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

Monday, January 22, 2007

The divide over the divide

I'm starting to enjoy God's sense of humor, tinged as it is with an irony too deep and subtle for most of us to bear. (If you don't believe the point about irony, contemplate this: the Almighty Creator saved us by letting us torture and execute his divine Son, who is equally almighty and through whom he created all things, as a threat to public order. That's what enables me to thank him for the joke that is my life. For some reason, Jews tend to get that better than most Christians.) An Orthodox blogger who calls himself The Ochlophobist, with whom I have had some friendly and fruitful interaction over the past year at various blogs including this one, has graciously and generously taken up, in a new post, some comments I made on an earlier post of his about the issues at stake in conversions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Apparently, he found the trouble worth taking because, in his words, I am "the most formidable and clear expositor of neoCath thought in blogdom." Well. I've never received a compliment like that from a Catholic; apparently it takes an ex-Catholic like Och to come up with it. I like such irony. It makes other ironies easier to bear.

Before I get to the substance of the matter at issue, allow me to explain the term 'neoCath'. Och is also unlike Catholic bloggers in that he has adopted the vocabulary I use to broadly categorize the divisions in contemporary Catholicism: those between progressives or "progs," traditionalists or "trads," and neoCaths. Progs and trads both believe that the post-Vatican-II Catholic Church is theologically discontinuous with the Church as she existed before. The former group celebrates such imagined discontinuity and wants it further entrenched; the latter laments it and wants it reversed. The "neoCaths," on the other hand, are those who fully embrace Vatican II (hence the 'neo' part) but find no such discontinuity. So, the neoCaths are those who adopt the "hermeneutic of continuity" also adopted by the present and previous popes, both of whom were present and active at Vatican II. We are neither more nor less Catholic than the Pope, and don't think we need to be. In other words, we are Catholic in the only sense that really matters.

Now that I've dissed a goodly segment of the Catholic world, I proceed to Och's main point. It seems to be that neoCaths just don't understand how deep the chasm between Catholicism and Orthodoxy really is. If he's right, then ecumenism with a view to reunion rather than mere friendly co-existence is illusory. I do not agree with that conclusion. Since you can follow his arguments for yourself, I shall confine myself to quoting only his last few paragraphs, drawing a few fairly obvious sub-conclusions that are needed to support the main one, and then criticizing them.

He writes:

While the Catholics are seen as nice with regard to their generous definition of Orthodoxy's relationship to the RCC, it is important to remember that Catholics, especially neo-Caths, believe that what Orthodox truly affirm dogmatically can only be determined as true through the office of the papacy. Thus while we Orthodox are told that we would have to relinquish no belief or practice essential to authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in order to be brought into communion with Rome, we must remember that according to RC belief this is because, finally, only the papal office has the final authority to determine what is authentic and true Eastern Orthodox dogma and praxis. When an Orthodox states that such and such theological point amounts to a dogmatic difference while the Catholic maintains that very point is only a rhetorical difference the final authority on the matter is the Pope. If the Pope says authoritatively that it is only a rhetorical difference then it is only a rhetorical difference, and the Orthodox must therefore be an incorrigible person, or ignorant, as the Catholic mind would have it. Thus when Orthodox are in agreement with Rome or in keeping with what Rome allows on any given theological issue, it is almost historically accidental, because they have not looked to the modern papacy to find that truth. And when Orthodox (truly) disagree with Rome on a substantial theological issue, they must then be held to be using some form of private judgment because such a determination cannot finally be held to be ecclesially grounded, according to the Roman schema. Thus there are entire synods, Patriarchates, and national Churches which are then guilty of private judgment. Those who are prone to wax reverently on the great lengths to which Rome goes to accept Orthodoxy into her arms would do well to remember that it is always on Rome's terms, as Rome acknowledges no terms other than her own. Rome will accept authentic Orthodoxy because only Rome can define authentic Orthodoxy, from a Roman point of view. I say the Orthodox way is better. We have no right to determine who Rome is, such is Rome's free determination, but so long as she is who she is, there will be no reunion or conversion. In the Orthodox schema it is the Holy Spirit who directs ecclesial consensus on what is true (which for us revolves around the question, Who is Jesus Christ?), and the Holy Spirit does not determine that our relationship to truth be limited or isolated to the determinations of the office of one bishopric which acts as the final and singular arbiter of theological truth and ecclesial order. Even if, as some suggest she should, Rome were to agree to suspend such a role for the sake of reunion, virtually all Orthodox would still have a problem with Rome viewing such a role as integral to herself, as it offends Orthodox belief regarding the manner in which the Holy Trinity's uncreated energies work in this world. But alas, RCs, especially neo-Caths, tell us that Orthodox Trinitarian thought is not really offended by the papacy, because only the Pope can determine what is really Orthodox Trinitarian thought. How nice.

Things are not always as they seem my friends. There are no irreconcilable differences when people are willing to change their minds. Ah, but we are told that we don't really have to change our minds (at the very least only a tittle) as the Pope has already made up our minds for us, really. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Quite like someOne else, I'd say. Yes, the Catholics have the ecumenical documents of VatII and Dominus Iesus and some nice papal encyclicals on things Eastern Christian. But VatI is not going away. Nor is Trent; nor Florence. And in a certain sense VatI was slightly less dubious a bitter pill before it was so suger coated. Niceties do not a dogmatic change make.

Now Och is right about one thing he said prior to that: for reunion to take place, one or the other side is going to have to admit that it lacks something essential to being, fully, the Church of Christ. That is because each communion clearly believes itself to be nothing less than the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church Christ founded. If Catholicism is true, then Orthodoxy, even as a communion of "true, particular churches," is not the Church but only a part of the Church that lacks the necessary communion with her visible head as willed by her Divine Head. If Orthodoxy is true, then Catholicism, whether or not Rome remains truly "a" church and the Roman communion truly one of true, particular churches, has long since departed from the Church. There is no getting around that. Hence, for reunion to take place, one or the other communion is going to have to give up its belief that it is the Church.

As a Catholic, I believe that the Catholic Church will never give up her claim to be the Church. It makes no difference that Vatican II said the Church of Christ only "subsists" in the Catholic Church; as used by the Council Fathers, that verb is a technical, scholastic one meaning that the Church of Christ continues to exist as an integral whole in the Catholic Church, even though some parts belonging properly to that whole are, sadly, in schism with her. That verb was chosen in order to accommodate what the Catholic Church has also and always acknowledged as the reality that the Orthodox churches, unlike Protestant ones, are true apostolic churches even though not in full communion with Rome. Given that belief, which no Catholic as such can consistently reject, what about the Orthodox? Could they ever give up their belief that the Orthodox Church is the Church?

As of now, that seems highly unlikely. I say "highly unlikely" rather than "inconceivable" partly because no council recognized as ecumenical by Orthodoxy states that the Orthodox Church just is the Church, even as more than one council recognized as ecumenical by Catholicism has indicated that the Catholic Church is the Church. Of course Orthodox usually insist that their traditional, internal consensus, as expressed in both liturgy and theology, makes their belief that the Orthodox Church is the Church just as "irreformable" for Orthodoxy as the corresponding belief is for Catholicism. Not being Orthodox, I can't say whether that insistence is justified or not. What would clinch the matter for me is a pan-Orthodox synod which defined the point as dogma. Of course, no such synod has taken place for over 1,200 years; and despite some calls within contemporary Orthodoxy for such a synod, it isn't likely to take place anytime soon. That's partly because there is no agreement in Orthodoxy on who has the authority to convoke such a synod and make its decisions anything more than a mere proposal to the Church at large. Which, from the Catholic standpoint, is part of the problem. There having been no Byzantine emperor for over five centuries, there is only one remotely realistic candidate for the needed authority; we know which one that is, and it's exactly the one whose claims to authority are now rejected by Orthodoxy.

Och opines, in effect, that Catholic hopes for reunion rest on an assumption that is at best question-begging and arguably insulting:
according to RC belief this is because, finally, only the papal office has the final authority to determine what is authentic and true Eastern Orthodox dogma and praxis. Now I agree that if reunion is to occur even on the ostensibly generous terms that then-Cardinal Ratzinger proposed, that is where the final authority resides. And I happily concede that the reunion of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is not going to take place on any more generous terms. But it follows that reunion will not take place at all only if Orthodoxy proves permanently unable to overcome the sort of thinking that the larger passage I quoted from Och evinces.

He says:
In the Orthodox schema it is the Holy Spirit who directs ecclesial consensus on what is true (which for us revolves around the question, Who is Jesus Christ?), and the Holy Spirit does not determine that our relationship to truth be limited or isolated to the determinations of the office of one bishopric which acts as the final and singular arbiter of theological truth and ecclesial order. That, I'm afraid, poses a false dichotomy. In the Catholic schema too, "the Holy Spirit directs ecclesial consensus," and the "relationship" of believers to the truth is not "limited or isolated to the determinations of...one bishopric." The papacy is only one instrument—albeit one that has had to become increasingly important in modernity—of the Holy Spirit in securing said relationship. The papacy does not and should not purport to invent any aspect of the deposit of faith, which itself both predates and is far wider than any ecclesiastical formulations of it; even when the papacy has unilaterally defined dogma, which is more the exception than the rule, that has only been on matters where there's been an already existing consensus in the Catholic Church. It is idle, therefore, to object that Rome arrogates to itself the authority to define Orthodoxy when one can't even get right what Rome considers its authority to define Catholicism. But I don't believe that such an error is inherent in Orthodoxy. It is merely the most troublesome instance of a habit of thought explaining why, despite serious investigation as a college student, I decided not to become Orthodox.

The habit in question is what I would call, for want of a snappier term, "treating negatives as positives." Rome insists, rightly, that she affirms everything that Orthodoxy is, formally and as a whole, committed to affirming. The Orthodox object that Rome has unjustifiably added certain affirmations to the faith-once-delivered, including and above all the affirmation of her own authority to add the other ones. And ever since the reunion council of Florence was repudiated by the Orthodox faithful, that objection has hardened: the Orthodox world now takes for granted that its affirmations somehow entail negations of Catholic distinctives. That much is obvious. What is apparently not at all obvious to most Orthodox, including Och, is that it doesn't take a naked appeal to papal authority to reach a different conclusion about the logic of the situation.

Even when I was considering Orthodoxy a serious option for myself, and exploring that option in liturgy and in conversation with a few Orthodox heavyweights, my study of theology and Church history led me to conclude that Orthodoxy's rejection of distinctively Catholic dogmas was not logically necessitated by what it was dogmatically committed to professing. Thus, I agreed with Orthodoxy's confession of "the monarchy of the Father"—i.e., that the Father is the sole source of the being of the Son and the Holy Spirit; but I could not agree that the Western dogma of the filioque—i.e., that the Spirit proceeds from the Father "and the Son"—required interpretation that is incompatible with the monarchy of the Father. Quite arguably, many influential Catholic theologians have interpreted it that way; but the dogma itself does not require such an interpretation and should not admit one. Similarly, I liked the Orthodox model of "synodality" for handling certain issues of supra-diocesan significance in the Church. I have even come to believe that the Catholic social teaching about "subsidiarity" could and should be applied to the Catholic Church's own inner workings, which
would end up looking a lot like Orthodox synodality. But I could find no good reason back then, and can still find no good reason, to believe that Vatican I's understanding of papal authority is logically incompatible with synodality as the normal way of addressing the relevant sorts of difficulites
. Just as the filioque seems to me logically affirmable in addition to, not instead of, the monarchy of the Father, so the doctrine of papal authority defined at Vatican I is logically affirmable in addition to, not instead of, synodality. What finally led me to decline the Orthodox option was the apparent inability of the Orthodox to see things that way. Their attitude struck me as one of giving certain affirmations a negative spin that needn't and shouldn't be there. And I thought so not because of what any pope said, but because that's how the logic of the situation struck me.

In the end, I suppose, the question for me came down to where the fragrance of the Holy Spirit is more likely to be detected. I find it more in the positive than the negative, and I find more of the positive in Catholicism than in Orthodoxy. My saying that is by no means an attempt to attack Orthodoxy or proselytize its members. I am under no illusion that anybody whose mind is made up will find their mind changed by it. I say it because I cannot believe that the habit of thought in question need be permanent in Orthodoxy. I deeply respect Orthodoxy as an authentic manifestation of Christianity and, for that reason, cannot believe that what I consider its logically unwarranted negativity is inherent in it. For that reason in turn, I don't share Och's pessimism about the prospects for reunion. If only by God's miraculous intervention, the divide over the divide will not persist. When it closes, so will the divide itself.
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