The search for unity

“Hail East and West, for whom both we fight and from both we are fought!”
— St. Gregory the Theologian

In 2011, I published “Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity” (University of Notre Dame Press, $38). There I tackled what serious observers describe as the one final substantial hurdle to unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Church: the role of the pope. The picture on the front cover features a beaming Pope Benedict XVI and beaming Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, arms united upward as though in victory salute at the latter’s church in Constantinople during a visit in 2006.

Now, this month, the imagery will soon be of Pope Francis and Bartholomew making their way to the Holy Land for another encounter. Though they have already met — Bartholomew made history by being the first patriarch from Constantinople to attend a papal inauguration last year — the encounter this year is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras meeting in Jerusalem in 1964. That gathering was the beginning of what has often been called the “dialogue of love” between the Eastern and Western churches after more than 900 years of estrangement.

After 50 years of this dialogue, where are we? How has the relationship changed over time, and what roles have the last several popes played in bringing Catholics and Orthodox closer? And what remains for us to finally achieve unity?

Beginning of the divide

If you pick up many standard textbook histories of East-West relations and subsequent division, you normally get confronted very quickly with the year 1054, which is very often described as the Great Schism between East and West. But history is messy. It is not as if everything was wonderful until one day in July 1054 when catastrophe struck and Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch Cerularius decided to tear the Church apart. Indeed, things already began to fall apart after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 when, in a Christological dispute that today seems largely due to linguistic misunderstanding, the Churches of Armenia, Syria and Egypt parted company from the rest of the Church and remain divided from us still today, though the reasons for that remain hard to fathom after decades of dialogue and signed agreements.

Pope St. John Paul II and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embrace on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica following three days of private meetings in 1995. The two pledged renewed efforts toward unity and called on Catholics and Orthodox to do the same. CNS photo

Both before and after Chalcedon, Christians in the first millennium were conflicted and divided with some regularity — an important fact to underscore against those who romanticize the “first millennium” as a golden age of harmony. Many of these divisions, especially between the fourth and eighth centuries, were over questions of Christology (and intrinsically related questions such as Mariology and iconology). But as time went on, divisions erupted for other, much more mundane reasons. The deeper we get into the first millennium, the more we find Christians growing apart in ways that differing language, geography and culture exacerbated.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West by the late fifth century, we see even greater linguistic division and cultural isolation both within the Western Church and vis-a-vis the East. With the rise of Islam in the East in the early seventh century, we see similar challenges facing the Christian East; and soon these external pressures and internal challenges affect both East and West to such an extent as to leave little opportunity to talk to or learn from each other, which was itself made more difficult by the loss of Greek as a common language in the West and the loss of Latin speakers in the East. In sum, all these pressures take their toll on the Church, and she rather staggers toward the end of the first millennium with relations between East and West having been rather severely strained and not infrequently broken for a time (as in, e.g., the Photian schism of 863-67), patched up for a time, broken again and patched up again.

The last straw

Thus when we get to the events of 1054, nobody then or for centuries after conceived of them as being completely, permanently and universally “church-dividing.” They seemed, rather, simply to be yet another case of a temporary squabble and a temporary break in communion soon to be patched up once more. Neither side saw 1054 as the creation of a “Roman Catholic West” and an “Eastern Orthodox East,” which is how it is sometimes portrayed. Neither side thought that their excommunication of the other was anything other than very localized and short-term. Indeed, there is well-known evidence that Catholics and Orthodox (as we would say today) continued to commemorate each other liturgically and to give and receive the Eucharist down through the 11th-14th centuries and in some places (the Greek Islands, and later the Soviet Union — for different reasons — and Syria even today) for many centuries after that.

What is generally thought to have sealed the split — and certainly poisoned relations for centuries afterward — was the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. The short version is that many Latin Christians behaved in a beastly fashion in the churches of Constantinople in 1204, scandalizing Eastern Christians for centuries after. Pope St. John Paul II apologized for these actions in Athens in 2001. (Orthodox outrage over this event overlooks the fact that the Latin Catholics in Constantinople had been brutally massacred in a pogrom in the city by the Orthodox in 1182, a fact long known to historians but never officially acknowledged by any Orthodox sources. Thus do we see the messiness of history and realize that we all have much to confess.)

After the Fourth Crusade, and with the empire in the East on the verge of final collapse at the hands of Islam in the early 15th century, East and West met in Italy — first in Ferrara and later Florence at the last council of union ever to meet. Issues were discussed, terms agreed upon, and everyone went home thinking the divisions in the Church had been patched up. But the bishops no sooner got home than the people, particularly in the East, revolted, refusing to accept the union of East and West, and the whole thing collapsed. After this, the Catholic Church changed tactics, and instead of working for comprehensive unity with all of Orthodoxy, began, after the 1590s, to enter into unions with individual Orthodox churches in places such as what we today call Ukraine and Romania. These proved controversial at the time and have remained so today, with Eastern Catholics often viewed suspiciously by both Catholics (as being insufficiently Roman) and Orthodox (as being insufficiently Orthodox and, indeed, traitors to Orthodoxy).

John Paul II’s wisdom

I mention all this history because I have become utterly convinced — the more so with each passing year — of the wisdom of the late Pope John Paul II who, almost from the first moments of his pontificate in 1978, began to use an inspired phrase: the “healing of memories.” For many of us today, we do not know the history of Christian division in objective detail, but we have grown up with “memories” of a division that shape our identity today, often unconsciously and unwittingly. This is what I call identity by negation: He is Roman Catholic, which means he is not Orthodox; she is Greek Orthodox, which means she is not Southern Baptist. In other words, I am what you are not, and if we are honest, most of us rather prefer it this way. Only if you become what I am will the problem of Christian division be solved. This is what is called the “ecumenism of return.”

That model was gradually abandoned by the Catholic Church starting at Vatican II, and it was definitively repudiated by Pope Benedict XVI in August 2005. At the end of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras solemnly and jointly lifted the excommunications pronounced in 1054 and sought to “remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church.” They recognized in December 1965 that the way forward was not by return to a mythical past, or to a “mother church” from which contumacious children had strayed. Over the last half-century we have come to see that the way to solve Christian division does not consist in all Presbyterians becoming Greek Orthodox, or all Russian Orthodox becoming Roman Catholics. It requires all of us to convert ever more deeply to Christ and to find our unity in him who is our way, truth and life.

Until and unless we can let go of such divided identities in some form and recognize that we are all Christians, we will not make much progress toward unity. The challenge today is not only to heal memories of our past — which requires mutual confession of fault and mutual forgiveness — but also to begin building a new identity of a united future. That is a far taller order than many realize, and it must begin with a basic question: Do we desire unity? Do we want it? Do we see it as a priority? And are we willing to fight our own selfishness and sinfulness to achieve it?

Call for unity

Pope John Paul II clearly wanted unity and was clearly willing to fight for it. He published an unprecedented agreement in 1994 with the head of the Assyrian Church of the East over Christological disputes going back to Chalcedon in the fourth century. And in 2001, with that same church, he found a way for Chaldean Catholics (primarily in Iraq, many of them killed or driven out since the 2003 war) to share the Eucharist with the Assyrians through a recognition of the latter’s eucharistic liturgy in an unprecedentedly generous understanding of some complicated issues. But without doubt the pope’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May be One”) remains the most revolutionary such document of the 20th century, challenging all Christians, but especially Catholics, to find fresh ways of thinking and acting that would allow for Christian unity.

Thinkstock photo

His yearning for unity and willingness to spare no effort in seeking it out was palpable, but nearly 20 years later we still have not lived up to the challenges he laid out for us, as Pope Francis explicitly recognized in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) when he flatly said of John Paul’s request “we have made little progress in this regard” (No. 32).

John Paul’s desire for unity was thwarted by events: The mid-1990s were not kind to Orthodox-Catholic relations when the Soviet Union collapsed and the previously suppressed Eastern Catholic Churches emerged from the underground. Eastern Catholic Churches in Ukraine and Romania had been forcibly incorporated into their Orthodox counterparts by the communists after the Second World War. When they emerged with the collapse of communism, some Orthodox were both furious and embarrassed that their record of collusion and suppression was not only unsuccessful but was now coming to light alongside these previously underground and illegal Catholic churches.

