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Orthodox & Roman Catholic Reunion redux

3 June 2017

Every so often some or other Roman Catholic publication carries an article about reunion with the Orthodox, and notes that the differences between us are very small, and lamenting that the Orthodox don’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it.

Here’s another in the genre — Orthodox not interested in reunion with Rome | National Catholic Reporter:

When it comes to theology, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches are very close. We accept the same Nicene Creed, we recognize each other’s priestly and episcopal ordinations, as well as the sacraments of baptism, confession and Eucharist. Catholic and Orthodox teaching on morals are also quite compatible, with both being more conservative than their Protestant colleagues.

The touchy issue has always been the role of the papacy, but Pope John Paul II invited a worldwide dialogue on this topic, showing that the Vatican is open to a less intrusive role for the pope in the Eastern churches than in the West. There were even attempts to resurrect the title of patriarch of the West for the bishop of Rome, in order to distinguish his robust role in the Western church from his role in the East.

Rome is very much interested in improved relations with the Orthodox. It is deferential to Orthodox feelings.

But if it were truly deferential to Orthodox feelings, it would take them more seriously, and not condescendingly brush them off and minimise them. That’s not deference, that’s arrogance.

Like most RC publications and sources, this one tends to downplay differences, and reduce them to “the Papacy”. If one is to take the possibility of reunion seriously, then there must be honesty in facing the differences, and saying how they are to be dealt with. And in this, the RCs are far more evasive than the Orthodox.

We don’t, for example, accept the same “Nicene Creed”.

Surely the editors and writers of a Catholic publication ought to know that, and not pretend that it is not so.

Yes, “The Papacy” is a problem, and the RC pontifical ecclesiology differs from the Orthodox episcopal ecclesiology. But have they thought through the implications of reunion?

To give just one example — if there is reunion, will all RC bishops and clergy in Africa place themselves under the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa instead of under the Pope of Rome? If not, why not? And if not, how real would the “reunion” be?

I suspect that they might object to that, and might feel that it was a bit like the tail wagging the dog, even if you did lop off the bits of Africa that traditionally were under Rome (the Maghreb). And even if you did that, it would still be like the tail wagging the dog in what remained. And the Orthodox might not be so happy at being the tail, and might think it better to be a dog, albeit a smaller dog, than to be a bigger dog’s tail.

Pope Theodoros II. Pope Francis I, Pope Tawhedros II, Patriarch Bartholomew

Or to use another metaphor, the toothpaste has been out of the tube for well-nigh a thousand years, and by now has been trampled all over the floor and into the carpets. Getting it back now will be a lot more difficult than when it was freshly squeezed.

The biggest obstacle to reunion is the attitude of the writers of articles like this one, who think it is “deference” to refuse to take Orthodox objections seriously and try to sweep them all under the carpet of “The Papacy”. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I don’t think much has changed since then.

If there is to be any serious talk of reunion then the differences must be faced, and talked through, and sorted out first, and pretending that the differences don’t exist, as this article does, does not augur well for even thinking about such discussions.

You can’t begin to discuss differences when one party doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know that such differences even exist.

We can be friendly with Roman Catholics, and talk with them about all sorts of things. We can work with them for peace and justice in the world. But we can’t talk about reunion, not yet. They aren’t ready for it.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 June 2017 4:55 pm

    Definitely correct. Historical precedence and service of the charity have vanished away with a swelling pride that has turned to a real disease. Interestingly, goodwill turns to a real attitude of denial of the concerned goodwill. Impressive at time.

  2. 3 June 2017 9:51 pm

    Well said about the error of trying to brush aside differences, although it would be wrong to take articles in the popular press to express the official Catholic opinion. True, at times the Catholic hierarchy can be extremely insensitive to sincere Orthodox concerns, but there are also excellent Catholic scholars who genuinely engage Orthodoxy, such as Fr. Christiaan Kappes.

    • 4 June 2017 1:32 am

      Yes, there are some RC scholars who have genuinely engaged with Orthodoxy, and are aware of Orthodox concerns. And at the popular level Orthodox tend to adopt the opposite error, and exaggerate the differences, though that is at least in part a reaction against the error found in this article, or minimising the differences. Orthodox meet Catholic friends who say of course you can receive communion in our church, we’re the same really.

  3. Phillip permalink
    4 June 2017 3:01 pm

    Would the comments made in this article still be relevant 17 years later:

    Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today
    Rev John H Erickson, Dean

    Symposium on 1700th Anniversary of Christian Armenia
    October 27-28, 2000

    Henry Chadwick, distinguished church historian and veteran observer of the ecumenical scene, is fond of remarking that the chief reason for Christian division today is division itself. Whatever may have been the issues initially leading to division, a division once established very quickly takes on a life of its own, as each side tries to justify its own role in the division. Differences that would not in themselves have been church-dividing are invested with new meaning, to the point of becoming symbols of division rather than examples of legitimate diversity. Signs of particular divine favor are discovered on each side, whether in supernatural portents or in the steadfastness of new confessors and martyrs. Competing ecclesial structures are erected. Anathemas are hurled. And even if the issues that led to the division are eventually resolved, the division itself – buttressed in these many ways – remains.

    • 4 June 2017 5:55 pm

      Probably as true as it was back then. But also the longer people are apart, the more different they become. Compare South African English with UK, Australian and US English, for example. Compare the Afrikaans of South Africa with the Afrikaans of Patagonia, where technological developments that took place after 1902 were given names borrowed from Spanish.

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