A Glimmer from the East
Orientale Lumen II—An Orthodox Account
by Patrick Henry Reardon
The ecumenical conference Orientale Lumen II, conducted at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., during June 9–12 of this year, was the second such conference named for the Apostolic Letter published by Pope John Paul II in 1995. In it he treated of the relations of the Roman papacy to the churches of the East, not only the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Catholic branch of the Roman obedience, but also such bodies as the Copts, Armenians, and Assyrians.
The first Orientale Lumen conference, held a year earlier, had been devoted to the evolution of papal teaching on the Eastern churches, from Leo XIII to John Paul II, and the papers of that conference were published by the Eastern Churches Journal in a volume entitled Orientale Lumen Conference 1997 Proceedings. The papers delivered at this more recent conference will be published in the same way, and plans are already being made for an Orientale Lumen III in the summer of 1999.
Sponsored by the Eastern Churches Journal and the School of Religious Studies at Catholic University, this recent conference brought together some 125 Christians, men and women, clerical and lay, from both Eastern and Western Christianity. At least half of the participants appeared to be from various jurisdictions of the Byzantine Catholic Church.
Its stated purpose was to study the implications of the 1995 papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they all may be one”), in which Pope John Paul II humbly requested all Christians to assist him in finding ways of putting his own papal office and ministry at the service of the reunion of Christians. The conference itself, conceived as an attempt to honor that request of the Holy Father, was structured on six plenary sessions, each centered around lectures by speakers enjoying special expertise in certain fields associated with ecumenism.
The first lecturer, Archbishop Peter (L’Hullier), of the Orthodox Church in America, elaborated some of the historical and canonical problems still to be resolved relative to the question of any individual “primacy” in the Church. It took some time, he observed, for the East to become aware that Rome was really serious in its claim of universal jurisdiction over the whole Church. No such claim had been advanced, after all, during the first millennium of Christian history. What was at first perceived in the eleventh century as a mere eccentricity of Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) did not pose a canonical obstacle for the Orthodox until the end of the twelfth century, nor did it much preoccupy their canonical thought until the time of the Reformation, centuries later. Unfortunately, the archbishop argued, Orthodox apologists then adopted largely Protestant arguments against the papacy (just as, he added, they not infrequently used Roman Catholic polemics against the Protestants!).
More sound, he contended, and more traditional was the earlier attitude of St. Nicholas Cabasilas, who rejected Roman claims to universal “jurisdiction” while admitting Rome’s responsibility to exercise a universal “solicitude” over the whole Church. Such a canonical distinction had been standard from the earliest centuries, according to Archbishop Peter; “jurisdiction” (exousia) was the exclusive prerogative of local bishops, while a more general “solicitude” (phrontis) was proper to the oversight of popes, patriarchs, metropolitans, and other multi-diocesan pastoral ministries.
Archbishop Peter went on to indicate problems with some standard expressions that Orthodox have adopted to speak of their own position relative to the Roman primacy. He observed, for instance, that their favorite phrase “first among equals” is a formulation “not completely coherent,” while Orthodox insistence on maintaining the traditional Pentarchy (the five ancient patriarchates established by ecumenical councils: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) is both artificial and at odds with Orthodoxy’s own practice of the autocephaly (regional independence) of churches along national lines. In general, he concluded, the Orthodox must work harder to clarify their own thinking about primacy—to be able to tell Rome what they do mean by it, not simply what they do not mean.
Catholic Enthusiasm and Scholarship
The conference’s second plenary session consisted of an informal but fervent exhortation to further ecumenical endeavor by Bishop John Michael (Botean) of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton, Ohio. His most striking and memorable statement was a declaration that the current canonical arrangement between Rome and the Byzantine Catholic churches is provisory and destined to disappear on that blessed day when Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism will reunite to form a single Church. This temporary and provisional status of the Byzantine Catholics was a thesis repeated and discussed many times during the rest of the conference.
The gathering’s ranking hierarch and the official delegate of the Vatican, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, devoted the third plenary session to a thorough survey of the reaction and response inspired by Ut Unum Sint during the past three years. This encyclical, observed Rome’s ecumenical officer, is unique in two respects: first, it is the only papal encyclical to declare ecumenism an essential and irreplaceable feature of the Christian life; and second, as an official document of the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level, it has no parallel among ecumenical policy statements of any other Christian body. Still, lamented the cardinal, Orthodox response to the encyclical has been largely negative and “disappointing.”
