All For One
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
Source: The Wall Street Journal Friday, July 15, 2005
"The need is felt to join forces and spare no energies" to renew
dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, said Pope Benedict XVI. In
comments to delegates of the Patriarch of Constantinople on June 30,
the pope explained that "the unity we seek is neither absorption nor
fusion, but respect for the multiform fullness of the Church."
Outsiders may wonder: Why don't those two venerable churches just kiss
and make up? From the outside, they look a lot alike. Each church claims
roots in earliest Christian history. The dispute that split them is a
thousand years old. Isn't it time to move on?
It is my own Orthodox brethren who appear to be the cranky partners.
Catholics have been making friendly overtures for more than a decade
now. Pope John Paul II even said that the extent of papal power--over which
the two churches split in the 11th century--could be "open to a new
situation." Both churches hold as ideal a united body with Rome as "first among
equals." Yet the Orthodox drag their feet, sometimes seeming downright
rude. A Catholic friend tells me that the attitude seems to be: "Take this
olive branch and shove it."
The Orthodox Church is smaller and less powerful, so we don't get much
opportunity to explain how things seem from our perspective. But it
comes down to two words: "unity" and "chaos."
From a Roman Catholic perspective, unity is created by the institution
of the church. Within that unity there can be diversity; not everyone
agrees with official teaching, some very loudly. What holds things together is
membership. This kind of unity makes immediate sense to Americans:
Whatever their disagreements, everyone salutes the flag, and all Catholics
salute, if not technically obey, Rome's magisterium.
When Roman Catholics look at Orthodoxy, they don't see a centralized,
global institution. Instead, the church appears to be a jumble of national and
ethnic bodies (a situation even more confused in the U.S. as a result
of immigration). To Catholics, the Orthodox Church looks like chaos.
But from an Orthodox perspective, unity is created by believing the
same things. It's like the unity among vegetarians or Red Sox fans. You
don't need a big bureaucracy to keep them faithful. Across wildly diverse
cultures, Orthodox Christians show remarkable unity in their faith. (Of
course there are plenty of power struggles and plain old sin, but the
essential faith isn't challenged.) What's the source of this common
faith? The consensus of the early church, which the Orthodox stubbornly keep
following. That consensus was forged with many a bang and dent, but for
the past millennium major questions of faith and morals have been pretty
much at rest in the Eastern hemisphere.
This has not been the case in the West. An expanded role for the pope
was followed by other theological developments, even regarding how
salvation is achieved. In the American church, there is widespread upheaval. From
the Orthodox perspective, the Catholic Church looks like chaos.
This is hard for Catholics to understand; for them, the institution of
the church is the main thing. If the church would enforce its teachings,
some adherents say, there would be unity. The Orthodox respond: But faith
must be organic. If you have to force people to it, you've already lost the
battle; that wouldn't be unity at all.
So we've got two different definitions of "unity." Is "unity"
membership in a common institution or a bond of shared belief? The Orthodox take
their cue from Christ's prayer to his Father, "that they all may be one, even as
we are one." What kind of unity do the Father and the Son have? They are
not held together by an outside force; they are one in essence and have a
common mind. If we are "partakers of the divine nature," as St. Peter said,
then, the Orthodox believe, we'll participate in that mind. That's what makes
us the "body of Christ," the church.
Thus the Orthodox hesitate at a phrase like the pope's "multiform
fullness." Catholic diversity makes it easy for Catholics to embrace us: When they
look at us, they see the early church. We fit right in. But when the
Orthodox look at Catholics, we see an extra thousand years of theological
development, plus rebellion in the pews. What kind of unity do
Catholics have, at present, that we could enter?
There are plenty of good reasons for the Orthodox and Roman Catholic
churches to talk. Discussion clears away misunderstanding, and common
causescan benefit from the energies of both churches. But we can't be fully
united until we agree on what "unity" means.
Ms. Mathewes-Green is the author of "At the Corner of East and Now: A
Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy."