In my previous post, I mentioned some of the internal problems besetting the Orthodox Church, causing dysfunction (which I termed “implosion”). I noted how it affects the Great Commission and how our relationship with Rome is part of that larger picture (for a unified front between these truly-mega-churches would give strength in spreading the Gospel). I noted how Moscow currently rejects the Ecumenical Patriarch’s (legitimate) claim to primacy, in wanting to convoke a pan-Orthodox council and in engaging in serious dialogue with Rome. It doesn’t take a very long search for someone to see that many Orthodox Christians agree with Moscow, calling Rome heretical and, furthermore, expressing not a little invective (or at least heated rhetoric) when taking that stance.
An important factor in this is that the kind of careful historical and theological analysis (not to mention humility) that occurs within official Orthodox-Catholic dialogues is not seeping into the Orthodox groundwater. Many Orthodox prefer to dismiss Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same coin, as though Orthodoxy is completely separate from them. If it weren’t for the fact that such an attitude is based on ignorance, it would be audacious in the extreme. Take, for example the North American Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. They haven’t skirted the issues that need to be addressed and yet they have produced helpful starting points, free from anti-Westernism (based, ironically, on rather Western models):
Moreover, there has been a real shift in attitude in Rome. In the early 20th c., one could still easily find anti-Orthodox attitudes and statements. Today, however, I believe Fr. Taft expresses well the currently dominant Roman Catholic view here:
“Vatican II, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve Disney-World view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this historically ludicrous, self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality. In doing so they had a strong assist from the Council Fathers of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose concrete experience of the realities of the Christian East made them spokesmen and defenders of that reality.”
He made this statement in the context of the notion of “Sister Churches.” You may find it in context here:
Granted, a few of the comments to that link were Roman Catholics upset by what he was saying, so it is not as though Catholics are blameless “on the ground,” but I suspect Orthodox are more likely to oppose such a statement. Certainly, in today’s climate, it is difficult to find Orthodox willing to take a position similar in humility to the statement above given by Taft. We do have scholars doing this, though, and one starting point may be the newly published Orthodox Constructions of the West. A great example may also be found in Adam DeVille’s work on this very ecumenical dialogue: Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy. Somehow, we have to get these perspectives “on the ground.” A great step forward would be for our seminaries to start requiring these as reading materials. Orthodox priests often (though not always) play key roles in shaping how laity read and understand Orthodox history, theology, and piety. Humility has to start with our clergy.
Pastorally, there are good reasons for us to adopt the virtue of humility. If ever reunion could happen, it could have practical, pastoral edification in the lives of many. Recently, Fr. Stephen Freeman, a good (and popular) priest, commented on Catholics wanting communion at his parish, reducing their desire to a “Modern project.” By this, he meant they wanted communion based on what they believed to be true (that in the Orthodox liturgy it is bread and wine and also body and blood). He even emphasized the “I” when quoting them. My point here is not to engage in culture war language nor to analyze a classical versus modern dichotomy, etc. That would be a different series of posts. Rather, what I would want to interject and say is that in my experience, a lot of Roman Catholics saying such things are not saying that what matters is their intellectual ability to create something in their minds. What they are saying is that they recognize a sacramental presence in our services. Sure, many Roman Catholics in America may have a superficial faith and just feel they can take communion anywhere, but that is not always the case and indeed, many look at Orthodoxy through thoughtful eyes and gracious hearts. More than that, we have many “mixed marriages” and other situations where Orthodox-Catholic reunion could have a real healing and gracious effect. In other words, as long as we don’t disregard issues of importance (which our official dialogues have not), the humility to engage Rome willingly and openly could beget some real grace “in the pews,” if you will. At minimum, it would help us avoid reducing Roman Catholics desiring communion to some sort of modern neo-gnostic mentality.
My fellow Orthodox, let’s be honest here. With regard to Orthodox-Catholic relations the humility struggles are primarily on our side. They are evidenced in internet chatter, in parish dining halls, amongst our seminarians, publicly displayed in sermons by our clergy, and (indirectly, if nothing else) advertised for the world to see in official statements. We Orthodox sure like to talk about the virtues, the Desert Fathers, etc., but when it comes to ecumenical relations, humility too often goes out the window. I, for one, think it’s time to close that window. The sectarian draft has a real chill to it.