"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Friday, 19 January 2018


Patriarch Athenagoras

The day on which Pope Francis moved on from Chile to Peru marked the beginning all around the world of the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, which culminates on January 25 with the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul.

Half a century ago, on July 25, 1967, in Istanbul, the ecumenical journey passed a historic milestone: the second meeting between Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras. And on the occasion of this anniversary, Eliana Versace, a Church historian, has published in the “Notiziario” of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia two documents of exceptional interest.

These are two reports sent by the Italian ambassador to Turkey at the time, Mario Mondello, to the Italian foreign minister, Senator Amintore Fanfani.

The first report is a detailed account of that voyage of Pope Giovanni Battista Montini to Turkey.

While the second, a dozen pages or so in length, reports the long conversation that the ambassador had with Athenagoras around ten days after the meeting with Paul VI.

A conversation that the ambassador himself was the first to find “surprising” and “troubling,” beginning with the character he found before him: “picturesque,” “ardent and affable,” “perhaps a bit awkward and perhaps a bit histrionic.”

And this character profile itself leads one to associate the figure of Athenagoras with that of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

But there’s more, much more. We now know that there is an extraordinary proximity between the two precisely in their manner of conceiving of the ecumenical journey.

To grasp this proximity it is enough to read this passage from the ambassador’s report:

“To the question from the Italian diplomat on the importance of the theological differences among the various Churches, the patriarch responded vigorously, and said: ‘And how could I attribute importance to them, if there are none?’ To explain the meaning of his words to his surprised interlocutor, he compared himself to a diplomat: ‘You know, theologians are like jurists. Do you diplomats listen to the jurists when you feel that you must carry out some gesture or some important act of international politics? Of course not. Well then, I am a diplomat. Besides, out of scruples of conscience, I asked a few theologians to study in what these differences would consist. Well then, you know what they found? That there are none. That’s it. On the contrary, they realized that our Churches separated without any motives for conflict, without any reason, but only because of a succession of actions carried out by one side and the other, imperceptibly. In short, a ‘querelle d’évêques’.”

And further on:

“So there was only path for the patriarch of Constantinople to follow: ‘There is only one Blessed Mother, the same for all. Just as there is only one Christ, the same for all. And we all use the same baptism, which makes us all Christians. Enough with the differences: let us draw near to each other with ‘acts.’ The only path to follow is that of love and of charity, and love and charity impose the way of union.”
And now compare this with what Pope Francis said on February 26, 2017 in a question-and-answer session at the “All Saints” Anglican Church in Rome:

This was the question:

"Your Predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, warned against the risk, in ecumenical dialogue, of giving priority to cooperation in social initiatives rather than following the more demanding path of theological agreement. It appears that you prefer the contrary, that is, to 'walk and work' together in order to reach the goal of Christian unity. Is this true?"

And this was Francis’s response:

"I do not know the context in which Pope Benedict said this. I don’t know, and so it is a little difficult for me. I cannot really answer this.... Whether he meant to say this or not?... Perhaps it was during a conversation with theologians.... But I am sure that both aspects are important. This is certain. Which of the two has priority?... And on the other hand, Patriarch Athenagoras’ famous comment – which is true because I asked Patriarch Bartholomew and he said: 'This is true' – when he said to Blessed Pope Paul VI: 'Let us make unity together and leave the theologians on an island to think about it'. It was a joke, but historically, it is accurate. I had doubts but Patriarch Bartholomew told me that it was true. But what is the heart of the matter, because I believe that what Pope Benedict said is true: we must seek a theological dialogue in order to also seek the roots... of the Sacraments .. of many issues on which we are still not in agreement. But this cannot be done in a laboratory: it must be done as we advance, along the way. We are on a journey, and as we journey, we also have these discussions. Theologians do this. But in the meantime, we help each other, we, one with the other, with our needs, in our lives; also spiritually we help each other. For example, in the ‘twinning’ [of the parishes] there was the fact of studying Scripture together, and we help each other in our charitable service, in service to the poor, in hospitals, in wars.... It is very important. This is very important. It is not possible to have ecumenical dialogue while standing still. No. Ecumenical dialogue is carried out as we walk, because ecumenical dialogue is a journey, and theological matters are discussed along the way. I believe this betrays neither the thought of Pope Benedict, nor the reality of ecumenical dialogue. This is my interpretation. If I knew the context in which that thought was expressed, I might say something different, but this is what comes to mind to say."

Or again, compare it with what Pope Francis said on November 30, 2014, on the flight back from Turkey:

"I believe we are moving forward in our relations with the Orthodox; they have the sacraments and apostolic succession... we are moving forward. What are we waiting for? For theologians to reach an agreement? That day will never come, I assure you, I'm sceptical. Theologians work well but remember what Athenagoras said to Paul VI: 'Let's put the theologians on an island to discuss among themselves and we’ll just get on with things!' I thought that this might not have been true, but Bartholomew told me: 'No, it's true, he said that'. We mustn't wait.  Unity is a journey we have to take, but we need to do it together. This is spiritual ecumenism: praying together, working together. There are so many works of charity, so much work.... Teaching together.... Moving forward together.  This is spiritual ecumenism. Then there is an ecumenism of blood: when they kill Christians, we have so many martyrs.... starting with those in Uganda, canonized 50 years ago: half were Anglican, half Catholic, but the ones [who killed them] didn't say: 'You're Catholic.... you're Anglican….' No: 'You are Christian', and so their blood mixed. This is the ecumenism of blood. Our martyrs are crying out: 'We are one! We already have unity, in spirit and in blood'. […] This is ecumenism of blood, which helps us so much, which tells us so much. And I think we have to take this journey courageously. Yes, share university chairs, it's being done, but go forward, continue to do so....  I’ll say something that a few, perhaps, are not able to understand: the Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word. We cannot speak in these terms today. We need to find another way."

It is not known for sure where and when Athenagoras is thought to have made his quip about the theologians to be marooned on an island. Certainly not during his first historic encounter with Paul VI in Jerusalem on January 5, 1964, the entire audio recording of which has been made public:

The fact is, however, that the quip has entered the oral tradition, and Francis has resorted to it a number of times for confirmation of his own vision of ecumenism.

Returning to the report of Ambassador Mondello, Eliana Versace has also published a summary of it in "L'Osservatore Romano":

And it is a letter that has other surprises in store, for example where Athenagoras tells the ambassador that he is in the habit of calling pope Montini by the name of “Paul II,” because he is the true “successor of Saint Paul, updated for the present time,” or better yet, by the name of “Paul II the Victorious,” “imitating with his hand the gesture that Churchill used to indicate victory.”

In the run-up to the present week of ecumenical prayer, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity, recalled in “L'Osservatore Romano” that there are two paths that feed into the ecumenical way, from its origin until today.

The first, begun in 1910, took the name of “Faith and Order,” and has “as its primary objective the search for unity in faith,” on the terrain of doctrine and theology.

The second, opened in 1914, took the name of “Life and Work,” and is intended to unify the various Christian denominations, regardless of their doctrinal divisions, in a shared “effort on behalf of understanding and peace among peoples.”

It is patently clear that of these two paths only the second interests Pope Francis. Just as, we now know, it did Patriarch Athenagoras before him.

(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)

David Bentley Hart: Francis Is Just Alright With Me

While the Douthats, Doughertys and Drehers of this world continue to accuse Pope Francis of everything from heresy to conspiracy to provoking schism, who should come to the pope’s defense (and at First Things, no less) but the formidable Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart?

In “Habetis Papam” (roughly, “You’ve got yourself a pope”), Hart first expresses “a wholly unqualified admiration for Francis,” adding that “nothing he has done, said, or written since assuming office has had any effect on me but to deepen that esteem.”  But, controversialist that he is, Mr Hart does not leave it at that; instead, he goes on to say:

“I am utterly baffled by the anxiety, disappointment, or hostility he clearly inspires in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent (using “conservative” in its distinctly American acceptation). And frankly, I find it no more inexplicable in its most extreme expressions—which at their worst verge on sheer ­hysteria—than in its mildest—an almost morbid oversensitivity to every faint hint of hidden meanings in every word, however innocuous, that escapes the pope’s lips or pen.”

