ON IDOLATRY - G. K.CHESTERTON: AN ORTHODOX LOOK AT ECUMENISM WITH ROME
PRIEST ERNESTO OBREGON 17 FEBRUARY 2016
On Idolatry – G.K. Chesterton
“Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – G.K. Chesterton
I wrote on this phrase back in 2014, when the conversational climate was not as bad as it is today. Just two years ago, I wrote on this passage and related it to how we relate to and address believers with whom we disagree. I still clearly see that the issue needs to be addressed. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kyril met in Havana. Before they had even met, one could already see blogs and Facebook postings from Orthodox believers pontificating (pun intended) about how nothing could happen unless the Roman Catholic Church acquiesces to every one of their points. Notice that I did not say that the Romans would acquiesce to every one of the Orthodox Church points; I said to every one of their points. This is because this is actually their opinion. In some postings that I have read, I could not agree with what the posters blithely define as essential to be Orthodox. More than one poster would actually be excluding some of their fellow Orthodox by what they insist is essential, let alone Roman Catholics!
It would not be so bad if they pontificated about their opinion. But, they write as though there is somewhere a settled body of agreement among the Orthodox as to what it would take to allow the Roman Catholic Church to be one with us. There is no such body of settled doctrine or agreement. There are various canons that point in certain directions, and there are various doctrines to which the Orthodox unequivocally point and state are essential. But, there are other areas that are nowhere near settled. The issue of leavened and unleavened bread was never settled before the final split. Yes, the Orthodox state that the Quinisext Council is Ecumenical because the Sixth Ecumenical Council said so. The only problem is that the Patriarch of Rome and his bishops never agreed to all of the clauses. In fact, it is well recorded that when the three delegates returned, their signature was rejected by the Pope. And, bread is not the only issue. There is the issue of portraying Jesus as a Lamb, the issue of statues versus icons, etc. For those who think that those are issues on which Rome would yield, given that they neveryielded on those issues, I will simply say that they will not. More than that, despite what the Quinisext Council said, on those issues I will argue that, despite Orthodox claims, the failure of the Church of the West to accept those canons means that our claim that they are Ecumenical may be more wishful thinking than either historically or theologically accurate.
But, should there come to be an actual possibility of reunion, those are issues that will be settled by the Church through her bishops, and not by one or another bishop, or one or another website, or one or another blog post. Sadly, I fear that if such is ever the case, there would promptly be a split by those claiming to be “true” Orthodox while at the same time acting as though Orthodox ecclesiology means little to them. They will cite the saints: Athanasius and Valentine and Ignatius and John of Damascus, etc., while managing to ignore the fact that even the great warriors for truth did not leave the Church, but stayed faithful to her even when it seemed as though the majority were against them. That faithfulness worked, for the Holy Spirit was with them, and their enemies were not able to charge them with being schismatic. When sent into exile, they fled not but quietly went, while continuing to argue their point. Not so the various who are already writing about how they would leave the Church should there ever be rapprochement.
And it is here that G.K. Chesterton gives us a pointer. Idolatry uses fear as its weapon. All too often fear is invoked in various of the postings, oh, not all of them, but more than I would like to see. One of the major fear points is the word “ecumenism.” It is bandied about as though everyone knows that ecumenism must be wrong. But, of course, what they mean is that they fear that the Orthodox will give up all their beliefs for the sake of unity. Yet the recent Synod of the Russian Orthodox made it clear that ecumenism is a good thing because it allows us to have contact with those who most need to be exposed to the Truth. The Synod made clear that ecumenism does not mean that we will give up our beliefs, but rather that we will have a platform to engage others in order to communicate Truth. It is an evangelistic view of ecumenism. It is a convenient word for the fearful to use because there are groups who have “dumbed down” the faith in order to try to find an acceptable compromise that will allow everyone to be together. And, there are indeed liberal theologians who use ecumenism as a way to peddle old and discredited heresies, or even some types of paganism. But, the Russian Synod carefully defined ecumenism in such a way that it gave Patriarch Kyril the freedom to meet with Pope Francis without any fear that some unacceptable compromise would come of the meeting. Idolatry sets up ecumenism as a false devil.
But, the hardest proposition for idolatry to accept is the reality that rapprochement with the Catholic Church must include the possibility that we may be shown to be wrong on one point or another. It is true that, as the Church, the Holy Spirit will keep us in the Truth. But, that does not mean that at every minute there is no untruth in the Church. The recent break in communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem forms a clear example of untruth in the Church. One or the other of the Patriarchates must be wrong, or both may be wrong. But, it is impossible that both are walking in Truth. I had earlier mentioned the Quinisext Council, and the refusal of the West to accept its canons. We cannot so hold a view of the Church that anything and everything that the East has done must be 100% Truth. There are hierarchs, writers, and bloggers whose view is that the Roman Church must completely change itself into an Orthodox Church. But, if we think in human terms, that is as unrealistic a viewpoint as a husband expecting that his wife will admit that she was wrong on every issue before he will forgive her. Anyone counseling the couple will clearly say to them that they both have committed sin against the other, and that there will be no resolution until both parties admit their sin. I am convinced that the same is true between the Orthodox and the Catholic. There has been sin on both sides. We cannot progress until we are willing to admit that possibility. We cannot heal the rift unless all sides come to the table in a spirit of humility.
