A Catholic View of Eastern Orthodoxy (4 of 4)

by Aidan Nichols OP

Part 4
This brings me to the fourth and concluding section of my ‘overview’ where, as mentioned at the outset, I will single out for, I hope, charitable and eirenic comment one negative aspect of Orthodoxy where, in my opinion, the Orthodox need Catholic communion just as – for quite different reasons already outlined – Catholics need (at this time in history above all) the Orthodox Church.

The animosity, indeed the barely contained fury, with which many Orthodox react to the issue of Uniatism is hardly explicable except in terms of a widespread and not readily defensible Orthodox feeling about the relation between the nation and the Church.

There must be, after all, some factor of social psychology or corporate ideology which complicates this issue. Bear in mind that the Orthodox have felt no difficulty this century in creating forms of Western-rite Orthodoxy, for example in France under the aegis of the Rumanian patriarchate or more recently in the United States under the jurisdiction of an exarch of the patriarch of Antioch. And what are these entities if not Orthodox Uniatism – to which the Catholic Church has, however, made no objection. Nor do such non-Chalcedonian churches as the Assyrians (in Iraq and Iran), the Jacobites (in Syria) or the Syro-Malabar Christians of South India react in this way to the notion that some of their communities may be in peace and communion with the elder Rome.

A partial – and significant – exception among such non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches is the Copts of Egypt – precisely because of the notion that the Coptic patriarch is father of the whole Coptic nation. In other words, what we may call a political factor – giving the word ‘political’ its broadest possible meaning – has entered in. It is the close link between Church and national consciousness, patriotic consciousness, which renders Uniatism so totally unacceptable in such countries as Greece and Rumania, and it is this phenomenon of Orthodox nationalism which I find the least attractive feature of Orthodoxy today. An extreme example is the widespread philosophy in the Church of Serbia which goes by the name of the mediaeval royal Serbian saint Sava – hence Svetosavlje, ‘Saint-Sava-sm’. The creation of the influential bishop Nikolay Velimirovich, who died in 1956, it argues that the Serbian people are, by their history of martyrdom, an elect nation, even among the Orthodox, a unique bearer of salvific suffering, an incomparably holy people, and counterposes them in particular to their Western neighbours who are merely pseudo-Christians, believers in humanity without divinity.

And if the origins of such Orthodox attitudes lie in the attempts of ineteenth century nationalists to mobilise the political potential of Orthodox peasantries against both Islamic and Catholic rulers, these forces, which I would not hesitate to call profoundly unChristian, can turn even against the interests of Orthodoxy itself – as we are seeing today in the embarrassing campaign on the Holy Mountain Athos, to dislodge non-Greek monks and discourage non-Greek pilgrims, quite against the genius of the Athonite monastic republic which, historically, is a living testimony to Orthodox interethnicity, Orthodox internationalism.

To a Catholic mind, the Church of Pentecost is a Church of all nations in the sense of ecclesia ex gentibus, a Church taken from all nations, gathering them – with, to be sure, their own human and spiritual gifts – into a universal community in the image of the divine Triunity where the difference between Father, Son and Spirit only subserves their relations of communion.

The Church of Pentecost is not an ecclesia in gentibus, a Church distributed among the nations in the sense of parcelled out among them, accommodating herself completely to their structures and leaving their sense of autonomous identity undisturbed.

Speaking as someone brought up in a national Church, the Church of England, though I am happy to consider myself perfectly English, I also regard it as a blessing of catholicity to be freed from particularism into the more spacious life of a Church raised up to be an ensign for all nations, a Church where those of every race, colour and culture can feel at home, in the Father’s house.

It is in this final perspective that one should consider the role of the Roman bishop as a ‘universal primate’ in the service of the global communion of the churches. One of the most loved titles of the Western Middle Ages for the Roman bishop was universalis papa, and while one would nor wish to retrieve all aspects of Latin ecclesiology in the high mediaeval period, to a Catholic Christian the universal communion of the local churches in their multiple variety does need a father in the pope, just as much as the local church itself, with its varied congregations, ministries and activities, needs a father in the person of the bishop.

It is often said that such an ecclesiology of the papal office is irredeemably Western and Latin, and incapable of translation into Oriental terms. I believe this statement to be unjustified. Just as a patriarch, as regional primate, is responsible for the due functioning of the local churches of in his region under their episcopal heads, so a universal primate is responsible for the operation of the entire episcopal taxis or order, and so for all the churches on a world-wide scale. Needless to say, this office is meant for the upbuilding, not the destruction, of that episcopal order, founded ultimately as the latter is on the will of the Redeemer in establishing the apostolic mission, and further refined by Tradition in the institution of patriarchal and other primacies in this or that portion of the ecclesial whole. But at the same time, if the ministry of a first bishop is truly to meet the needs of the universal Church it will sometimes have to take decisions that are hard on some local community and unpopular with it.

Were the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to become one, some reform of the structure of the Roman primacy would nonetheless be necessary, especially at the level of the curia romana. The congregation for the Oriental Churches would become a secretariat at the service of the permanent apocrisaries (envoys) of the patriarchs and other primates.

The great majority of the other dicastsries would be re-defined as organs of the Western patriarch, rather than the supreme Pontiff. And yet no universal primacy that merely rubber-stamped the decisions of local or regional churches would be worth having; it would be appearance without reality. Thus the pope as universal primate would need to retain: first, a doctrinal organ for the coordination of Church teaching, and secondly, some kind of ‘apostolic secretaryship’, replacing the present ill-named ‘Secretariat of State’, for the harmonisation of principles of pastoral care. To these could be added, thirdly, whichever of the ‘new curial’ bodies dealing with those outside the household of faith might be deemed to have proved their usefulness, and finally, a continuing ‘Council for the Public Affairs of the Church’, for the defence of the freedom of the churches (and of human rights) vis-à-vis State power.

The utility of the fourth of these to the Orthodox is obvious. As to the rest (of which only the first two are crucial in importance) they should function only on the rarest occasions of ‘crisis-management’ as instruments of papal action in the Eastern churches. Normally, they should act, rather, as channels whereby impulses from the Eastern churches – impulses dogmatic, liturgical, contemplative, monastic in tenor – could reach via the pope the wider Church and world.

For this purpose the apocrisaries of the patriarchs, along with the prefects of the Western dicasteries, would need to constitute their governing committees, under papal presidency. It should go without saying that Oriental churches would naturally enjoy full parity with the Latin church throughout the world, and not simply in their homelands – the current Catholic practice.

The Orthodox must ask themselves (as of course they do!) whether such instruments of universal communion (at once limiting and liberating) may not be worth the price. Or must the pleasures of particularity come first?

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