If you’re a newcomer to Orthodox Christianity, one thing you hear a fair amount of is a deep hostility to Latin Christianity at the theological level. I’m not talking about being ugly to Catholics; I’m talking about a strong and abiding sense that the West went off the theological rails in the High Middle Ages, and lost their way such that the differences between the churches of the East and West are profoundly irreconcilable. There’s something to this — the irreconcilability, I mean. As a Catholic who looked with admiration to Orthodoxy, even before the idea of becoming Orthodox had ever crossed my mind, I didn’t grasp the depth of the theological divisions separating us.
If the High Middle Ages were the crucial turning point in the East-West ecclesial history, then Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Roman Catholic theologian of that period, and probably the greatest theologian Latin Christianity has ever produced, is considered by the Orthodox to be the epitome of What Went Wrong. Put crudely, he is seen as the best example of a hyperrationalism that overtook Western Christianity, and that led to the undoing of the faith, over time. Is this true? Honestly, I’m not in any position to say. I don’t have the theological chops. But I do know that among many Orthodox, to the extent they think about Aquinas at all, it is unfavorably.
So imagine my surprise in reading the Divine Comedy, especially Paradiso, to find that there’s so very much in there reconcilable with Orthodox Christianity. I mean, the entire Paradiso is an exploration of the concept of salvation/sanctification as theosis. I knew that Dante’s theological base in writing the Commedia was Scholasticism, so I did not expect that the mysticism would be so overwhelming.
One of you readers sent me the other day a link to a review of a recent theological book about Orthodox readings of Aquinas. Look at this:
The book’s second part concerns the largely favorable Byzantine reception of Aquinas, which came about both because of Aquinas’ intrinsic fidelity to the Fathers and the Constantinopolitan “care for terminological exactitude that can scarcely be denied the label ‘scholastic’” (48). His overview of the Dominican’s reception by Byzantine scholasticism shows that this affection did not come from eccentrics on the fringes, but from some of “the Empire’s finest scholars and foremost statesmen” (67). But in contrast to enthusiastic emperors, bishops and theologians, there are also detractors who find Thomas overly reliant on logic and pagan philosophy. In evaluating these complaints, Plested shows that their writings often reflect a limited or shallow reading of Thomas, for which they were often swiftly chastised by other Byzantines.
The book’s third part concerns the Orthodox reception of Aquinas from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans (A.D.1453) until the present day, where the historical narrative turns from a stunning and varied tour of Greek and Russian readers to the rigid dichotomies born in the 19th Century, which have become, “very much the preserve of the modern Orthodox mindset and do not accurately reflect the Byzantine legacy” (224). He blames this abruptly negative and deviant reading of Aquinas (and all things Western) largely on the Slavophile movement, which was exacerbated when Diaspora theologians encountered the stagnant Thomism of the early 20th Century and found Thomas to be a “convenient whipping boy” (194). This habit became at times a decrepit via negativa where an oppositional Orthodoxy began defining itself only by was it was not; this often resulted in a “theology of reaction” (206) or at worst, “little more than a faith constituted by anti-papalism” (184). Plested acknowledges that this paradigm of opposition reflects more modern culture than theology, because, “In a bipolar world, nothing seems more natural than a dichotomy” (225). He concludes his study with a survey of today and a note of hope that the miasma of dichotomy will dissipate and that the fruitful dialogue between Aquinas and the Orthodox will resume.
Fascinating. Again, I’m in no theological position to judge this stuff. Would you readers who are knowledgeable enough to pass judgment please weigh in?
Another East-West issue: PEG tweeted this story from the Catholic magazine Crisis, in which author Gabriel Sanchez offers a strong caution on Pope Francis’s recent suggestion that the Catholic Church has a lot to learn from the Orthodox about how to run a decentralized church. Not so fast, says Sanchez, who discusses the current bitter rivalry between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul and the Moscow Patriarchate over who is the leading figure in world Orthodoxy, as well as other examples of jurisdictional squabbling. Excerpt:
Some might see these recent events as unfortunate aberrations in the otherwise healthy governance life of the Orthodox Church, but they would be wrong to do so. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Orthodox history has been littered, and some might uncharitably say defined, by internecine strife and factionalism as those few local Orthodox churches which were not under the Muslim heel rose in practical importance while the more ancient patriarchates receded into obscurity. In the 20th Century large swathes of Orthodox remained out of communion with particular churches for a mixture of jurisdictional, doctrinal, and chauvinistic reasons. While the situation has improved, one has to wonder how long it will last. In addition to the aforementioned dispute in Qatar, there is ongoing acrimony in Estonia, Macedonia, and Ukraine which currently has three different Orthodox churches vying for control. With the EP and MP currently at each other’s throats, how long until they break communion with each other?
The point of summarizing these events is not to provide Catholics with a cheap opportunity to engage in triumphalism over the Orthodox but rather to offer the Church of Rome and the sui iuris churches in communion with her an opportunity to reflect on what collegiality and synodality has meant, as a practical matter, to the second largest Christian communion in the world. While outside afflictions in the form of Islamic invasions and Communist oppression warrant more than a bit of the blame for Orthodoxy’s woes, it cannot be denied that its confederate model of governance—loose, self-driven, and unreliable as it is—has neutralized the Orthodox Church’s attempt to collectively assert itself against the rising tide of secularism while also addressing a myriad of matters which bear directly on faith and morals.
