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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Orthodoxy on churches outside "the Church"

In my previous post about Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, I identified what I consider a very important question that Orthodoxy needs to ponder for itself if ecumenical efforts are to bear long-term fruit. Thus:

As evinced by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as other pertinent documents since that council closed, the Catholic Church has undergone and fostered the development of ecclesiological doctrine in such a way as to give an account of how the EOs and OOs relate to "the Church," which is said to "subsist" in the Roman communion as a perduring whole...But something analogous does not seem to have occurred in Orthodoxy. We have Zizoulas' eucharistic ecclesiology, which dovetails somewhat with Ratzinger's theology of communio and has clearly influenced the Ravenna proceedings. But further progress in Orthodox ecclesiology is necessary if the process embodied by Ravenna is to continue. What direction could and should such progress take? That's the question that Orthodox like John need to consider.

What I'm calling for, in effect, is the sort of development in Orthodox ecclesiology that has occurred, within living memory, in Catholic ecclesiology. Any such development would, of course, assume that the Eastern-Orthodox communion is "the" Church, with the question being how other churches relate to her—just as the Catholic Church sees herself as "the" Church, with the question being how other churches relate to her. Even so, one should not assume that Orthodoxy as a whole will come to see non-Orthodox churches, especially the Catholic Church, in a way that would be a mirror image of how the Catholic Church has come to see non-Catholic churches, especially the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions. I know of nothing to rule out that happening, but expecting it to happen would be presumptuous. Yet I believe it can be safely said that if Orthodoxy did develop greater clarity about the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox bodies, especially the Catholic Church, then the possibilities of ecumenism would be more clearly understood on both sides. And clarity about that could only constitute progress—even if the possibilities thereby exhibited would not please everybody. Accordingly, I have invited thoughts from Orthodox readers along the lines I've called for. The purpose of this post is to describe and consider three responses.

The first two are not directly the thoughts of readers but are actually articles referenced by one of my Eastern-Catholic readers, Mary Lanser. One, from 1990 by Orthodox theologian Emmanuel Clapsis, is entitled "The Boundaries of the Church: An Orthodox Debate." If Clapsis' review of the history is substantially correct, then during the 1970s and 80s some Orthodox theologians were headed in the direction of seeing non-Orthodox ecclesial bodies in a way that would be tantamount to a mirror image of how the Catholic Church has come to see non-Catholic ecclesial bodies. Thus, on the assumption that the Eastern-Orthodox communion is "the" Church of Christ, the Roman communion would be seen as one of churches with apostolic succession, efficacious sacraments, and enough commonality with the Orthodox faith to count as genuine churches, as distinct from mere "ecclesial communities" (to use Rome's phrase for Protestant bodies) or religious organizations. Yet that line of thought, while still pursued in some Orthodox quarters, was not further developed. Unfortunately if understandably, it ran aground on the issue of oikonoumia, whose relevance is clear even though I lack space and time to explain it. Thus:

In 1976, on the recommendation of the secretariat for the preparation of the Holy and Great Synod, the first pre-synodal pan-Orthodox conference dropped the principle of economy from the list of the subjects of the coming Council of the Orthodox Church. It gave as explanation that the debate on this principle proved that the Orthodox Church had not reached a consensus on the concept of oikonomia that could permit a discussion without dangerous divisive consequences.[36] Unfortunately what they accomplished with this action was to postpone a major debate within the Orthodox Church about the ecclesiological stature of the other Christian churches. But one might also argue that this decision was wisely taken: the whole issue of ecumenicity was situated in the wrong context, that is, of discussing the principle of economy.

Clapsis concludes that, at the time he was writing, the only consensus reached was as follows:

While Orthodox theologians still maintain that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is fully revealed in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, they do not deny that God acts through other Christian churches for the salvation of the world. The Orthodox Church's canonical boundaries safeguards the truth of divine revelation as proclaimed and interpreted by the apostles and the Fathers of the Church. Its unique mission in the ecumenical movement is thus to be the main witness of catholicity of the Christian gospel.

Yet the theological cat had been let out of the bag. The broad ecumenism cut short by the ruling on oikonoumia came to be reflected in the text of the 1993 "Balamand Agreement"; see especially paragraphs 14 and 15. In his recent interactions with Pope Benedict, Patriarch Bartholomew seems to be taking that approach for granted.

But within Orthodoxy there has also been much negative reaction to Balamand-style ecumenism. The monks of Mt. Athos rejected BA with contumely, and there is even now quite a substantial "traditionalist" segment within Orthodoxy that sees Mt Athos as the keeper of the true flame of Orthodoxy. And so there is quite a number of Orthodox who see "ecumenism"—at least of the sort motivated by the ecclesiological premises of Balamand—as a heresy. A good summary of that attitude can be found in the second of the two articles Mary referenced: "Ecumenist Double Speak: The Ecclesiological Schizophrenia of the Orthodox Ecumenists" by Orthodox layman Patrick Barnes, webmaster of Orthodoxinfo.com.

I take that article seriously, as more than a mere polemical exercise, because it essentially summarizes Barnes' 2004 book The Non-Orthodox, which has been favorably reviewed in detail by a number of people—including Christopher Orr, an intelligent and well-educated Orthodox blogger with whom I have had combox interaction in the past, mainly at the old Pontifications blog. Having argued that Orthodox ecumenists are really "branch theorists"—in my own book too, a very serious charge—Barnes delivers the following as his last paragraph (emphasis added):

In conclusion, let us briefly sum up the Orthodox Church's teaching on the Church. Without question She believes that She is the Una Sancta of the Nicene Creed; that the Church is not and never has been divided; that the invisible portion of the Church is not at all the same as the Protestant idea of a "true invisible Church" but is, rather, the Heavenly Sphere of the Church, united without confusion to Her Earthly Sphere; that there is no unity whatsoever with heretical bodies; that the Holy Mysteries exist only within Her; and that without the Mystery of Baptism, the seal of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit through Chrismation, and the partaking of Christ’s Divine Body and Blood, a person is not joined to Christ or a member of His Church. In affirming this teaching of the Holy Fathers, we do not condemn heterodox Christians but leave them to the mercy of God and willingly share with them through evangelization our Holy Orthodox Faith. Such is the way of true ecumenism: speaking the truth in love, that repentance might follow in the One True Church.

Barnes holds that acknowledging the validity of any non-Orthodox sacraments, including Roman-Catholic baptism, is tantamount to the heresy of branch theory. Similarly, acknowledging any kind of unity with non-Orthodox churches, including the Catholic, is tantamount to the heresy of branch theory. Indeed there can be no partial membership in the Church: one is either in "full communion," partaking of the Mysteries, or one is no degree of communion at all. Accordingly, there could be no development of Orthodox ecclesiology that would yield a virtual mirror-image of what the Catholic Church now says about the Orthodox churches. The only justifiable goal of ecumenism would be to get non-Orthodox Christians to convert to Orthodoxy tout court.

Now for reasons I've given before, I do not and would not presume to identify either of the above-described positions as "the" Orthodox position. As far as I can tell from the outside, both Balamand-style ecclesiology and Athonite-style ecclesiology are acceptable opinions within Orthodoxy. The only proposition that seems to command some sort of consensus is that the Holy Spirit can and does operate outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church—itself a proposition that must be held, if only because it must be confessed that the action of the Spirit outside "the" Church is what helps people into "the" Church, whatever the boundaries of the Church may be. Beyond that, however, there seems to be no agreement on whether such energeiae of the Spirit could suffice to incorporate some people into Christ even if they never become explicitly Orthodox. Therefore, there is no consensus within Orthodoxy on whether the Catholic Church in particular is a true church, with apostolic succession and valid sacraments, or is only a "religious organization" offering no genuine means of grace but only a perverted version of the truth—an organization within which the Spirit operates only with the aim of getting people out of it and into Orthodoxy.

That is the dissensus I'd like to see resolved. For if it is eventually resolved in either direction, we could all be clearer about the purposes and prospects of Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism. But the way some Orthodox seem to see it, the dissensus is irresolvable in principle. And that brings me to the third of the responses to my initial question that I'd like to consider.