I agree with the Russian Synod. Properly handled, ecumenism is a force for good. I agree that we are not giving up on our essential doctrines. But, at the same time I agree with the Russian Synod and G.K. Chesterton that all who call upon the name of Jesus are called to be One. There is no other acceptable option save what the Patriarch and the Pope have done, met together and spoken about what may be in the future, and on what things we may work together.
History of a Dialogue
In the annals of history, theological dialogue has been a fairly regular occurrence between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. It is worthwhile to recall that bishops and theologians were often sent from both Rome and Byzantium to enter into theological discussions, especially following the cause célèbre, known as the "Schism of 1054". From that period until present it is true that there were only two "success" stories of a corporate reunion between the two Churches as recorded in the annals of the Catholic Church's biographers. Yet, the principle of the theological dialogue with the Orthodox Church was never in question.
The first "successful" reunion of Churches was accomplished at the Second Council of Lyons (1274). Tragically, St Thomas Aquinas died on his way to the Council, despite his invitation to attend as a theologian. His fellow doctor, St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, was perhaps the most notable theologian present. Due to a minimal Greek presence and over-reliance on the will of the Byzantine Emperor, the Union effected by the Council has been commonly described as a "dead letter". No sooner had Emperor Michael VIII returned to Constantinople, than the Greek Church refused en masse to make the Union effectual.
More serious theological debates and overtures were subsequently sponsored by the Byzantine Court at various times following the ineffectual Council of Lyons. These public debates and theological discussions familiarized Latins with Greek Fathers and Synods. The theological exchange was also an occasion for some erudite Greeks to become familiar with and even translate Latin Fathers and Scholastic authors into the Greek idiom. Especially following the translation of St Augustine (De Trinitate) and St Thomas Aquinas (Summa contra Gentiles), Greek theologians began to absorb Latin patristic insights and even Scholastic ideas into their own corpus theologicum during the Palaeologian dynasty. Even famous authors like Gregory Palamas and Mark Eugenicus (two of the three "Pillars of Orthodoxy") employed Latin learning within their own works. Many of these discoveries have escaped even specialists' notice until recent times. At present, there is a burgeoning group of scholars who have dedicated themselves to exploring Latin and Scholastic influences in 14th and 15th century Byzantine theology.
In the early 20th century, Cardinal Joseph Dyčlovskyj wrote an inspiring article noting that — even in the East — the study of St Thomas Aquinas in se has always tended toward Catholic unity. Undoubtedly, there are both philosophical and theological reasons for the Cardinal's thesis. Due to the natural exposition of the universal principles of reasoning and correct thinking as espoused by St Thomas, the Doctor Communis secured for himself the perennial value of his works. Each person, insofar as he is rational, can grasp the fundamental ideas and loci upon which Scholasticism bases its arguments. Secondly, due to St Thomas' profound grasp of Christian doctrine, he was able to reflect the mens Ecclesiae in nearly every major area of importance to the Roman Magisterium. The vast majority of the theological propositions explained and promoted by St Thomas were held in common with Byzantine Orthodoxy. On this score, a former Patriarch of Constantinople, the hand-picked successor of Mark of Ephesus to oppose Florence, wrote:
"O excellent Thomas would that you had not been born in the West such that you would have need to advocate the differences of that [Roman] Church! You were influenced by it with regard to both the procession of the Holy Spirit as well as by the difference with respect to the divine essence and energy. For surely, then, you would have been infallible in your theological doctrines, just as you are so too inerrant in these matters of ethics (S. Th. Prol., 17-19)"!1
Following Thomas' sweeping influence in Byzantium, a sort of "first Scholasticism" penetrated the confines of the Byzantine East. The list of admirers and imitators of both St Thomas and/or Scholastic method (vel in parte vel in toto) continues to grow as Byzantine theologians of the Medieval and Renaissance period are studied and their sources are uncovered.
