What Not to Learn from Eastern Orthodoxy

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortaiton, Evangelii Gaudium, raised eyebrows within and beyond the Catholic world for what the Sovereign Pontiff had to say on things economic. Considerably less attention was paid to the document’s other discussions which range from the so-called New Evangelization to matters of Church governance. On this latter point, the Pope suggested, in line with the Second Vatican Council, that the local episcopal conferences, “like the ancient patriarchal Churches … are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit’” before lamenting that this desire has not been fully realized, since “a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.” Further down in the exhortation, Francis offered a nod of approval to the ongoing Catholic/Eastern Orthodox dialogue which, in his mind, provides “the opportunity [for Catholics] to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and [the Orthodox] experience of synodality.” That statement was pregnant with unintended irony.

Barely a month after Evangelii Gaudium was issued, the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch (EP) of Constantinople launched into a very public and unedifying spat over the meaning of primacy in the Orthodox Church. Though opinions differ, it appears that one of the main impetuses for the exchange was the EP’s call for Orthodox leaders to assemble for the purposes of laying out an agenda for a “Great and Holy Council” which Constantinople hopes will take place in 2016. It is a well-known fact that the MP and EP have been engaged in a tug of war for practical primacy in the Orthodox Church since the former’s resurgence after the fall of Communism in Russia. While the EP retains a high position of dignity in the Orthodox world due to its historic link to Eastern Christendom’s crown-jewel city, today the heir of the ecumenical throne, Bartholomew I, directly oversees a tiny flock living a mostly ghetto existence in Istanbul, Turkey.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Patriarch Kirill I can be seen rubbing elbows with Russian President Vladimir Putin as his church continues to re-evangelize Russia and, more controversially, exert considerable political influence in Russian society. As the head of the single largest Orthodox body with parishes spread across the globe, the MP, in the eyes of many, looks to be the authentic leader of world Orthodoxy even if its governance and magisterial authority is, canonically speaking, circumscribed. Collegiality at the pan-Orthodox level appears to have given way to concrete numbers and the pragmatic authority which accompanies them. At this juncture, a “Great and Holy Council” for Orthodoxy in 2016—or at any other point in the foreseeable future—seems unlikely.

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Closer to home in the West, the overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions in the Americas have provided another reason for Catholics to give pause concerning the supposed virtues of collegiality and synodality. Formed in 2009, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America was intended to lay the groundwork for the formation of a unified American Orthodox Church which would no longer be divided along ethnic lines while being under the authority of the EP. This, too, has started to rapidly unravel. On January 15, 2014, the secretary of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)—an autonomous body of the Russian Church which remains linked with the MP—sent a letter to the Assembly rebuking its early plans to work toward an independent American Church while asserting its canonical right to serve the Russian “diaspora” (and those attached to it) without external interference. Less than a week later, the bishops of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America—the second largest Orthodox jurisdiction on the continent after the Greek Church—withdrew from the Assembly completely, citing an ongoing territorial quarrel in Qatar between the Antiochians and the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem as the impetus for the decision.

Some might see these recent events as unfortunate aberrations in the otherwise healthy governance life of the Orthodox Church, but they would be wrong to do so. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Orthodox history has been littered, and some might uncharitably say defined, by internecine strife and factionalism as those few local Orthodox churches which were not under the Muslim heel rose in practical importance while the more ancient patriarchates receded into obscurity. In the 20th Century large swathes of Orthodox remained out of communion with particular churches for a mixture of jurisdictional, doctrinal, and chauvinistic reasons. While the situation has improved, one has to wonder how long it will last. In addition to the aforementioned dispute in Qatar, there is ongoing acrimony in Estonia, Macedonia, and Ukraine which currently has three different Orthodox churches vying for control. With the EP and MP currently at each other’s throats, how long until they break communion with each other?

The point of summarizing these events is not to provide Catholics with a cheap opportunity to engage in triumphalism over the Orthodox but rather to offer the Church of Rome and the sui iuris churches in communion with her an opportunity to reflect on what collegiality and synodality has meant, as a practical matter, to the second largest Christian communion in the world. While outside afflictions in the form of Islamic invasions and Communist oppression warrant more than a bit of the blame for Orthodoxy’s woes, it cannot be denied that its confederate model of governance—loose, self-driven, and unreliable as it is—has neutralized the Orthodox Church’s attempt to collectively assert itself against the rising tide of secularism while also addressing a myriad of matters which bear directly on faith and morals.

Take, for instance, the issue of contraception. It is no exaggeration that a faithful Orthodox Christian can go to three different priests in the same American city and receive three disparate answers expressing everything from absolute prohibition to prohibition of abortifacient only to complete permissibility. Who is right? Who is wrong? Even if the local ruling bishop of a given priest speaks authoritatively on the matter (which is rare), there’s always another hierarch of another jurisdiction who may go the other way. The problem does not stop there. Fr. John Whiteford, a prominent priest and commentator in ROCOR, recently opined that one of the possible motivators for his church’s decision to distance itself from the Bishops’ Assembly was because other North American Orthodox jurisdictions “have laymen in good standing, and even clergy, who are openly advocating for gay marriage, and proclaim that committed monogamous homosexual relationships are not sinful.” What authority exists in Orthodoxy to tell them otherwise?

Of course the Catholic Church is not without its serious catechetical confusion and oversight shortfalls. Though the final word on the matter has yet to be issued, talk of schism is still in the air as Germany’s bishops are poised to allow Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without having their first union annulled. Under a potential model borrowed from Orthodoxy, whereby the local bishops’ conference in Germany is handed—to use Pope Francis’ words—“genuine doctrinal authority,” what, or who, could authoritatively stop them from taking such an erroneous decision? At some point—hopefully sooner rather than later—Rome would have to speak and speak forcefully. However, if the EP tomorrow did the unthinkable and began to bless same-sex unions, what would follow from this? Perhaps a public admonishment from the MP or other local Orthodox churches, backed up by some dusty old canons, might be issued along with threats of excommunication, but at the end of the day it would be business as usual in Orthodoxy.

Our separated brethren in the East (including those now living in the West) have much instruction to offer Catholicism, particularly Roman Catholicism. The beauty, integrity, and reverence of Orthodox liturgy should put us to shame for the barrage of banalities and (sometimes literal) clownishness which invaded Roman Rite worship in the wake of Vatican II. Orthodox theology, despite the insistence of some concerning its intrinsic “anti-Western” bent and “impenetrable mysticism,” offers a complementary pathway to truth built on the towering thought of the Eastern Doctors who are part of the entire Church’s intellectual patrimony. In a sense Pope Francis was right: we ought to look at Orthodoxy’s experience of collegiality and synodality, albeit as a sobering warning rather than a ready-made model for imitation.

Editor’s note: The photo above was taken March 9 at a summit of Eastern Orthodox patriarchs in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo credit: Patriarchal Press Service.)


  • Gabriel S. Sanchez

    Gabriel S. Sanchez is an author and independent researcher living with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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