Session four was presented by the only layperson among the speakers, Dr. Robin Darling Young, of Catholic University, who narrated the origins of Armenian Christianity by illustrating the unique “Eastern” approaches to the enculturation of the gospel. In what was easily the most erudite lecture of the conference, she elaborated four particular features characteristic of early Armenian evangelism: one, extensive lay leadership and involvement, including the election of bishops; two, the esteem given to women as evangelists; three, the positive appropriation of themes from Jewish history; and four, the development of a vernacular liturgy and literature. Dr. Young’s was the lecture that will recommend the published volume of this conference to a wider spectrum of disciplines beyond ecumenism: Armenian and Byzantine scholarship, liturgical history, canon law, and even “women’s studies.”
Father David Petras, professor at the Byzantine Catholic seminary in Pittsburgh, devoted the fifth session to the ecumenical imperative enunciated repeatedly by the present pope, sounding many of the same notes as Bishop John Michael. These were the only two Byzantine Catholic speakers of the conference, and throughout their remarks one clearly sensed the deep frustrations experienced by Byzantine Catholics, at once widely distrusted by their Orthodox brethren in the East and treated very much as second-class citizens within the Roman Catholic system. Father Petras was the only lecturer to describe their canonical situation as “Uniatism,” a term that Byzantine Catholics often consider pejorative. The Orthodox speakers carefully avoided the expression.
Father Petras was one of several speakers to call attention to the distinction of Pope John Paul II (and, indeed, of Vatican II) between the stable content of dogma and the varying historical expressions of it. This distinction has been particularly employed in dialogues between the Chalcedonian (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox) and non-Chalcedonian churches (Copts, Armenians, Assyrians, etc.).
The Orthodox Redirect
The final plenary speaker of the conference, Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, provided the chief Orthodox critique of Ut Unum Sint. Confessing himself much heartened by the encyclical’s view of truth as self-authenticating, he questioned to what extent such a view (shared, of course, by the Orthodox) is compatible with the Roman thesis that truth is guaranteed by the external criterion of papal infallibility. Similarly, while he praised Pope John Paul’s assessment of the papal ministry as one of “moderating within a consensus,” he wondered how such a perspective is to be reconciled with certain actual practices, such as Rome’s appointing of all the bishops within the Roman Catholic Church. He noted that the latter rule dates only from the beginning of the present century.
Most particularly did Bishop Kallistos applaud the Holy Father’s insistence on the normative character of the first thousand years of Christian history, that long period prior to the catastrophes of the eleventh and subsequent centuries. Said the bishop: “We Orthodox must not refuse Rome what we willingly gave her during that first millennium, nor is Rome justified in asking for more.” At the same time, he noted, if the precise nature and limits of Rome’s primacy had been a matter of absolute clarity during that first thousand years, it is difficult to understand how the schism itself could ever have occurred.
Except for leading vespers one evening, I was pretty much a passive participant at the conference, quietly attempting to absorb the rather substantial amount of material with which we were presented. In so doing, I came away with three distinct impressions.
First, there was the constant underlying sense that Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiologies differ more than the major participants in the conference, especially the Roman Catholics, appeared to realize. The two sides, I am persuaded, mean something quite different when they say that they believe “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
In Cardinal Cassidy’s presentation, for example, it was clear that the word “Church” primarily meant a juridical, canonical institution, and this impression became very explicit in the somewhat animated exchange between the cardinal and Bishop Kallistos in the general discussion that closed the event.
Bishop Kallistos insisted that the Church derives her identity from the celebration of the Eucharist and that canonical jurisdiction necessarily resides solely in the Eucharistic president, the bishop, by reason of his consecration to this sacramental presidency. The universal office of the pope, on the other hand, has no such sacramental foundation. In the Orthodox view, jurisdictional authority must derive from episcopal ordination, by which a man is consecrated for the normative presidency of the Eucharist, but the pope’s episcopal consecration is identical with that of any other bishop. That is to say, the pope’s office has no special foundation in the sacraments of the Church. In consequence, whatever authority the pope may have, it cannot include jurisdiction over the whole Church, because it is not related sacramentally to the whole Church.
In all of this, Bishop Kallistos was enunciating what has been the standard Orthodox position for centuries; in the Orthodox view, any jurisdictional authority within the Church derives essentially from, and is directed towards, her sacramental structure and identity. Yet, after many decades of serious and scholarly ecumenical dialogue, even so generous, enthusiastic and dedicated an ecumenist as Cardinal Cassidy seemed unable to come to grips with this most elementary doctrine of the Orthodox Church.
In short, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox theories of canonical jurisdiction diverge at root; they do not begin in the same place nor grow in the same direction. Thus, when Bishop Kallistos, in the most blunt exchange of the whole conference, suggested that Cardinal Cassidy’s separation of canonicity from sacramentology ran the danger of “ecclesiastical Nestorianism,” the cardinal appeared not to grasp what he meant, nor did the Roman Catholics among whom I was sitting. It seemed to them an impertinent remark at best.
While I found this particular exchange most discouraging, it probably was an inevitable consequence of the Orientale Lumen format. The discussions at each of these two conferences have been conducted by shared commentary on papal documents, and the lines of elaboration within these documents have understandably presupposed a Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Consequently the discussions themselves have tended to be no more than exercises of “fine tuning” of Roman Catholic thought, and the Orthodox have been expected to make their own contribution to the refinement.
For everybody concerned, this is frustrating. It is as though the Orthodox were summoned to play in a baseball game, whereas they themselves do not particularly like baseball and would prefer football. When the kind and gentle Roman Catholic hosts cordially invite the Orthodox to make suggestions relative to such matters as the height of the pitcher’s mound, the ground rule double, the distance of the center field wall and the infield fly rule, they are understandably distressed when their guests, the “disappointing” Orthodox, then insist on throwing screen passes, using the halfback option and punting on fourth down. In short, the ecclesiastical differences are far deeper than the dialogue has yet become.
A Delicate Balance
Second, if the ecumenical discussion did begin to follow Orthodox lines of thought, and if the Roman Catholic Church were to adopt that more conciliar approach to ecclesiology characteristic of the Orthodox, it could mean utter disaster for Roman Catholics in many places. From outside that institution, one has a strong impression that the single entity holding the Roman Catholic Church together right now is the centralized office of the pope. An adoption of a more Orthodox ecclesiological perspective, in which authority is vastly more diffuse, would almost certainly weaken that papal office, whereas it is by no means obvious that the many Roman Catholics around the world have much else in common besides the papacy. For example, were it not for the authority of Rome, what would the bishops (to say nothing of the nuns) of the Roman Catholic Church in this country (to say nothing of Holland) have in common with their counterparts in Bavaria, Spain, or Poland? The Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years has moved toward ever greater centralized authority, and it is no longer clear that she would thrive, or even survive intact, without that authority maintained at full strength.
Her present historical situation may be likened to that of a plant conditioned over a long time by a special environment. Our domestic wheat, for example, would probably not last very long if we human beings did not cultivate it; human protection of wheat has become so necessary that, were it suddenly removed, the many natural adversaries of wheat would simply destroy the thing. Similarly, the centralized Vatican authority, which has systematically weakened every other local authority in the Roman Catholic Church since the time of Hildebrand, has now become her only viable option. Given the doctrinal chaos in evidence in Roman Catholic theological faculties around the world, for instance, what would happen if there were no equivalent to Cardinal Ratzinger and his staff of trained theologians at the Vatican? Does anyone seriously fancy that local Roman Catholic bishops would be able to detect a heresy or be able to do anything about it? In sum, if the Orthodox truly desire the well-being of their Roman Catholic brethren, I believe that they should not seek to weaken the authority of the pope and his entourage right now.
Those Caught in the Middle
Third, this recent conference served to give expression to the concerns of those Eastern churches in communion with Rome; half or more of all participants were Byzantine Catholics. These Christians live in some measure of distress for two reasons: first, their separation from the Eastern Orthodox Church, the body with which they share their deepest historical roots; and second, their minority status within the Roman Catholic system, where they complain of constant pressure to conform to Latin disciplinary standards alien to their own traditions and preference.
In the latter respect, they voiced considerable agitation at Rome’s insistence on clerical celibacy for Byzantine Catholic priests in those regions dominated by the Latin rite. A sustained comment throughout this conference concerned the Vatican’s recent prohibition of the ministries of married Ukrainian priests in Poland, ministries that have been fruitful for decades. According to a Vatican ruling, these men, who are Polish citizens, if they want to continue being priests, must migrate to Ukraine, a country in which they have never lived. The rank injustice of such a ruling was manifest to all, and Cardinal Cassidy, the Vatican’s own representative at the conference, was clearly embarrassed when questioned on the point.
With respect to priestly celibacy, which Rome imposes on Byzantine Catholics in this country, Father Petras reported on a survey lately conducted in the Byzantine Catholic diocese of Canton, Ohio. Queried on the possibility of permitting the ordination of married men to the priesthood, the diocese found 100 percent of the clergy and 97 percent of the laity in favor of it. If typical of Byzantine Catholics in general (and this is exceedingly likely), these statistics suggest a profound discontent with Rome’s current governance of the Eastern Christians under her discipline. Considering the enormous price that the Byzantine Catholics have been obliged to pay for their adherence to Rome over the past several centuries, one would think them deserving of better treatment within the papal system.
Nor is it accidental that the widespread distress associated with mandatory priestly celibacy should feature in such a pronounced way at a gathering preoccupied with the inherited schism between East and West. In fact, both of these situations originated from exactly the same source—the papal reforms of the eleventh century. The towering frame and long shadow of Hildebrand still separate all of us from the unity that marked the Church’s first thousand years. It is with his legacy that we are still struggling; indeed, one may question if we have even yet begun.
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“A Glimmer from the East” first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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