The Grass Is Not Always Greener in the East

Often when the topic of the East-West schism between the Orthodox and Catholics comes up, the discussion often includes the Crusades, and particularly the Fourth Crusade, which culminated in a Latin army conquering not any Muslim territory, but the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1204. The Orthodox have a long memory in reference to this catastrophe, so much so that Pope John Paul II apologized for it in 2004, even though the crusade was not called for that purpose. Yet there is another important stream of Catholic-Orthodox relations that defines the Crusader Era—the intimate military and political cooperation between Latin Crusaders and local Catholic and Orthodox Arab Christians in the Holy Land. Would that this truth have as much prominence in the historical memory of contemporary ecumenical dialogue as that of Constantinople, it might spur Christians of East and West to seek deeper communion.

A recently published book by Armenian Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian, The Orthodox Reality, also serves as a valuable resource for ecumenical dialogue, especially for Catholics seeking to understand the Orthodox faith. The text, a compilation of various essays written by Guroian over the years, covers extensive ground in introducing the reader to Orthodoxy, including culture, Orthodoxy in the modern world, ecumenical theology, and theological ethics. The author notes the scandal that, in North America, Orthodoxy is “virtually absent from the academic study of religion and Christianity,” which undermines those who claim to offer a comprehensive study of the Christian faith. This article will highlight some of the strengths of Guroian’s work—including his very well-constructed bibliography to guide further study—as well as discuss some of his reflections and arguments as they pertain to ecumenism. I will close by discussing what continues to fundamentally divide the two religious traditions.

Anyone familiar with Orthodox convert (from Catholicism!) Rod Dreher knows that there is much common cultural and political ground between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Guroian affirms this reality when he writes, “North American culture is awash in a feckless brew of expressive individualism, moral relativism, and godless utilitarianism that does grave damage to the human spirit and most certainly challenges the church to reassert its mission to claim this world for God.” Guroian argues that culture lives and dies based on its union with and dependence on the Incarnation and the liturgy. Indeed, man’s creation of culture is analogical to God’s creative work, especially given man being made in God’s image and then given the supernatural life through baptism and having it enhanced throughhis access to the other sacraments. Thus as Western culture becomes increasingly untethered from these (and God, more generally), so it dies, because it is incapable of accurately reflecting God’s work in the world. “Postmodernity is not a new culture. It is the rotting corpse of a thoroughly desacralized Christendom or, alternatively, the empty shell of the Christian cult inhabited by alien ideologies,” he writes.

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Guroian takes up this sacramental and liturgical vision in just about every subject in the book. In his chapter on Constantine and the creation of Christendom he explains the Justinian symphonia, or deep alliance between the Church and the State. In contrast to Western conceptions of church-state relations as two competing institutional powers, the Orthodox “vision of Christendom” interprets the Church not as a competing institutional power, but as a liturgical and sacramental presence. Indeed, he uses the hypostatic union of Christ as a rebuttal against a strict separation of church and state. While the West speaks of church and state, the East speaks of church and the world. He recognizes this last as problematic, as it tends to perceive the instruments of the state as “ligaments of the kingdom of God.” Again, in his writing on ethics, Guroian argues that “Orthodox ethics are grounded in liturgy and how the liturgy lends a powerful, transformative, and eschatological vision to Orthodox ethics.” Participation in the Eucharist is the means by which the Church becomes “God’s eschatological polity in the world.” Liturgy is also central to this contrast between Western and Eastern conceptions of marriage: unlike Catholic definitions of marriage that emphasize its contractual and covenantal nature, the Orthodox emphasize its liturgical and healing character, undoing the enmity between the sexes that began at the Fall.