In the combox to my previous post on Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism, Owen White the Ochlophobist writes:

Outside of the Church the Holy Spirit goes where He will, saves where he wills, grants grace where He wills. But it is not for the Church to formally declare what the Holy Spirit is doing outside of her, in places of such lack; it is only for her to know what the Holy Spirit does within her. She may conjecture what the Holy Spirit does outside of her, but it will remain just that - conjecture. The Bishop of Rome is the Bishop of Rome, a civic title as much as an ecclesial one. But he is not the Orthodox Bishop of Rome. The only final thing that Orthodox can say is just that, that the Bishop of Rome is not yet Orthodox.

If that is correct, then Orthodoxy cannot treat the question of the ecclesial status of any non-Orthodox body, and therefore of the Catholic Church, as anything more than one of "conjecture" and thus of opinion. Unlike what the Catholic Church articulated at Vatican II, there can be no "official," binding Orthodox answer to the question I'm interested in seeing answered. But if so, then the kinds of actions motivated by Balamand-style ecclesiology and Athonite-style ecclesiology, respectively, cannot be adequately warranted by those ecclesiologies. For if the true ecclesial status of non-Orthodox churches is only a matter of opinion, then neither the sort of ecumenism embodied by BA nor the sort of anti-ecumenism embodied by the Orthodox trads can be upheld with confidence. It all depends on whose "conjecture" is correct, and that is something which cannot be known.

Now for all I know, Owen's position might end up being the consensual Orthodox position. But if, in Orthodox terms, the question of the ecclesial status of the Catholic Church must remain a matter of opinion, then there could be no agreement in Orthodoxy about what, exactly, reunion with the Catholic Church would be reunion with. Any effort to get beyond that, to some more definitive answer, would be an illicit attempt to dogmatize what could only be theologoumenon. From that standpoint, discussion of reunion could only be discussion of when the Catholic Church would become Orthodox; for discussion of reunion on any other terms would be ruled out for assuming some-or-other answer that could only be a matter of opinion. Ironically, therefore, the practical attitude toward ecumenism entailed by Owen's relatively agnostic position ends up being pretty much the same as that of the more cocksure trads, such as Barnes.

But that is the end of the story only if Owen's argument for his position is sound. Is it?

Owen's argument depends on identifying non-Orthodox ecclesial bodies, precisely as non-Orthodox, as "lacking" something essential to being the true Church of Christ. Thus he says:

Evil, especially when we rightly understand it as the absence of good, is hard to define. We Orthodox understand other communions as lacking the fullness of faith, the True Faith of right believing Orthodox Christians, to use our tongue. But from an Orthodox perspective, such lacks can be hard to measure. It is hard to measure in terms of lack or absence.

Now Owen does go on to say that he "could list" the things that are lacking in the Catholic Church. But whether he does so or not, I find his entire line of argument puzzling. The consensual charge in Orthodoxy against Catholicism is that Rome has illicitly added to the deposit of faith in various ways so that, by embracing heresy in that fashion, she has departed from Orthodoxy. Rome thus "lacks" the faith only insofar as she has adulterated it by addition; in other words, the lack is like the spoiling of a dish by adding bad ingredients to the recipe. The use Owen makes of such an idea is, apparently, supposed to show what makes it impossible to say, as a matter of doctrine, whether the Roman communion (aka the Catholic Church) is a communio of true churches or only a facsimile thereof.

As a Catholic, I must confess to finding that line of argument incomprehensible. From the consensual Catholic point of view, the problem with Orthodoxy is not with what she affirms but with her denial of certain doctrines that the Catholic Church affirms. Hence, we see ourselves as having preserved and affirmed the same truths as Orthodoxy, differing with the Orthodox only in having made explicit, by doctrinal development, certain aspects of the faith-once-delivered to the saints that the Orthodox have hitherto failed to fully appreciate. From an Orthodox standpoint, it can be argued that such a stance involves a certain "lack," a lack of such a nature as to be immeasurable, only if the Roman "additions" are in fact logically incompatible with what is held in common, so that the "additions" actually entail negations of what is held in common. Some Orthodox have made arguments like that, and when I have occasion to I vigorously rebut them. But Owen has not. So, how he can reach his conclusion with the argument he does use is beyond me.

Of course there are other Orthodox around here who might be able to come up with a better argument than Owen has for his essentially agnostic position. But the more interesting question to me is whether that position, as opposed to those of the Balamandites and the Athonities, is the one that must be considered "the" Orthodox position.
blog comments powered by Disqus