"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Talking Turkey

Consult The Benedict Blog for links to the best news and commentary on the Pope's trip to Turkey. With that background provided, I offer an imaginary office-hours dialogue at a Catholic university between a student I shall call 'Alethia' and my professorial alter ego.

Alethia: What's this trip all about anyhow, Professor? I hear so many contradictory things about it.

Professor: Well, it was originally supposed to be an ecumenical meeting between the Pope and the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, who lives in Istanbul and presides over a dwindling Christian community in what was once Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire that lasted roughly a thousand years, if you count it as an entity distinct from the Western Roman Empire. But as a result of what the Pope said about Islam last September, and of the firestorm it sparked, the largely political question of his relations with the Islamic world now interest the media much more. I've seen very little discussion of what the two men might say to each other by way of working toward the trip's original purpose, which was Christian unity. Too bad.

A: I see. Why did the firestorm break out?

P: By quoting in passing a medieval Byzantine emperor's negative remarks on Islam during a theology lecture, the Pope was understood by most people to be implying that Islam is irrational and violent. His point was a bit subtler than that, but of course few people knew or cared. The reaction in the Muslim world was largely irrational and sometimes violent. There were demonstrations and riots the world over. A Catholic nun was even killed.

A: Doesn't that prove what most people thought was the Pope's point?

P: Um...uh....it's more complicated than that, Alethia. My point is that the media are now a lot more interested in how the Pope and the Muslims, who comprise 99% of Turkey's population, will have got on than in why he really wanted to go there in the first place.

A: You said the trip's original purpose was to work toward Christian unity. Why is that more important in your eyes than the issues with the Muslims?

P: Because the schism between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches is at least a millennium old and is a grave wound to the Body of Christ. Spiritually, that's more significant than what the media prefer to talk about, which is secular politics.

A: And how likely is reunion?

P: As of now, highly unlikely. But there can be progress. It's just that in matters such as this, progress is measured in baby steps. After all, Europeans have long said that the further East you go, the longer the memories and the shorter the tempers.

A: I see. What are the reasons for the continued division?

P: If you cut through all the cultural and historical static—which Christians can readily do with prayer and penance, if they really want to—it comes down to two big issues: the primacy of the pope and the filioque. The Orthodox reject both, at least as understood by the Catholic Church.

A: Could you explain that?

P: I'll start with papal primacy. The Catholic Church has a dogma saying that the Bishop of Rome has "full, supreme, and universal jurisdiction" over all Christians. That means spiritual not temporal jurisdiction. Many Orthodox are willing to let the pope reign as a kind of big-daddy figurehead, and thus have "primacy of honor" among other bishops, but none want him to rule the Church, even indirectly, outside what they're willing to concede are his local jurisdictions. They don't think any bishop should be in charge of the whole Church.

A: Really? No government could run a country that way.

P: It's not as bad as that. They have patriarchs, metropolitans, and synods. When deemed necessary, that all involves some bishops telling others what to do.

A: So they think it's OK for some bishops to tell some others what to do, as long as no single bishop gets to tell all the others what to do?

P: Right. A political-science analogy would be that they want the aristocracy to actually rule and the monarch only to reign.

A: I still don't understand why they think that's how God wants things to be. But as long as we're swimming in these waters, what about the filioque?

P: I'm afraid I don't have time to even begin clarifying the issue. As if you don't have enough reading to do already, a reliable summary of the historical and theological considerations can be found in the 2003 SCOBA statement. But here's the issue in a nutshell.

You know the Creed we say at Sunday Mass. It says, among other things, that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." Well, that wasn't part of the Creed that East and West had accepted in common for centuries. Sometime during the Middle Ages, the papacy added the phrase "and the Son" to "proceeds from the Father." The Byzantines thought, and the Orthodox still believe, that that was an unwarranted expansion of the Creed of 381, which had expanded the Nicene Creed of 325, which had expanded the Apostles' Creed of 2nd-century Rome, which was based on the baptismal profession of new members of the Church. I happen to agree that the Roman addition was high-handed and unnecessary, but I also think the theological issue is primarily semantic and can be resolved in principle. A few contemporary Orthodox writers agree with me. But the two churches have been down that road before, and nothing's ultimately come of it.

A: But if the Orthodox accepted the papacy more or less as we do, the filioque problem would go away, wouldn't it?

P: Of course. But one of the reasons they don't accept the papacy as we do is that most of them think the filioque is a heresy defined as dogma by Rome. Ergo, the popes are heretics. And heretics should not lead the Church.

A: Trying to resolve these things seems a bit like a dog chasing its tail.

P: To the Catholic mind it can certainly seem that way. But the Catholic mind and the Orthodox mind are rather different animals.

A: Whatever. It still looks kinda hopeless to me.

P: At the human level it is indeed hopeless. Only divine intervention, perhaps at the behest of the Virgin Mary, can heal the schism. That's why I think the papal Mass at the house in Ephesus, where she lived out her days on earth, is the real centerpiece of the trip. Few people attended, but the reasons for that are security and political concerns.

A: Which brings us back to the Muslims. Isn't the Pope trying to be nice to them?

P: Indeed. That's what really has me worried. Give 'em an inch....
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