Church unity

This started as a “share” with an Orthodox group on Facebook, but outgrew it.

Frederica Mathewes-Green’s podcast thoughts on ecumenical Church unity, though gentle and irenic, amplify my own skepticism on the topic. Her primary focus is the desired unity between Roman Catholicism (the 800 pound gorilla) and Orthodoxy (America’s best-kept religious secret) — or at least the mutual recognition that disunity is a scandal.

So far, so good: disunity is a scandal; real unity would remove that scandal.

But the proposed terms of unity coming from Rome provoke not so much hostility – “Take this Olive branch and shove it!” – as indifference because Rome seems to desire a “unity” that’s strained, synthetic, and in many ways superficial compared to the unity of Orthodoxy.

Frederica nailed that one when she noted that we’re much more comfortable with the Oriental Orthodox than we are with Rome, which went into schism much more recently. The Oriental Orthodox could not agree with the Council of Chalcedon’s verbal formulation of how the two natures of Christ are united.

The Council of Chalcedon issued the ‘Chalcedonian Definition,’ which repudiated the notion of a single nature in Christ, and declared that he has two natures in one person and hypostasis; it also insisted on the completeness of his two natures: Godhead and manhood.

The Oriental Orthodox teach ‘one nature’ in Christ, “Jesus Christ, who is identical with the Son, is one person and one hypostasis in one nature: divine.”

(Wikipedia) But the Oriental Orthodox seem nonetheless to have “kept the same faith,” and I understand they feel the same toward us. It’s fair to say we long for a solution to the Chalcedonian conundrum.

Not so Rome. Their schism was more recent, but their drift after schism much greater. The Roman Catholic reflex seems to be that,

well, of course, being in communion with the Bishop of Rome is essential, and of course it must be on essentially Roman terms. After all, everyone knows you other guys are at fault. But we’re magnanimous, and we’ll let you keep your signature theological perspectives. That’s what “catholic” means: big tent.

That just leaves us cold. On the one hand, we don’t think we, the heirs of four of five pentarchs who remained in communion, are the schismatics. We think the fifth pentarch went into schism when, after we ignored his pretensions and affectation, he started getting too pushy to ignore.

Of course unity will bring us all into communion with one another, but it’s unlikely to happen on terms that signal even tacitly Orthodoxy’s admission of error on the filioque, universal direct jurisdiction of the Pope, infallibility and the other illicit dogmas of the West.

This is not for lack of considerable affection, at least on my own part. Rome has had a great run of Popes lately. John Paul II will be in my thoughts again today, as he was “dying on NPR” as we returned eastward across I74 from a visit to some friends Mrs. Tipsy and I are visiting again.

But even when John Paul II tried to reach out, he proved tone-deaf to a very fundamental matter, our different views of what salvation is:

The teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers on divinization passed into the tradition of all the Eastern Churches and is part of their common heritage. This can be summarized in the thought already expressed by Saint Irenaeus at the end of the second century: God passed into man so that man might pass over to God. This theology of divinization remains one of the achievements particularly dear to Eastern Christian thought.

(Orientale Lumen, italics added) That is a bad misquote, a demotion of the doctrine’s importance in the East, and as tone-deaf as a Protestant, courting Catholics or Orthodox, saying:

The teaching of the Early Fathers on communion passed into the tradition of all the “traditional” Churches as part of their common heritage. This can be summarized in the words of Jesus in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat bread symbolizing the flesh of the Son of man, and drink wine symbolizing his blood, ye have lowered your odds of having life in you.” This theology of transubstantiation remains one of the achievements particularly dear to “traditional” Christian thought.

The dogmatic differences are deep and perhaps intractable. But suppose we achieve agreement in principle. Having cleared away those stone cold deal killers, how would the rest of the deal look? It would be an awfully big tent that would accommodate the remaining, non-dogmatic differences.

But the Roman Catholic Church already looks to me (and I think to many other Orthodox) like multiple Christian traditions synthetically united though communion with the Pope.

Maybe I misunderstand “catholicity.” I mean that. I lived nearly 50 years where we didn’t give a hoot about that idea, and even now my view is colored by the seemingly intractable dogmatic differences. It’s hard to see clearly. Perhaps with the dogmatic differences out of the way, I could see a path to one big happy family.

But I’m not holding my breath.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.


One thought on “Church unity

  1. That about sums it up. I don’t give unity with Rome much thought at all, mainly for the reasons outlined above. I do think and long for unity with the Oriental Orthodox, however. Six Eritrean Oriental Orthodox worship with us at our mission.

Comments are closed.