Some Orthodox, chiefly the Russians, demanded that Rome herself now suppress these newly emergent churches, and when Rome declined this fatuous offer, many Orthodox in turn petulantly insisted on a halt to ecumenical dialogue. It continued on, albeit amidst much tension, and in 1993 in Balamand, Lebanon, both sides agreed that the method of signing unions with individual Orthodox churches must never again happen, and instead only corporate reunion, between all of Catholicism and all of Orthodoxy, would be the acceptable way forward.

Benedict steps in

But by Pope John Paul’s death in 2005, any remaining unpleasantness from the 1990s had begun to wane, and Orthodox-Catholic relations began to warm again. In 2007, the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue produced a landmark statement, the so-called Ravenna document, which discussed the papacy, and ecclesial structures generally, in a new and frank way. Those discussions are continuing today, although as recently as December 2013, fresh tensions over this document emerged internally in Orthodoxy, with the Russian Church diverging from all the other Orthodox churches on the question of primacy.

Progress continued under Pope Benedict XVI, who had, in various comments over the years (most notably a famous lecture in Graz in 1976) made what seemed extraordinarily generous comments about the East and about Catholic rapprochement with her. But then early in his pontificate, he made a decision that caused little short of panic among some Orthodox when he deleted the title “Patriarch of the West” from the Annuario Pontificio — the annual directory of the Holy See. This was badly handled and poorly explained and needlessly inflamed Orthodox anxiety.

I argued, based on things Benedict had written in the 1990s and as late as 2002, that this was in fact a very good sign: He was taking the first steps, I thought hopefully, toward the creation of robust regional patriarchates in the Latin Church, and the first step was clarifying what is in fact a very vague title (what does “of the West” mean today?). But the decision languished after it was announced in March 2006 and was never followed up with what I assumed to be a timetable for further action. A lot of Orthodox feared this was some kind of retrenchment or renewed Roman centralization, and though those fears proved to be unfounded, so too did the hopes of those of us expecting ecclesiastical re-organization.

Be that as it may, Benedict did journey to Constantinople in 2006 for a very successful visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch. In addition, the 2007 decision of Benedict, in Summorum Pontificum regarding the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (sometimes inaccurately called the “Latin Mass” or “Tridentine Rite”), was welcomed by some Orthodox, especially the Russians, as an encouraging sign that Rome was again serious about liturgical beauty and reverence and about recovering a vital part of her tradition.

The biggest change Benedict wrought to our understanding of the papacy came through resigning the office. This gesture was a wonderful and welcome “demythologizing” of the “personality cult” surrounding the modern papacy. Even before John Paul II died, Benedict — even before he became pope — had made clear his distinct unease with how much focus was fixed on the pope and how unhealthy this could be for the Church — a concern Orthodoxy has shared for centuries.

That resignation paved the way, of course, for the election of Pope Francis, and I was struck by this: In his first few words from the loggia in Rome that evening, he invoked some of the oldest words ever used to describe his new office. The Church of Rome, he said, is the one “which presides in charity over all the Churches,” a phrase of Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr somewhere around the turn of the second century. Ignatius, of course, had a vastly different understanding of Roman primacy than many hold today. What view does Francis himself hold? In some ways, the signs indicate a very restrained understanding of the papacy; but other signs suggest (with considerable irony) he is not at all averse to using the power of his office to force through possible changes such as a considerable devolution of powers to bishops around the world. We need to wait a bit to get a fuller understanding, and to wait, moreover, the report from his council of eight cardinals on structural changes in the Church.

Moving forward

Where are we today, and were might we be going? As pope and patriarch gather in Jerusalem to look back on 50 years — and look forward to the next 50 — what items remain to be resolved? Clearly, the papacy continues to be discussed, and indeed for some time now has been the dominant issue on the agenda of the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. How can the pope be a minister of unity for the whole Church without micromanaging the Orthodox churches? That, in a nutshell, is the challenge, and it’s a considerable, but by no means insurmountable, challenge.

What other issues remain? The answer depends on whom you ask. For most Catholics, unity could happen tomorrow if the question of the papacy were sorted out — there really are almost no other objections or issues. I mean no triumphalism or sanctimony whatsoever when I say that many, likely most, Catholics would welcome unity immediately and, to the extent they cared about it at all, would be happy to have the issue settled.

