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Orthodox-Catholic Unity?

By Frederica Mathewes-Green

Originally published by The Wall Street Journal, Jul 15, 2005. Reproduced here courtesy of the author.


"The need is felt to join forces and spare no energies" to renew dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, said Pope Benedict XVI. In comments to delegates of the Patriarch of Constantinople on June 30, the pope explained that "the unity we seek is neither absorption nor fusion, but respect for the multiform fullness of the Church."

Outsiders may wonder: Why don’t those two venerable denominations just kiss and make up? From the outside, they look a lot alike. Each church claims roots in earliest Christian history. The dispute that split them is a thousand years old. Isn’t it time to move on?

It is my own Orthodox brethren who appear to be the cranky partners. Catholics have been making friendly overtures for more than a decade now. Pope John Paul II even said that the extent of papal power-over which the two churches split in the 11th century-could be "open to a new situation." Both churches hold as ideal a united body with Rome as "first among equals." Yet the Orthodox drag their feet, sometimes seeming downright rude. A Catholic friend tells me that the attitude seems to be: "Take this olive branch and shove it."

The Orthodox Church is smaller and less powerful, so we don’t get much opportunity to explain how things seem from our perspective. But it comes down to two words: "unity" and "chaos."

From a Roman Catholic perspective, unity is created by the institution of the church. Within that unity there can be diversity; not everyone agrees with official teaching, some very loudly. What holds things together is membership. This kind of unity makes immediate sense to Americans: Whatever their disagreements, everyone salutes the flag, and all Catholics salute, if not technically obey, Rome’s magisterium.

When Roman Catholics look at Orthodoxy, they don’t see a centralized, global institution. Instead, the church appears to be a jumble of national and ethnic bodies (a situation even more confused in the U.S. as a result of immigration). To Catholics, the Orthodox Church looks like chaos.

But from an Orthodox perspective, unity is created by believing the same things. It’s like the unity among vegetarians or Red Sox fans. You don’t need a big bureaucracy to keep them faithful. Across wildly diverse cultures, Orthodox Christians show remarkable unity in their faith. (Of course there are plenty of power struggles and plain old sin, but the essential faith isn’t challenged.) What’s the source of this common faith? The consensus of the early church, which the Orthodox stubbornly keep following. That consensus was forged with many a bang and dent, but for the past millenium major questions of faith and morals have been pretty much at rest in the Eastern hemisphere.

This has not been the case in the West. An expanded role for the pope was followed by other theological developments, even regarding how salvation is achieved. In the American church, there is widespread upheaval. From the Orthodox perspective, the Catholic Church looks like chaos.

This is hard for Catholics to understand; for them, the institution of the church is the main thing. If the church would enforce its teachings, some adherents say, there would be unity. The Orthodox respond: But faith must be organic. If you have to force people to it, you’ve already lost the battle; that wouldn’t be unity at all.

So we’ve got two different definitions of "unity." Is "unity" membership in a common institution or a bond of shared belief? The Orthodox take their cue from Christ’s prayer to his Father, "that they all may be one, even as we are one." What kind of unity do the Father and the Son have? They are not held together by an outside force; they are one in essence and have a common mind. If we are "partakers of the divine nature," as St. Peter said, then, the Orthodox believe, we’ll participate in that mind. That’s what makes us the "body of Christ," the church.

Thus the Orthodox hesitate at a phrase like the pope’s "multiform fullness." Catholic diversity makes it easy for Catholics to embrace us: When they look at us, they see the early church. We fit right in. But when the Orthodox look at Catholics, we see an extra thousand years of theological development, plus rebellion in the pews. What kind of unity do Catholics have, at present, that we could enter?

There are plenty of good reasons for the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to talk. Discussion clears away misunderstanding, and common causes can benefit from the energies of both churches. But we can’t be fully united until we agree on what "unity" means.