William (aka Bill the Godfather)

William (aka Bill the Godfather)

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Limits of the Church (part 2)

Read part 1 here.

The 'economic' explanation raises even greater difficulties when we consider its general theological premises. One can scarcely ascribe to the Church the power and the right, as it were, to convert the 'has-not-been' into the 'has-been', to change the meaningless into the valid, as Professor Diovuniotis expresses it (Church Quarterly Review, No.231 [April 1931, p.97), `in the order of economy.' This would give a particular sharpness to the question whether it is possible to receive schismatic clergy 'in their existing orders.' In the Russian Church adherents from Roman Catholicism or from the Nestorians, etc., are received into communion 'through recantation of heresy', that is, through the sacrament of repentance. Clergy are given absolution by a bishop and thereby, the inhibition lying on a schismatic cleric is removed. One asks whether it is conceivable that in this delivery and absolution from sin there is also accomplished silently - and even secretly - baptism, confirmation, ordination as deacon or priest, sometimes even consecration as bishop, without any 'form' or clear and distinctive 'external act' which might enable us to notice and consider precisely what sacraments are being performed.

Here there is a double equivocation, both from the standpoint of motive and from the standpoint of the fact itself. Can one, in short, celebrate a sacrament by virtue of 'intention' alone and without some visible act? Of course not. Not because there belongs to the 'form' some self-sufficient or 'magic' effect, but precisely because in the celebration of a sacrament the 'external act' and the pouring-forth of grace are in substance indivisible and inseparable. Certainly, the Church is the 'steward of grace' and to her is given power to preserve and teach these gifts of grace. But the power of the Church does not extend to the very foundations of Christian existence. It is impossible to conceive that the Church might have the right, 'in the order of economy', to admit to the priestly function without ordination the clergy of schismatic confessions, even of those that have not preserved the 'apostolic succession', while remedying not only all defects but a complete lack of grace while granting power and recognition by means of an unexpressed 'intention'.

In such an interpretation the Church's whole sacramental system becomes too soft and elastic. Khomiakov, too, was not sufficiently careful, when, in defending the new Greek practice of receiving reunited Latins through baptism, he wrote to Palmer that 'all sacraments are completed only in the bosom of the true Church and it matters not whether they be completed in one form or another. Reconciliation (with the Church) renovates the sacraments or completes them, giving a full and Orthodox meaning to the rite that was before either insufficient or heterodox, and the repetition of the preceding sacraments is virtually contained in the rite or fact of reconciliation. Therefore, the visible repetition of baptism or confirmation, though unnecessary, cannot be considered as erroneous, and establishes only a ritual difference without any difference of opinion' (Russia and the English Church, ch. vi, p.62). This is impossible. The 'repetition' of a sacrament is not only superfluous but impermissible. If there was no sacrament and what was previously performed was an imperfect, heretical rite, then the sacrament must be accomplished for the first time - and with complete sincerity and candor. In any case, the Catholic sacraments are not just 'rites' and it is not possible to treat the external aspect of a sacramental celebration with such disciplinary relativism.

The 'economic' interpretation of the canons might be probable and convincing, but only in the presence of direct and perfectly clear proofs, whereas it is generally supported by indirect data and most often by indirect intentions and conclusions. The 'economic' interpretation is not the teaching of the Church. It is only a private 'theological opinion', very late and very controversial, which arose in a period of theological confusion and decadence in a hasty endeavor to dissociate oneself as sharply as possible from Roman theology.

Roman theology admits and acknowledges that there remains in sects a valid hierarchy and even, in a certain sense, the 'apostolic succession', so that under certain conditions sacraments may be accomplished - and actually are accomplished - among schismatics and even among heretics. The basic premises of this sacramental theology have already been established with sufficient definition by St Augustine, and the Orthodox theologian has every reason to take the theology of Augustine into account in his doctrinal synthesis.

The first thing to notice in Augustine is the organic way in which he relates the question of the validity of sacraments to the doctrine of the Church. The reality of the sacraments celebrated by schismatics signifies for Augustine the continuation of their links with the Church. He directly affirms that in the sacraments of sectarians the Church is active: some she engenders of herself, others she engenders outside herself, of her maid-servant, and schismatic baptism is valid for this very reason, that it is performed by the Church (de bapt. i, 15, 23). What is valid in the sects is that which is in them from the Church, that which remains with them as their portion of the sacred inner core of the Church, that through which they are with the Church. In quibusdam rebus nobiscurn sunt.

