Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Catholics and Orthodox Are Being Reconciled

Two commentators, Michael and Fr Christian (that isn't them at left!), have asked questions in response to the recent speech by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Rather than respond to them in the comment box, I thought I would do so here in the hopes of generating a more general conversation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Dear Michael and Fr Christian,

Thank you both for your comments and questions. Let me please me answer you both in turn.

Michael, I read through the comments on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's most excellent blog "What Does the Prayer Really Say." (For those interested in reading through them they are posted on 21 June and offered in response to an in accurate news report that the Ecumenical Patriarch was suggesting "dual communion" with Rome and Constantinople for Ukrainian Catholics.) To be honest, I found the comments from a number of the Catholic commentators to be harsh. While I appreciate their desire to defend the Catholic faith, both in content, and more importantly tone, the words seem likely not to foster reconciliation but rather lead only to a further estrangement between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. As I have argued before, I believe that ecumenical conversations, especially on the grassroots level, should be limited to the sphere of influence of the participants.

In other words, if I'm not in a position to change the dogmatic teaching of the Orthodox Church, I ought not to have a conversation about how the Catholic Church needs to change her own dogmatic teaching. Too often, and the comments both on Fr John's blog as well as on this one, have reflected the delusional conviction that the commentator was in himself (and why is it almost always a man?) to pass dogmatic judgment on what is, and is not, the authentic teaching of one Church relative to the other. We need to limit, or so it seems to me, to the areas of the Christian life entrusted to our care.

For those well versed in Catholic social teaching, or for that matter conservative political philosophy, this is a variation on the principle of subsidiarity. David A. Bosnich on the Acton Institute's blog describes subsidiarity as arguing "that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be." The resolution of dogmatic differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Church (or between either of this communities and the communities that arose with and after the Reformation) is an profoundly complex undertaken and well beyond what can be done by individual Catholic or Orthodox Christians in private conversations (whether they are face to face or electronic).

As I said a moment ago, I found the some of the comments on Fr Z's blog, as I have some comments here and on other electronic forums, uncharitable and more likely to foster a grassroots spirit of distrust and estrangement rather than a grassroots spirit of trust and reconciliation. From my own experience, I fear this happens even when the comments are themselves are initially charitable. Part of this is a reflection of the limits of the internet. But more importantly I think it reflects the imprudence of engaging in theological conversations across traditions—too often we engage each other in ways that are simply irresponsible. At its core this reflects a willingness (including on more than one occasion, my own willingness I must confess) to take to ourselves a degree of responsibility that belongs to our respective bishops meeting together in council. The conversations so often degenerate into mere polemics because we are irresponsible in our conversations.

I am not a bishop and I need to limit my conversation with Catholics to matters appropriate to my office as a presbyter that is as a teacher, an administrator and a counselor. Likewise, when Catholic and Orthodox laypeople sit down to take across traditions they must limit themselves to their own office as members of the laity. One challenge here is that, though the Orthodox Church has a long history of active lay participation in the life of the Church, that tradition has largely been neglected in recent years. For many Orthodox laypeople, their understanding of their ministry is limited to parish council, teaching church school, or singing in the choir.

The ministry of the laity, and now I want to respond to Fr Christian's comments, is one area where I think both communities can profit by grassroots conversations. In my own ministry, conversations with Sherry Anne Weddell and Fr Mike Fones, OP, have deepened my understanding and appreciated of the role of the laity to sanctify the world. For example, and again I've said this here before, there are no Orthodox parishes in the United States that weren't founded by laypeople. This is especially true of the often unappreciated and unjustly criticized "ethnic" parishes. Among the Orthodox laity there are many very gifted and energetic evangelists whose ministry is often overlooked and under supported.

My own view as a priest who has spent the whole of my ministry working either as a missionary and/or with parishes in crisis and transition is that what is most needed is conversations between Catholic and Orthodox Christians that focus on what we can learn from each other to foster the ministries of our respective Churches. What, for example, can Catholics teach Orthodox Christians about the ministry of the laity? Likewise, what might Orthodox Christian have to offer to Catholic Christians about liturgy and spirituality?

Let me offer some examples from my own life.

I am generally considered a good preacher and spiritual director. Without presuming against divine grace, "that which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking" skills I learned how to do both from my Roman Catholic professors at Duquesne University and the University of Dallas. So too my ministry with college students and young adults is the fruit of my conversations with Roman Catholics, Protestant and Jewish campus ministers and clergy who served the students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Fr Christian, your own interest in painting icons, as with Michael's interest in how the Orthodox Church ministers to marriages in crisis, both reflect outstanding beginnings in fostering grassroots reconciliation between our two Churches. We do not, in the main, trust each other because, in the main, we do not see any profit in learning from the other. And because we see no profit in learning from each other, we do not trust each other.

But, in the final analysis, what is really a miss is my own heart. Too often I substitute polemics against the other for a commitment to Christ and the Gospel. The more I commit myself to Christ, to the preaching of the Gospel and the demands of my own office as a priest, the more I find a hunger not only for the riches and wisdom of the Orthodox Tradition, but also an openness to the riches and wisdom of the Catholic Tradition (and I would add, the Protestant and Evangelical tradition, to say nothing of other religious traditions and the findings of the natural, social and human sciences as well as philosophy, politics, economics, and law to name only a few).

Michael and Fr Christian, thank you again for your comments and questions. I would invite not only your thoughts, but also the thoughts of the others who read this essay. In our small way, we are all of us creating here a community that demonstrates that, while not without its challenges, Catholics and Orthodox Christians can be reconciled. We can learn from each other, we can trust each others, we can support and sustain each other in our spiritual lives, our parishes and our ministry.

We can be, we are being, reconciled.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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