Monday, May 27, 2002

Our family spent the Memorial Day weekend alternating rest and farm work. For a reminder of why we have a long weekend this time of year, go to Victor Davis Hanson's (himself a family farmer) moving story of a family member who gave all for his country.
Father Nectarios at Orthopraxis has been linking coverage of the Pope's trip to Bulgaria. One of the articles states "Now, John Paul has returned to the road to pursue what he views as a last piece of unfinished business: ending the 1,000-year schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy." A noble ambition, to say the least. This Pope has addressed the Orthodox Churches with more sympathy for, and understanding of, Orthodoxy than have virtually any of his predecessors. Nonetheless the schism persists and shows no signs of healing in his lifetime.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine has commented on the impasse in Catholic/Orthodox relations in the March issue and again in May. It appears to be a source of some frustration for him, as if he were wondering, "How can they disappoint this good man, this great Pope, at the end of his days?" He quotes some words of veteran Catholic ecumenist Walter Cardinal Kasper which reveal the frustration from Rome's end and unwittingly highlight the problem from the Orthodox perspective: “We are increasingly conscious of the fact that an Orthodox Church does not really exist. At the present stage, it does not seem that Constantinople is yet capable of integrating the different autocephalous Orthodox churches. There are doubts about its primacy of honor, especially in Moscow.” Neuhaus goes on to say that "The unhappy truth, however, is that probably most Orthodox in the world do not believe that Catholics, never mind Protestants, are even validly baptized".

The Cardinal's remarks and Neuhaus' show that, at a gut level, Rome still doesn't "get" it. To grossly oversimplify, Kasper is saying that the schism will not end until the Orthodox become more like Rome, that is, until there is a command structure over all Orthodox Churches that can make binding decisions and with whom there can be dialog. Over against this is the Orthodox insistence on the ecclesiastic primacy of the local bishop, which persists despite any primacy of honor given to any one particular bishop. As Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) put it:

All eucharists and all bishops are local in character -- at least in their primary sense. In a eucharistic view of the Church this means that the local Church . . . is the only form of ecclesial existence which can be properly called Church. All structures aiming at facilitating the universality of the Church create a network of communion of Churches, not a new form of Church. (italics in original) (From Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church)

The Orthodox suspicion is that Rome has taken its traditional primacy of honor and turned it into a new form of Church, one which we cannot recognize as true to the Scriptures and to the Fathers. Granted that relations between the local Orthodox Churches appear to be in a perpetual state of crisis, but underneath the nationalistic politics and arguments over precedence, there is a profound unity in faith. The Orthodox do not at this time feel the same unity of faith with the Roman Church. This accounts for the difficulty Neuhaus notes over baptism. "Validity" of baptism is not one item on an ecumenical agenda that can be dissected and discussed in isolation from other issues. When the monastics of Mount Athos were asked to explain their reluctance to support the official dialogues with the Roman Church, Archimandrite Vasileios, then abbot of Stavronikita monastery, responded, not with a treatise on ecumenical dialogue, but with his luminous work Hymn of Entry, an extended meditation on the Liturgy. The question from the Orthodox side is not, do we recognize the baptismal practices of this community, but rather, do we recognize the fullness of the Orthodox faith in this community, however strangely expressed. If full mutual recognition of faith is there, then recognition of baptism, and all other sacraments, is a housekeeping matter, or, in Greek, economia.

It may well be that the current ecumenical dialogue is dead. Or it could be that the impasse will inspire in both sides that deeper apprehension of faith which alone will result in true unity.