Sadly, he’s right. We don’t feel this sort of thing on the parish level, thank God, but it’s there, and it’s a scandal.
There is more from Sanchez:
Take, for instance, the issue of contraception. It is no exaggeration that a faithful Orthodox Christian can go to three different priests in the same American city and receive three disparate answers expressing everything from absolute prohibition to prohibition of abortifacient only to complete permissibility. Who is right? Who is wrong? Even if the local ruling bishop of a given priest speaks authoritatively on the matter (which is rare), there’s always another hierarch of another jurisdiction who may go the other way. The problem does not stop there. Fr. John Whiteford, a prominent priest and commentator in ROCOR, recently opined that one of the possible motivators for his church’s decision to distance itself from the Bishops’ Assembly was because other North American Orthodox jurisdictions “have laymen in good standing, and even clergy, who are openly advocating for gay marriage, and proclaim that committed monogamous homosexual relationships are not sinful.” What authority exists in Orthodoxy to tell them otherwise?
Fr. John Whiteford is right about that, I regret to say. I leave it to the better informed Orthodox readers of this blog to explain to the rest of this readership “what authority exists in Orthodoxy to tell them otherwise.” The way authority works within Orthodoxy is complex, and if I try to explain it, I’ll surely get something wrong. I would point out, though, that Orthodoxy really doesn’t have the Roman urge to define things so sharply. What the Romans may in some cases see as a bug, Orthodoxy may see as a feature.
I do want to push back, respectfully, against Sanchez’s holding up of Catholic ecclesiology as handling this better. On paper, it seems clear to me that Catholicism, with its clear lines of authority, ought to work better. In practice, though, it’s as bad or worse than the weakness Sanchez accuses Orthodoxy of suffering. At least in this country, it is. Let me explain.
Refugees fleeing to Rome from the chaos and liberalism of mainline Protestant churches see in Rome a doctrinal rock in which to shelter against the storm and stress of modernity. In theory, this is true. What many new converts find surprising, even shocking, is that despite the theoretical orthodoxy in the Roman church, the orthopraxy, including the teaching of orthodox Catholic doctrine, is extremely hit or miss, varying from parish to parish, diocese to diocese. You will rarely if ever find a bishop speaking out against Catholic orthodoxy — but this is often a matter of keeping up appearances. In practice, many bishops allow all kinds of heterodoxy in their dioceses. You really can parish-shop and find a priest, and a confessor, who will tell you what you want to hear. There should be doctrinal unity in Catholicism, but in practice, this is fairly nominal. I argued in the confessional once, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, with a priest who told me that my wife and I should start using contraception. I wouldn’t say something like that is normative, but that kind of laxity is far, far more common in American Catholicism in practice (versus in theory) than outsiders believe.
I hasten to say that this is not entirely the fault of Catholic governance, or misgovernance. All churches have to live today in the modern secular world, a world that has a radically different idea of authority than in ages past. This accounts for why so many American Catholics, both laymen and priests, take Rome’s doctrinal teachings as suggestions, not pronouncements that have the ring of truth.
It is also true that Catholics frustrated by the de facto heterodoxy in the lives of their parishes and local Catholic communities sometimes look to Orthodoxy as a model of, well, orthodoxy, and liturgical seriousness. They’re right — to a point. As Fr. John Whiteford revealed, gay rights are a rising issue in some US Orthodox jurisdictions. I’ve only been Orthodox for seven years, and my experience in American Orthodox parishes is very limited. I say that as a caution about taking my evaluation with appropriate seriousness. My view is that Orthodoxy has depended so heavily on the sense of the faithful about these things, and on a strong, shared conviction about the weight of tradition, such that it does not really know how to deal with life in modernity. I mean, Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to me to know how to effectively deal with the effects of modernity on the sensus fidelium, in an era and culture that produces Christians who believe they have the right to pick and choose what they want to believe, and to resist submitting themselves to the authority of Scripture, Tradition, or the Church.
Nobody has figured this out. Neither side has the right to feel triumphalistic. Rome may think it has, but its record over the last 50 years is pretty sorry. Orthodoxy looks better to beleaguered traditionalist and conservative Catholics, but I think that’s largely because Orthodoxy is thin on the ground in the West, and has not had to face the full power of modernity, with its emphasis on individualism and consumerism. It’s one thing to face down the Bolsheviks; nobody loved them. It’s another thing to face down the shopping mall, which everybody loves. Besides, there can be a big difference between the Orthodoxy you find in heavily convert parishes, and the Orthodoxy you encounter in one of the old ethnic parishes of the Northeast. When I was one of those frustrated Catholic laymen sick of bad liturgy and doctrinal chaos, and looking to the East with uncritical admiration, an Orthodox friend pointed out that my only experiences of Orthodoxy had been among American converts, and in an Orthodox popular culture dominated by convert enthusiasm. If I were to go to Catholic parishes that were dominated by converts, if such things existed, I would find the same level of enthusiasm for the traditions and theology of Rome. It was an important point, I thought.