Hart says nothing about either the recent Synod on the Family or the even more recent “Lutheran communion” imbroglio. His bafflement here is focused on the conservative Catholic reaction to the papal encyclical Laudato Si, and (characteristically) he minces no words in saying so:

My perplexity achieved a kind of critical mass after the promulgation of the most recent papal encyclical. For myself, I can quite literally find not a single sentence or sentiment in Laudato Si to which it seems to me possible for any Christian coherently to object…I simply cannot find an assertion anywhere in its pages that strikes me as anything other than either a plain statement of fact or a reasonable statement of Christian principle.

Hart also insists that Laudato Si is very much in the Catholic tradition and that, critics to the contrary notwithstanding, Pope Francis has clearly been influenced by a variety of respectably Catholic sources:

Laudato Si positively trembles from all the echoes it contains of G. K. Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc, Elizabeth Anscombe, Dorothy Day, E. F. Schumacher, Leo XIII, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (above all) Romano Guardini; its native social and political atmosphere is that rich combination of Christian socialism, social democratism, subsidiarism, distributism, and anti-materialism that constitutes the best of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition’s humane alternative to all the technologisms, libertarianisms, corporatisms, and totalitarianisms that in their different ways reduce humanity to nothing more than appetent machines and creation to nothing more than industrial resources.

A word to the wise, Messrs. Douthat, Dougherty and Dreher: you do not want to get into the rhetorical ring against an opponent who comes up with phrases such as “appetent machines”. 

As for Laudato Si’s emphasis on the environment and on climate change, Hart observes:

Francis has the temerity to take the science of climate change ­seriously, which is the sort of thing that can send a Wall Street ­Journal conservative frantically groping for his smelling salts, but which I cannot help thinking is slightly saner than clinging to the politically inflected obfuscations of the data that so many in the developed world use to calm their digestions and consciences. But, leaving that aside, I again have to ask what the encyclical says that could possibly offend against reason. That the incessant pollution of soil and water by the heavy metals and other toxins produced by the monstrous consumerist voracity of our way of life is a devastating reality? That local ecologies despoiled and poisoned are impossible to recover, and that the poor of the developing world constitute the vast majority of its immediate victims? That stewardship of creation is a long-acknowledged moral requirement of Catholic Christians? That creation declares God’s glory and is an intrinsic good, and that only a depraved moral imagination allied to a petrified heart could fail to see the moral claim made on us by other creatures?

David Bentley Hart acknowledges that he is not a member of the Roman Catholic Church (he belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church), and so his comments may be taken as unwarranted intrusions; in fact, he begins “Habetis Papam” by declaring “Far be it from me—not being a Roman Catholic—to tell Catholics what they should think of their pontiff.”  That caveat aside, Mr. Hart’s “amicus curiae” for Pope Francis is a direct challenge to those Catholics who find, in Laudato Si and in almost every word this pope utters, either naiveté, heresy, or a sort of implicit apostasy from Catholic teachings.

It is, as I have said elsewhere, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of David Bentley Hart.  If Messrs. Douthat, Dougherty and Dreher care to respond to Hart, they had best bring their “A” games—and even that may not be enough.



In order to understand Patriarch Athenagoras or Pope Francis, you have to bear in mind the fundamentally apophatic nature of our understanding of God.   As St Thomas Aquinas wrote, 
God is greater than all we can say, greater than all that we can know; and not merely does he transcend our language and our knowledge, but he is beyond the comprehension of every mind whatsoever, even of angelic minds, and beyond the being of every substance. (De Div. Nom. I.3.77; quoted in Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 49)

 Thus there is an inherent paradox in any attempt to formulate doctrine.  From our point of view, there is the necessity for clarity of thought and of precise formulation.  The only alternative is wishy-washy thought leading to the formulation of pious platitudes.  However, precise formulation inevitably leads to a clear distinction between what we believe and that is believed by others: it leads to frontiers and borderlines and, hence, to divisions.

