ("Is There a Breakthrough in Orthodox and Catholic Relations?") seems to have generated what is, for this blog anyway, quite a stir. If you are so inclined you can read the comments here. Deacon Fournier's article is in response to a suggestion by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that it might be possible for Eastern Catholics to enter a "dual unity" in which they remain in communion with both Rome and Constantinople ("Orthodox leader suggests "dual unity" for Eastern Catholics"). The comments generated by that post can be read here.

As one commentator, John Hogg, has pointed out we have precocious few details as to what His All Holiness does and doesn't mean by this suggestion. All we do have is one rather brief news report. In that report Patriarch Bartholomew comments that "the people at the grass roots have to come together again" even while theologians on both sides still explore the theological differences between the two Churches. While I cannot claim to know what is in the Patriarch's heart, it would seem (in answer to Ilyas Wan Wei Hsien question) that there has been some back away from comments made in a speech at Georgetown University where His All Holiness described the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as ontological in nature. To the best of my knowledge neither in that speech nor subsequently has anyone offered any clarification of what exactly these differences in being might entail.

All of this is to come around to my being in fundamental agreement with the observation made by Michael Skarpa. His words are worth quoting here at length:

One of the first steps toward the restoration of unity among us should be a removal of these misunderstandings. That seems straightforward, but it isn't all that simple because many Catholics do not know the Catholic doctrine, and I suppose the same applies to the Orthodox. I suggest that no individual, whether Orthodox or Catholic, can claim that his grasp of the faith of the Church to which he claims to belong, is ipso facto an authentic expression of that faith. (We would make only one and rare exception: the Pope ex cathedra.) We can only make an effort to come closer to an authentic grasp of the faith of the Church, and continuously keep our minds open to a better and deeper understanding of that faith, fully conscious that in that understanding we are not infallible; in other words, we have to be ready humbly to admit a mistake if we realize it, and never rule it out if we do not realize it.

So, we are faced with a prospect of trying to grasp the faith of "another party" while not sure of our own; learn from others who themselves are not sure or their own; convey our grasp of our faith to others and make sure that they grasp it in the same way; and they have to make sure that their grasp of our faith is identical to our grasp of it. Not simple as it first appears.

Like the Church of Rome, the Orthodox Church believes "in One holy catholic and apostolic church." And again both Churches would argue that "Oneness is an essential, not accidental mark. It is so compelling, that it requires from us to 'inquire not just about the defensibility of union, but even more urgently about the defensibility of remaining separate, for it is not unity that requires justification but the absence of it' (Ratzinger 1982). And so, he concludes

Our Lord prayed that we all be one, while the present state of affairs is, evidently, contrary to His will. It is a scandal to the non-Christian and non-believing world, obstacle to spreading His Gospel, and what we believe to be another essential mark of the Church, her universality, catholicity, is less evident than it would be if all those who should belong to her by Baptism were fully integrated into her visible structure.

While Catholic and Orthodox Christians disagree about the locus of the Church's unity ("we" think we are the One True Church, "they" think they are), we would, I assume, agree that divisions among Christians is contrary to both the command of Christ and harmful to the Church's evangelical mission. That Catholics think the Orthodox left, and the Orthodox think the Catholics left, is certainly important. But we do not have to agree on that point to nevertheless agree that our lack of unity is unacceptable.

Going back to something I mentioned above, we simply do not have sufficient information about the content, and context, of His All Holiness suggestion of the possibility of a dual unity for Eastern Catholics. News reports provide neither a fuller explanation of what His All Holiness has in mind nor are we told what conversations, if any, he has had with Orthodox and Catholic leaders. When I add to this what is often the sorry state of catechetical knowledge among Catholic and Orthodox Christians I wonder what we are REALLY talking about.

Reports like these reveal—contrary to what we might wish to believe—that there is no unanimity among the respective faithful of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on ecumenicism. We disagree not only across traditional lines, but even among ourselves about the question of how the reconciliation of the Churches is to come about. For what I suspect are catechetical and spiritual reasons we suffer from not only rather serious inter-ecclesial divisions and disagreements, but intra-ecclesial ones as well.

What I have noticed (and this is true for both Catholic and Orthodox apologists) is that many people assume that when reconciliation between the Churches happens it will look essentially like what we see when an individual is reconciled to one Church or the other. In other words, we assume—wrongly I would suggest—that the Roman Catholic Church reuniting with the Orthodox Church will happen pretty much the way it does when an individual Roman Catholic joins the Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics, I hasten to add, quite often hold to an equally individualistic model—as if the reconciliation of well over 25% of the world's population will be just like what happens at St Sophia Orthodox Church or St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church one Holy Saturday.

Folks, whatever it might look like, it probably won't look like that if for no other reason than economy of scale.

Finally, whether I am Orthodox or Catholic, need to be careful of setting myself up as the arbiter in these matters. I may agree, I may disagree, but I am not my Church's standard of orthodoxy.

The last several days I have been exploring the psychology of polemics and apologetics. One of the points that I am making, and I will develop this more in the coming week, is that theological conversations and disputations are as potentially marred by my passions as any other part of my life. To help me be mindful of my own sinfulness in these conversations, I ask myself what would a third party make of my conversation? If I can't be morally certain that a third party would find me a credible witness to the Gospel it might be better if I remain silent.

Again, as always, thank you to everyone for your questions and comments.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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