But Orthodoxy is not nearly so settled on the question. Some would warmly welcome unity, but others have been vocal for some time in expressing hostility to unity with Catholics in the most virulent terms and denouncing their own bishops for any dialogue with Catholics. In witness of this very mixed situation, consider two recent events in the news: In Worcester, Massachusetts, on Easter Monday this year, the local Roman Catholic bishop was invited by the local Greek Orthodox bishop to the latter’s cathedral for a celebration of Easter, which was the same this year on both Eastern and Western calendars. Bishop Robert McManus was warmly welcomed by Metropolitan Methodios of Boston. The two have cooperated in the past on joint Catholic-Orthodox events and pilgrimages and have very cordial relations.

But only days earlier, during Holy Week, two other Greek Orthodox bishops, this time in Greece itself, wrote an 89-page harangue to “His Excellency, Francis, Head of State of the Vatican City,” thus refusing even such basic courtesies as using the proper titles for addressees of one’s correspondence — they refused to call Francis “pope” or even “bishop.” But that was a mere trifle compared to the contents of this comically absurd letter, a real omnium gatherum of fantasies, conspiracies, and other rubbish about Masons, Catholics as “heretics,” and popes as demonic. Then, in a final flourish, the bishops proffered a vile anti-Semitic screed that accused the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI of cozying up to the “satanic” Jews. It is, of course, impossible to take this pompous and puerile document seriously, though it is a salutary reminder once again of the importance of the healing of memories, and of the necessity of moving gradually toward unity lest we re-enact the fiasco of Florence’s failure.

What remains?

It’s obvious that some Orthodox are not willing to move quickly — if at all — toward unity with Catholics, and many Orthodox would first require some reassurances, if not bold action, on several issues, beginning perhaps with the filioque, the clause in the Nicene Creed that proclaims the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Orthodox and Catholic scholars for 20 years now have discussed this issue and agreed that it is not church-dividing, but some Orthodox still feel that the Church in the West lacked the authority to unilaterally alter a creed that was decided upon by the consensus of an ecumenical council, and that the Western Church needs to return to using the creed as it was originally written without the Latin interpolation. Thus, Christians would all together once more process our faith in “the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.”

Other areas touch on Church discipline and governance. Those teaching Catholic theology in the name of the Church would need to do so in a demonstrably faithful (“orthodox”) way. Those celebrating the Church’s liturgy would need to do so in a way that avoids much of the silliness, the slovenliness and the banality that still afflict Masses today. The Orthodox would want to know that their own system of electing and disciplining bishops would remain free of Roman curial interference. And they would want it clearly understood that their own tradition (which is also the tradition of Eastern Catholics and those Anglican and Lutheran clergy who are now Catholic priests) of ordaining married men to the priesthood would remain untouched, and nobody would be forced to adopt celibacy.

Another area, which few of us have begun seriously to grapple with, touches both doctrine and discipline: marriage. Here, if anywhere, is where ecumenism becomes real for many people living in mixed or irregular marriages. This discussion about marriage discipline has only recently begun among Catholics, as we have seen this year, but it may yet present issues of considerable magnitude and messiness. In brief, how are we to reconcile what seem to be somewhat differing disciplines in the Catholic and Orthodox Church for Christians who divorce civilly and want to be married (again) sacramentally? Would everyone have to get a declaration of nullity? Would those divorced and remarried remain ineligible for the Eucharist or, after a period of suitable penance, would they be welcomed again at the Lord’s table? Would we require consistent practice retroactively, or only going forward together as Orthodox and Catholics in one Church? Nobody has the answers here because nobody’s been asking the questions until very recently.

As we look back over 50 years, we have much cause for rejoicing and gratitude at the progress that has been made. But there is much work ahead. In the coming weeks, months and years, Catholics must continue, as Pope John Paul II said in Orientale Lumen, to grow in love, knowledge and esteem for their Eastern Christian brethren. Spend time learning about the East, valuing her unique heritage and patrimony, and coming to see that our differences are not contradictory, but complementary. Would it not be grand if, by 2054 — 1,000 years after the Church was torn apart — we could have the pope and patriarchs and heads of all the Orthodox Churches gather once more to celebrate the Eucharist together and to proclaim, at long last, the healing of a grievous wound to the Body of Christ?

Adam A.J. DeVille is a professor in the Department of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis (Indiana).

Differences in Liturgies
In general, the West-Roman liturgical traditions ...