On the other hand, God's truth transcends particular truths, is not one truth over against another: it is Truth itself, and our truths are only true in so far as they inadequately and hesitatingly participate in that Truth.

According to  the late Bernard Lonergan S.J., "Faith is the knowledge born of religious love," not just any love, but God's love for us revealed in Christ on the Cross, a love which crosses every barrier and meets the human race at its worst, at its most destructive, when human beings are intent on killing the God who created them and holds them in being.  This is not a theology: it is the reality about which theology is written.  We can respond to it because it happened in our visible world; but because it is a theophany, it leads us into a Truth and a Love that are beyond our comprehension.  This Mystery of Christ is what the Greeks call the "economia"  Our positive response to it, our answering "yes" is faith and our participation in it leads to our understanding.

   Every Good Friday, we put everything else aside to confront the Church with the naked Cross, God's supreme revelation of his nature as self-giving Love, a love which is beyond our comprehension but which is made visible so that we can respond.

Christianity can only be understood within the context of that Love which breaks down every barrier and reaches out to every soul.  When this is forgotten, then we forget the limitations of our own success.  For those of us who do theology, God becomes the Great Theologian in the sky who always acts in line with our theology.  For canonists like Cardinal Burke, our salvation becomes God's solution to a legal problem of how human beings can give adequate recompense for sin against an infinite God and who believe that, among others things, Christ came to give us a revised edition of the Mosaic Law, especially on marriage.  Liberals see God as the Great Liberal in the sky who ignores the concerns of the theologians and the lawyers in favour of white western values. The inescapable apophatic nature of our understanding of God and the things of God has been lost.

 The media seems to hold that because the late Patriarch Athenagoras and our Pope Francis believe that neither theologians nor lawyers can have the last word, they are really liberals, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Liberals urge tolerance because theological truth is not all that important.   True ecumenical agreement among Catholics and Orthodox is realised when they joyfully discover that their different formulations, in spite of their limitations, arise out of a real participation in the same ecclesial reality and basically express the same faith.

I would like to add, not only Patriarch Bartholomew to Athenagoras and Pope Francis suggested by Sandro Magister, but also Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.  He seems quite rightly terrified by the possibility of a doctrinal agreement by the theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue before links of ecclesial charity can be established within the ordinary community life of our separated churches.  This would mean that the ecumenical agreement would be understood outside the context of ecclesial love which reflects the presence of the incomprehensible Love of God that challenges us to think outside out intellectual boxes.  In other words, the ecumenical agreement would not be understood at all.

There is a real possibility that a substantial agreement could be reached very soon between Greek Orthodox and Catholic theologians, but they live and work within an academic environment that has little to do with the lives of the ordinary Orthodox and the Catholic faithful.

  What would happen if they were to present to their respective churches a full doctrinal agreement?   In many places, the faithful of both churches would erupt and reject the agreement that has been made, and other theologians would rush in to support the popular will, finding in the agreements all kinds of errors.   Years of work would be trashed and unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy would be put off for another few centuries.

Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Francis share the same faith but different ecclesial allegiance.  They know that what separates them isn't a difference of belief, only years of living as though the other side doesn't exist.  They know that this unity of faith will only become apparent, not when the theologians come to a reluctant agreement, but when  Catholics and Orthodox love one another.   When this happens, their common faith will hit them with all the force of revelation, and both sides will bow the knee in humble acceptance. 

First, we need to love one, which is why the Byzantine rite puts the kiss of peace before the common recitation of the Creed so that they can say it "with one heart and one mind."  To love one another we must know one another, which is why Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Francis and the present Archbishop of Canterbury put sharing before a theological agreement.  As Pope Francis said to the Anglicans:
Ecumenical dialogue is carried out as we walk, because ecumenical dialogue is a journey, and theological matters are discussed along the way.

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