Guroian writes of more significant differences when he gets to Catholic distinctions between symbol and reality and nature and grace, particularly as it relates to the Eucharist. He writes of a Western tendency towards a “dangerous distinction and separation between symbol and reality,” and a “nature and grace” dualism that represents a “radical discontinuity” which the East “finds unacceptable.” This represents nothing less than a “fall” from the Nicene conception of the relationship between nature and grace. Perhaps this contrast might best be described as an Orthodox sacramental and mystical “realism” versus a Catholic metaphysical rationalism and intellectualism, born out of a scholastic tradition that emphasizes propositional understandings of truth and faith. This tends towards eviscerating the true spiritual, divine power of God’s work in the world, says Guroian. Yet much of his critique is not so much against official Catholic doctrine per se, as impressions of it mediated through certain early theological manuals or the writings of modern theologians, and then interpreted by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. Indeed, Guroian provides no evidence to substantiate his claims regarding a supposed radical split between nature and grace in Catholic theology. Moreover, if the complaint is with scholasticism, this tradition is not unique to the West—the writings of Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene, and Leontius of Byzantium all contain scholastic elements.

Of course, what would an Orthodox-Catholic discussion be without reference to the papacy? Guroian cites another Orthodox scholar who “discovered no conclusive proof in Scripture or in early Church history for the bishop of Rome’s claim to supreme headship over all Christians.” For example, Christ’s famous declaration in Matthew 16 regarding petra (rock) cannot “refer back reflexively” to Petros (Peter), though no evidence is offered to substantiate this. While willing to acknowledge a contemporary need for a universal ecclesial leadership similar to that of the pope, he calls for a “reformulation of papal primacy” to the oft-heard paradigm of primus inter pares (“first among equals”). Guroian calls on Rome to maintain a primacy of ministry and service, not magisterial authority. He urges popes to use language and take actions that demonstrate more humility, and offer more parity, towards their Eastern episcopal brethren. I see little harm in gestures of comity and humility, especially in days of aggressive secularism, when Catholics and Orthodox should look to historical examples of cooperation, instead of conflict, for ecumenical inspiration.

Guroian is hopeful, but realistic, regarding an East-West union, noting that “sin of the collective and habitual sort is stubborn and not easily overcome. Nationalistic and particularistic proclivities, the desire to cling to power, and false pride and defensiveness can at any moment, and over the long haul, overwhelm all the good reasons for Orthodox Churches to accept the pope’s fraternal invitation.” Indeed, elsewhere he is quite honest about what he terms “the Orthodox escape into ethnic separatism and sectarian spiritualism.” He explains:

The Orthodox are guilty of a comparable sin of dividing the one body of Christ into exclusivist national and ethnic enclaves that they will not let go of even when the opportunity arises, as it has in America…. The bitter pill that the Orthodox must swallow is that they have been complicit in the reduction and separation of the undivided church of which they accuse others.

This has often taken the form of what is called phyletism, or the establishment of national churches that refuse members of other nationalities from liturgical participation and are only administered by ministers from that nationality.

These issues—Roman primacy and Orthodox divisiveness—represent two sides of the same coin that I would present to any Catholic considering leaving for Orthodoxy because of Rome’s contemporary crises. The Catholic Church, unlike her Eastern brethren, possesses a principle of unity that has been essential to her guidance and preservation through the centuries. Surely, she has sometimes been poorly led by the papacy. Yet this principle has enabled the Church to weather precisely the problem that has plagued Orthodoxy—ethnic and national conflicts. Attempts at such “Catholic nationalism” (e.g., Gallicanism or the Polish Catholic Church) have failed, and what remains of these movements reflects only dying branches severed from the source. Furthermore, contrary to Orthodox arguments, there is plentiful historical evidence for Rome’s primacy, not only ministerially, but magisterially.

Finally, God himself has given us reason to believe in the Catholic conception of Roman magisterial authority through the continued availability of motives of credibility. Though some of these are not unique to Catholicism (e.g., miracles recorded in historical Scriptural documents or the testimony of the early Church), others are. No Christian institution has holier saints. No institution has been able, against all odds, to maintain her level of visible unity, nor continued to grow in numbers and holiness. Yes, it’s undoubtedly true, our Church is currently suffering a tremendous crisis, one that is doing terrible harm to her witness to the world. Yet our Church continues to possess the identity, tools, and inner potency to overcome them, as Christ has proven to us generation after generation. It would be foolhardy to leave her now, even for a Church containing all the beauty, truth, and spiritual power of the Orthodox.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


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