I’m not offering these thoughts to defend Orthodoxy against Catholicism, or vice versa. Me, I’d love to see a greater reconciliation — an “ecumenism of the trenches,” as the practical cooperation between orthodox Catholics and conservative Protestants on issues of common concern (e.g., pro-life activism) has been called. I wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal back in 2001, then as a faithful Catholic who admired Orthodoxy, but who was greatly irritated by the absurd hostility Athonite monks showed to Pope John Paul II as he visited Greece. Excerpt:
Unlike his Orthodox counterparts, this pontiff lives in the real world. He understands that if Christianity is to survive, much less thrive, in the third millennium, believers cannot afford quarrels over past grievances. There are deep theological divisions between East and West, and any ecumenism that pretends otherwise is false. But isn’t working more closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause? The pope knows that the key question in the era of post modernism and globalization is not what brand of Christianity the world will follow; it is whether the world will follow Christianity at all.
It is said that the Greek Orthodox regard John Paul as a symbol of the Westernization they despise. Who are they kidding? The pontiff who was the scourge of the militant atheist ideology that made martyrs of millions of Orthodox believers is the same man who is the fiercest enemy of the secular Western juggernaut. Have the Orthodox been paying attention for the past two decades? Do they read his stuff? Maybe not. The late Alexander Schmemann, the eminent Russian Orthodox theologian, lamented his faith’s “complete indifference to the world,” claiming that official Orthodoxy lived in a “heavy, static, petrified” world of “illusion.” Orthodox consciousness “did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life,” Schmemann wrote in his private journal. “In brief, it did not notice history.” John Paul does.
Thirteen years later, I am an Orthodox Christian, but I still largely stand by what I wrote then. Pope John Paul II hadn’t successfully resisted modernism either, not even in his church (though he and his successor, Pope Benedict, laid the groundwork for authentic resistance). But John Paul and Benedict have had to deal with cultural forces that have to a significant degree bypassed the Orthodox world, but which now are sweeping over them, and will continue to. Within Orthodoxy, I look to visionary leaders like Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev , who serves as a kind of secretary of state for the Moscow Patriarchate. He told Crisis magazine in 2012:
The theological differences between Rome and the Orthodox East are well known. Apart from a number of aspects in the realm of dogmatic theology, these are the teaching on primacy in the Church and, more specifically, on the role of the bishop of Rome. This topic is discussed within the framework of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue which has been taking place for several decades at sessions of a joint commission specially established for this purpose.
But today a different problem is acquiring primary importance – the problem of the unity of Orthodox and Catholics in the cause of defending traditional Christianity. To our great regret, a significant part of Protestant confessions by the beginning of the 21st century has adopted the liberal values of the modern world and in essence has renounced fidelity to Biblical principles in the realm of morality. Today in the West, the Roman Catholic Church remains the main bulwark in the defence of traditional moral values – such, for example, as marital fidelity, the inadmissibility of artificially ending human life, the possibility of marital union as a union only between man and woman.
Therefore, when we speak of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that the priority in this dialogue today should not be the question of the filioque or the primacy of the Pope. We should learn to interact in that capacity that we find ourselves in today – in a state of division and absence of Eucharistic communion. We ought to learn how to perceive each other not as rivals but as allies by understanding that we have a common missionary field and encounter common challenges. We are faced with the common task of defending traditional Christian values, and joint efforts are essential today not out of certain theological considerations but primarily because we ought to help our nations to survive. These are the priorities which we espouse in this dialogue.
I agree one thousand percent. I don’t believe it’s squishy ecumenism to say that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have much to learn from each other’s successes, and much to learn from each other’s mistakes. Gabriel Sanchez is not wrong to highlight the jurisdictional squabbling within Orthodoxy, and the lack of a unified magisterium (teaching authority), as significant problems with Orthodox ecclesiology. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that Rome has solved this problem through its ecclesiological structure; on the ground, there is much less unity in Catholic doctrine than one would think.
On the other hand, Sanchez does not seem to dispute this, which is why he finds it so disturbing that Pope Francis wishes to devolve power back to the local dioceses, given how heterodox many are in practice. I see his point, and share his concern as a sympathetic outside observer of Catholicism. Given the cultural realities of life in the West, what is presently merely a significant ecclesiological problem for Orthodoxy could be a doctrinal catastrophe for Catholicism if it adopted a more Orthodox model — even if, from the Orthodox point of view, the decentralized model is more historically faithful. It will be fascinating to observe how well the Orthodox ecclesiological model serves to maintain the faith in the decades and centuries to come as the Orthodox lands become more modernized, which is to say, imbued with a secular consciousness and capitalist dynamism. If that happens.
I invite your commentary. Please, be charitable to those on the other side of the theological divide. If you’ve gotten this far in this blog entry, you may have forgotten that I started it off by making remarks about Thomas Aquinas and Orthodoxy. I’d still love to know what the Catholic and Orthodox theologians who read this blog think about that issue.