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The Myth of Schism

The Myth of Schism

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Published by akimel
by David Bentley Hart
by David Bentley Hart

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Published by: akimel on Jun 05, 2013
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THE MYTH OF SCHISM by David Bentley HartThe division between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches—officially almost amillennium old, but in many ways far older—has often enough been characterized asthe ineluctable effect of one or another irreconcilable and irreducible difference: political(Caesars and Czars as opposed to princes and popes), cultural (Greek or Byzantine asopposed to Latin or Frankish), theological (divergent views of nature and grace ororiginal sin), doctrinal (the filioque clause, papal infallibility, and so on), ritual (leavenedbread and icons as opposed to azymes and statuary), ecclesiological (patriarchalpentarchy and sobornost as opposed to universal papal jurisdiction and monarchia),even ‘ontological’—to cite the somewhat hermetic language once employed by theOecumenical Patriarch. (I hope that this last was a case of mistranslation, I must note,as I should be inconsolable if I discovered that we do not even now have being incommon.) And, because these various distinctions have been drawn only rarely in aspirit of critical detachment, uncontaminated by some element of squalid recrimination,it has usually proved difficult to separate matters of real significance from those raisedfor purposes either purely polemical or ultimately frivolous. Every serious ecumenicalengagement between the Orthodox and Catholic communions reveals depth upondepth of substantial agreement, and yet always fades upon the midnight knell, as eachside ruefully acknowledges the perplexing refractoriness and stubborn persistence ofdifferences that lie (apparently) deeper still. Always an abiding sense of some ever moredeterminative—and yet, curiously, ever more indeterminate—essential differenceovershadows every conversation (however charitable) that attempts to span the divide.And this sense serves constantly to temper our elation over whatever meagre accordswe strike, to imbue our continued division with an almost mystical aura of inevitability,and to resign us fatalistically to our failures and to the failure of our love.By all rights, however, Pope John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint should have inaugurated anew era in the ecumenical relations between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Thereis, of course, nothing remarkable in the author of Orientale Lumen—that hymn of love toEastern Christianity—expressing so fervent a desire for reconciliation with the East; butnothing, I think, could have prepared anyone for the extraordinary overture John Paulmade in stating that he wished for a conversation with other Christians (especially, itseems obvious, with those of the East) regarding papal primacy, one in which the issueof the pope’s ecclesial jurisdiction would be open. Indeed, it was so surprising a gesturethat neither the Orthodox nor the Catholic Church seems yet to know how to react to it.And yet, of course, it touches upon the one real issue that the two churches mustaddress directly. If we are sufficiently reflective and free of absurd prejudices, most of uswould grant that the truly central question that we must approach together is how weare to understand church authority, apostolic authority, and episcopal authority inrelation to the Petrine office and to the papal privilege regarding enunciation of dogma.If we were allowed to discuss this, free from any anxiety regarding other concerns,many other issues surely would resolve themselves, as obviously subordinate to thisone great concern. But here, as it happens, is the very question I wish to raise in what
follows: Will we ever indeed be allowed really to have that conversation? I ask this,because, the most intransigent and extreme members of our respective communions—and those, I fear, who in the East are usually at present the most impassioned andobstreperous among us—seem often incapable or unwilling to acknowledge anyrecognizable distinction between substantial and accidental differences, between realand imagined difficulties, between obvious and merely suppositious theological issues,and between matters of negligible import and those that lie at the heart of our division.As regards my own communion, I must reluctantly report that there are some EasternChristians who have become incapable of defining what it is to be Orthodox except incontradistinction to Roman Catholicism; and among these are a small but volublenumber who have (I sometimes suspect) lost any rationale for their Orthodoxy otherthan their profound hatred, deranged terror, and encyclopaedic ignorance of Rome. Forsuch as these, there can never be any limit set to the number of grievances that need tobe cited against Rome, nor any act of contrition on the part of Rome sufficient forabsolution.There was something inherently strange in the spectacle of John Paul asking pardon forthe 1204 sack of Constantinople and its sequel; but there is something inherentlyunseemly in the refusal of certain Eastern polemicists to allow the episode to sink backto the level of utter irrelevancy to which it belongs. (In any event, I eagerly await the daywhen the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a gesture of unqualified Christian contrition,makes public penance for the brutal mass slaughter of the metic Latin Christians ofByzantium—men, women, and children—at the rise of Andronicus I Comnenus in 1182,and the sale of thousands of them into slavery to the Turks. Frankly, when all is said anddone, the sack of 1204 was a rather mild recompense for that particular abomination, Iwould think.)Now, on the one hand, I am obviously talking about a certain kind of ecclesial extremist,of the sort who can imagine no version of the Catholic faith that does not conform inevery detail to the practices and prejudices of his childhood; and all of our churchescontain such persons. Of course, in almost every case, the great irony of such persons—whether they be ultramontanist Catholics or what we call the ‘ultra-Orthodox’—is thatwhat they generally take to be the immemorial heritage of the Catholic faith is thedistinctly modern form of the church that happened to hold sway in the days when theirinfant minds still luxuriated in idyllic pliancy. Thus when a certain kind of militantlyconservative Catholic priest is heard to claim that the celibate priesthood was theuniversal practice of the early church, established by Christ in his apostles, and thattherefore even married Catholic priests of the Eastern rites possess defective orders,the historically astute among us should recognize that such a delusion is possible onlyfor a person having no understanding of the priesthood more sophisticated than hispristine boyish memories of Fr O’Reilly’s avuncular geniality, and the shining example ofhis contented bachelorhood, and the calm authority with which he presided over the lifeof the parish church of St Anne of Green Gables. And when this same priest venturestheological or ecclesiological opinions, it is almost certain that what he takes to beapostolic Catholicism will turn out to be a particular kind of post-Tridentine Baroque
Catholicism, kept buoyantly afloat upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles of anantiquity no hoarier than 1729.Similarly, when a certain kind of Greek Orthodox anti-papal demagogue claims that theEastern Church has always rejected the validity of the sacraments of the ‘Latinschismatics’, or that that the real church schism dates back to the eighth century whenthe Orthodox Church became estranged from the Roman over the latter’s ‘rejection’ ofthe (14th-century) distinction between God’s essence and energies, the historicallyliterate among us should recognize that what he takes to be apostolic Orthodoxy is infact based upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles that reach back only to1755, and upon principles of theological interpretation first enunciated in 1942, andupon an interpretation of ecclesiastical history that dates from whenever theprescriptions for his medications expired.On the other hand, though it is true that such persons are extremists, it is also true thatthey represent merely the acute manifestation of a chronic pathology. In truth, the mostunpleasant aspect of the current state of the division between East and West is thesheer inventiveness with which those ardently committed to that division have goneabout fabricating ever pro founder and more radical reasons for it. Our distant Christianforebears were content to despise one another over the most minimal of matters—leavened or unleavened Eucharistic bread, for instance, or veneration of unconsecratedelements—without ever bothering to suppose that these differences were symptomaticof anything deeper than themselves. Today, however, a grand mythology has evolvedregarding the theological dispositions of the Eastern and Western Christendom, to theeffect that the theologies of the Eastern and Western Catholic traditions have obeyedcontrary logics and have in consequence arrived at conclusions inimical each to theother—that is to say, the very essence of what we believe is no longer compatible. I donot believe that, before the middle of the 20th century, claims were ever made regardingthe nature of the division as radical as those one finds not only in the works of inaneagitators like the altogether absurd and execrable John Romanides, but also in theworks of theologians of genuine stature, such as Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, orJohn Zizioulas in the East or Erich Przywara or Hans Urs von Balthasar in the West;and until those claims are defeated—as well they should be, as they are withoutexception entirely fanciful—we cannot reasonably hope for anything but impasse.Now, speaking only for my tradition, I think I can identify fairly easily where Orthodoxtheology has fallen prey to this mythology. Eastern Orthodox theology gained a greatdeal from the—principally Russian—neo-patristic and neo-Palamite revolution duringthe last century, and especially from the work of Vladimir Lossky. Indeed, in the wake ofthe Bolshevik revolution, the very fate of Orthodoxy had become doubtful to many, andso the energy with which Lossky applied himself to a new patristic synthesis that wouldmake clear the inmost essence of Orthodoxy is certainly understandable; but theproblems bequeathed to Orthodox scholarship by the ‘Russian revolution’ in theologyare many. And the price exacted for those gains was exorbitant. For one thing, it led to acertain narrowing of the spectrum of what many Eastern theologians are prepared totreat as either centrally or legitimately Orthodox, with the consequence that many

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