The unity of the Church is based on a twofold bond - the 'unity of the Spirit' and the 'bond of peace' (cf. Eph. 4.3). In sects and schisms the 'bond of peace' is broken and torn, but the 'unity of the Spirit' in the sacraments is not brought to an end. This is the unique paradox of sectarian existence: the sect remains united with the Church in the grace of the sacraments, and this becomes a condemnation once love and communal mutuality have withered and died.

With this is connected St Augustine's second basic distinction, the distinction between the 'validity' or 'reality' of the sacraments and their 'efficacy'. The sacraments of schismatics are valid; that is, they genuinely are sacraments, but they are not efficacious by virtue of schism and division. For in sects and schisms love withers, and without love salvation is impossible. There are two sides to salvation: the objective action of God's grace, and man's subjective effort or fidelity. The holy and sanctifying Spirit still breathes in the sects, but in the stubbornness and powerlessness of schism healing is not accomplished. It is untrue to say that in schismatic rites nothing is accomplished, for, if they are considered to be only empty acts and words, deprived of grace, by the same token not only are they empty, they are converted into a profanation, a sinister counterfeit. If the rites of schismatics are not sacraments, then they are a blasphemous caricature, and in that case neither 'economic' suppression of facts nor 'economic' glossing over of sin is possible. The sacramental rite cannot be only a rite, empty but innocent. The sacrament is accomplished in reality.

Nevertheless it is impossible, Augustine argues, to say that in the sects the sacraments are of avail, are efficacious. The sacraments are not magic acts. Indeed, the Eucharist itself may also be taken 'unto judgement and condemnation', but this does not refute the reality or 'validity' of the Eucharist. The same may be said of baptism: baptismal grace must be renewed in unceasing effort and service, otherwise it becomes 'inefficacious'. From this point of view St Gregory of Nyssa attacked with great energy the practice of postponing baptism to the hour of death, or at least to advanced years, in order to avoid pollution of the baptismal robe. He transfers the emphasis. Baptism is not just the end of sinful existence, rather it is the beginning of everything. Baptismal grace is not just the remission of sins, but a gift or pledge. His name may be entered in the army list, but the honor of a soldier lies in his service, not in his calling alone. What does baptism mean without spiritual deeds?

Augustine wishes to say the same thing in his distinction between 'character' and 'grace'. In any case, there rests on everyone baptized a 'sign' or 'seal', even if he falls away and departs, and each will be tried concerning this 'sign' or 'pledge' in the Day of Judgement. The baptized are distinguished from the unbaptized even when baptismal grace has not flowered in their works and deeds, even when they have corrupted and wasted their whole life. That is the ineffaceable consequence of the divine touch. This clear distinction between the two inseparable factors of sacramental existence, divine grace and human love, is characteristic of the whole sacramental theology of St Augustine. The sacraments are accomplished by grace and not by love, yet man is saved in freedom and not in compulsion, and for that reason grace somehow does not burn with a life-giving flame outside communality and love.

One thing remains obscure. How does the activity of the Spirit continue beyond the canonical borders of the Church? What is the validity of sacraments without communion, of stolen garments, sacraments in the hands of usurpers? Recent Roman theology answers that question by the doctrine of the validity of the sacraments ex opere operato. In St Augustine this distinction does not exist, but he understood the validity of sacraments performed outside canonical unity in the same sense. In fact ex opere operato points to the independence of the sacrament from the personal action of the minister. The Church performs the sacrament and, in her, Christ the high priest. The sacraments are performed by the prayer and activity of the Church, ex opere orantis et operantis ecclesiae. It is in this sense that the doctrine of validity ex opere operato, must be accepted. For Augustine it was not so important that the sacraments of the schismatics are 'unlawful' or 'illicit' (illicita); much more important is the fact that schism is a dissipation of love. But the love of God can overcome the failure of love in man. In the sects themselves - and even among the heretics - the Church continues to perform her saving and sanctifying work. It may not follow, perhaps, that we should say that schismatics are still in the Church. In any case this would not be precise and sounds equivocal. It would be truer to say that the Church continues to work in the schisms in expectation of that mysterious hour when the stubborn heart will be melted in the warmth of God's prevenient grace, when the will and thirst for communality and unity will finally burst into flame. The 'validity' of sacraments among schismatics is the mysterious guarantee of their return to Catholic plenitude and unity.