It is true that St Thomas' doctrine was a fertile soil that ultimately paved the way for the Council of Florence, but it must also be admitted that he was cause for polemics in Byzantium. The question of St Thomas' intrinsic value vis-à-vis Greek Orthodoxy is a hotly debated issue. Historically, Orthodox of the late 14th century often psychologically associated Aquinas with anti-Palamism, i.e. a theology tending to reject the mystical theology of Gregory Palamas. Gregory's distinctions between the essence and energy of God, the notion of the "uncreated light" seen by saints, and his understanding of divinization were all subject to scrutiny by the very first Byzantine Thomists, Demetrius and Prochorus Cydones. Their opposition to Gregory Palamas and their "Latin-minded" way of theologizing sealed a negative fate of "first Scholasticism (c. 1398)" in Byzantium.
The question of St Thomas' intrinsic value in East-West dialogue remains. He was understood and utilized positively and negatively by many celebrated Byzantine divines (e.g. Macarius Makres and Gennadius Scholarius). Perhaps the most learned theologian of his time, Gennadius Scholarius (d. c. 1472), was able to give a balanced and philosophically well-founded presentation of Catholic and Orthodox differences because of his sound knowledge of Latin theology and Scholastic philosophy. Ultimately, both Churches have adopted their champions from this period. Therefore, it is only fitting and proper that these theological giants should be understood before any serious attempt is made to speak about "commonalities" and "divergencies" between East and West.
Following Florence (1439), additional theological developments have increased the points of discussion between the two Churches at present. Nonetheless, any history of theology should be deemed questionable if it does not recognize what Aquinas, Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus recognized as real doctrinal stumbling blocks towards unity. If these (and other "doctors" of both respective Churches) are not read as the foundational sources for understanding East-West divisions theologically, one risks positing too many or too few points of disharmony between the two Churches.
This fundamental importance of understanding the classic and perennial theology of each Church is incumbent on both Eastern and Western theologians. Taking the example of both St Thomas and (St) Mark of Ephesus, both were willing to be in theological dialogue with their opponents. Thomas' very educational system depended on the professor being a skilled debater. Holding quodlibetal disputations required a thick skin and willingness to work through each objection from one's interlocutor. The professorial task was to reconcile the areas of substantial agreement and focus on the areas of fundamental irreconcilability of any proposition with Christian doctrine. Mark was on friendly terms with Latins aiding the scholarly pursuits of men like Nicholas of Cusa. He did not refuse to enter into dialogue with the Latins and came freely to Florence. His addresses to the Pontiff in Italy were respectful and sincere. He asked the members of the Council to remember that debates sometimes contain strong language. He apprized his Roman interlocutors that anything that sounded harsh was said in charity and that such mishaps should be excused as peculiarities of cultural expression.
This traditional task of theological dialogue and mutual theological understanding has not ceased. Following Blessed John XXIII's establishment of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity In 1960 and his Successors' emphasis on Christian unity, scholars are still attempting to understand better all aspects of the traditional Catholic-Orthodox debate. This summer, an opportunity for better mutual understanding will take place in London. The Institute of Classical Studies 2012 Byzantine Colloquium "When East met West: the Reception of Latin Theological and Philosophical Thought in Late Byzantium", to be held in Senate House, University of London, between 11-12 June 2012, will explore some important aspects of the theological dialogue between the two sides.2 The contributors, both eminent and younger scholars, hope to present a scholarly and objective look at Latin patristic and Scholastic influence on Byzantine theology. An exciting part of this colloquium will be devoted to reports on the progress and utilization of texts of "Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus",3 an international research project aiming at providing new critical editions of translations of, and commentaries on, Thomas Aquinas' opera omnia by Byzantine authors.4 The influence of Thomas on Byzantine writers and saints is only gradually coming to light. These editions will help the theological world secure Thomas' factual place within Byzantine theology. In order to illustrate the depth of influence that Thomas graecus exercised, presentations will focus on the sources used by Byzantine theologians like Matthaios Blastares, Demetrios Chrysoloras, and Gennadios Scholarios. There will also be presentations on the role of Augustine in Eastern theology and the Latin authorities employed for discussions at the Council of Florence. Contributors come from both Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds (inter alia). Also, in small part, the conference represents a happy result of efforts initiated under the Vatican's Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States. Among the contributors will be a participant under the auspices of the Holy See's venture with the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.5 The joint venture is a scholarship program to provide Catholics with an opportunity to study Orthodox theology in Greece in order to increase mutual understanding between Orthodox and Catholic theologians.6
*Fr Kappes holds a licentiate in philosophy and a doctorate in Sacred Liturgy
The next post on this topic will have two Orthodox articles against ecumenism and my reply.
The next post on this topic will have two Orthodox articles against ecumenism and my reply.
1 Gennadius Scholarius, "Résumé de la Prima Secundae de la Somme théologique de sanit Thomas d'Aquin", in Oeuvres Completes de Georges Scholarios 5, ed. L. Petit -X. Siderides -M. Jugie, Paris, Maison de la Bonne Presse 1933, 1.