My friend Lindsey, with whom I have been having lively conversations recently on the Twitter (conversations that involve @annaclimacus, @3liSays, @NoWealthButLife, and myself there take place VERY rapidly!) recently posted her thoughts on the challenges facing the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches with regards to restoring communion in a post entitled, The Challenges of 140 Characters.
She begins by lamenting the fact that there is often confusion about what each side understands with regards to the other’s beliefs.
And here we have the challenges of 140 characters. See, these friends of mine are all devout Roman Catholics. We generally see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues. But as an Orthodox Christian, I consider there to be some rather significant theological differences between the two communions. Unfortunately these differing views can lead to confusion as the official words from the Roman Catholic side differ from the official words from the Orthodox side.
On this point, Lindsey and I are in agreement. While I would consider the Orthodox Churches to be sound in their theology and in their Sacramental practices, I know that there are significant theological differences between us. One of the challenges facing the present day Catholic Church, in my opinion, is the fact that so many of the faithful have not been adequately catechized and as a result it is easy to miss even the not all that subtle differences in belief among Christians. I often hear someone say something along the lines of, “It doesn’t really matter which church you go to, we all basically believe the same thing.” It is ironic to note that it is often these same people who also lament family members who have left the Church.
The two biggest theological differences that are often noted between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are the change made by Catholics to the Creed and our claims regarding the authority of the Pope as Patriarch of Rome.
The addition of the filioque to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed has been a source of strife between the two Churches since the addition at the local Council of Toledo in 489 and the later addition within the Roman rite in 1014. Orthodox Christians would insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds solely from the Father as he is the source of everything, even though the other two members of the Trinity have been around with Him since eternity. One obstacle to communion that I would note is my own observation that within the Catholic Church there is widespread ignorance of this change. It just isn’t an issue for your average churchgoer. My own thoughts are that we can come to a resolution on this one, especially since recent Popes when gathered with Orthodox Patriarchs have prayed the Creed with the filioque omitted.
The disagreement over the authority of the Pope is a bit more difficult, but I believe that there has also been progress on this front, due in no small part to the Pontificate of John Paul II. His 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint, eloquently expresses penitence on his part for how Papal primacy has been abused in the past and asks humbly for the help of his brother bishops in searching for the proper exercise of this important ministry of unity entrusted to the successor of Peter.
Lindsey’s main point, however, was the fact that she has encountered many Roman Catholic priests who believe there is no obstacle to communion since Orthodox Christians believe in the real presence and have valid sacraments. The only cases where I have seen Orthodox Christians communing in the Catholic Church is in the case where it is impossible for them to attend an Orthodox liturgy because of lack of proximity of a church. Her point about communion being more than a simple belief in Christ’s physical presence in the form of bread and wine is an excellent one. I often relate to non-Catholics who believe we are being exclusionary by refusing to invite them to receive communion that we in fact as Catholics never refuse to invite others to communion. We want all people to be in communion with the Church and that requires a process of preparation that normally lasts at least a year and culminates in the reception of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The Eucharist is a Sacrament of initiation into the Church that requires a commitment larger than a casual visit to a particular parish.
I would like to respectfully ask Lindsey and perhaps other Orthodox readers of this blog to comment upon an area that seems problematic to me as a non-Orthodox believer. Lindsey writes,
Moreover, the heart, mind and will of the Orthodox Church can never be expressed fully and exclusively in one person, one parish, or even one principality. The Greek Orthodox Church does not have a monopoly on being the Church, nor does the Russian Orthodox Church have a monopoly on being the Church, nor does the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople have a monopoly on being the Church. Yet, this statement cannot be understood as an absolute because we do have models of being the Church. In particular, the monastic communities (especially in highly regarded places such as Mt Athos) provide a universal model of what it means to be the Church. If I had to try to summarize my current thinking, to be the Church reflects life wholly immersed in Christ, where every fiber of the community’s being has been transformed through the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in such a way that exudes the Love and Truth of Christ.
I understand that no one person, not even the Pope, can adequately represent the entire mind of the Church. The long history of saints from the time of the Apostles through present times make that impossible. It seems to me, however, that the lack of a central unifying authority that can undermine communion. In the United States, in particular, it is not uncommon in the Orthodox Church to have five or six bishops of various jurisdictions within the same city. I understand that this would not take away from the fact that the Christians in these Churches are in communion with each other, but it seems to communicate at least a diminished form of communion. There are also many within Orthodoxy who while rejecting the primacy of Rome, place an almost psuedo-primacy in the hands of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Others appear to give the same kind of respect of primacy to the Patriarch of Moscow. I have also witnessed Greeks who used differences in jurisdiction to justify dismissing converts to the Antiochian Church or the OCA as not being authentically Orthodox. My point here is not to throw stones. We Catholics have plenty of disunity that expresses itself in other forms, but I wonder what is the solution to the visible disunity symbolized by multiple overlapping jurisdictions in the United States?
I also agree with Lindsey that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the best tools for restoring unity among Christians. Pope John Paul II often spoke of these tools as well as the centrality of the Cross. Ultimately, it will be through Christians living as Christians that wounds are healed and divisions overcome. One way that I hope will bring me to a better understanding of and a closer communion with Orthodox Christians is my upcoming participation in the St. Stephen’s Course in Orthodox Theology that is sponsored by the Antiochian Archdiocese. It is my continued hope that through continued prayer and dialogue we may one day again be one.
Your comments, as always, are welcome.