The sacramental theology of St Augustine was not received by the Eastern Church in antiquity nor by Byzantine theology, but not because they saw in it something alien or superfluous. Augustine was simply not very well known in the East. In modern times the doctrine of the sacraments has not infrequently been expounded in the Orthodox East, and in Russia, on a Roman model, but there has not yet been a creative appropriation of Augustine's conception.

Contemporary Orthodox theology must express and explain the traditional canonical practice of the Church in relation to heretics and schismatics on the basis of those general premises which have been established by Augustine.

It is necessary to hold firmly in mind that in asserting the 'validity' of the sacraments and of the hierarchy itself in the sects, St Augustine in no way relaxed or removed the boundary dividing sect and communality. This is not so much a canonical as a spiritual boundary: communal love in the Church and separatism and alienation in the schism. For Augustine this was the boundary of salvation, since grace operates outside communality but does not save. (It is appropriate to note that here, too, Augustine closely follows Cyprian, who asserted that except in the Church even martyrdom for Christ does not avail.) For this reason, despite all the 'reality' and 'validity' of a schismatic hierarchy, it is impossible to speak in a strict sense of the retention of the 'apostolic succession' beyond the limits of canonical communality. This question has been investigated exhaustively and with great insight in the remarkable article of the late C.G. Turner, 'The Apostolic Succession', in Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry, edited by H.B. Swete (1918).

From this it follows without a doubt that the so-called 'branch' theory is unacceptable. This theory depicts the cleavages of the Christian world in too complacent and comfortable a manner. The onlooker may not be able immediately to discern the schismatic 'branches' from the Catholic trunk. In its essence, moreover, a schism is not just a branch. It is also the will for schism. It is the mysterious and even enigmatic sphere beyond the canonical limits of the Church, where the sacraments are still celebrated and where hearts often still burn in faith, in love and in works. We must admit this, but we must remember that the limit is real, that unity does not exist. Khomiakov, it seems, was speaking of this when he said: 'Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgement of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and (according to the words of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 1 Cor. 5.12) does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who have excluded themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgement of the Great Day' (Russia and the English Church, ch. xxiii, p.194).

In the same sense Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow decided to speak of Churches which were 'not purely true': 'Mark you, I do not presume to call false any Church which believes that Jesus is the Christ. The Christian Church can only be either purely true, confessing the true and saving divine teaching without the false admixtures and pernicious opinions of men, or not purely true, mixing with the true and saving teaching of faith in Christ the false and pernicious opinions of men' ( Conversation between a Seeker and a Believer Concerning the Orthodoxy of the Eastern Greco-Russian Church. Moscow 1831, pp.27-29). 'You expect now that I should give judgement concerning the other half of present Christianity,' the Metropolitan said in the concluding conversation, 'but I just simply look upon them; in part I see how the Head and Lord of the Church heals the many deep wounds of the old serpent in all the parts and limbs of his Body, applying now gentle, now strong, remedies, even fire and iron, in order to soften hardness, to draw out poison, to clean wounds, to separate out malignant growths, to restore spirit and life in the numbed and half-dead members. In this way I attest my faith that, in the end, the power of God will triumph openly over human weakness, good over evil, unity over division, life over death' (ibid., p.135).

These statements of Metropolitan Philaret are a beginning only. Not everything in them is clearly and fully expressed. But the question is truly put. There are many bonds, still not broken, whereby the schisms are held together in a certain unity with the Church. The whole of our attention and our will must be concentrated and directed towards removing the stubbornness of dissension. 'We seek not conquest,' says St Gregory of Nazianzen, 'but the return of our brethren, whose separation from us is tearing us apart.'

-Archpriest George Florovsky

1 comment:

Seraph said...

Thanks for the wonderful Florovsky posts, which admit that there is some kind of connection and unity with the Church even with Catholics and Protestants. Truly, how could it be otherwise? But it is nice to read an Orthodox archpriest putting it in writing.

There are too many non-Orthodox saints out there (CS Lewis, John Wesley, etc.) to deny some kind of connection with Christ and his livng Body the Church.