Thursday, October 05, 2006

Some thoughts on primacy and schism…

Over at Free Republic there is an interesting post about the recent testy relations between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. The MP has been getting a bit short with the EP who they suspect (and I tend to agree) has been stepping on the toes of the other churches. This is generally not good etiquette in Orthodoxy. But it is the conversation which follows in the comments area that is of particular interest. Since I am persona non grata over at FR, I thought I would post some thoughts on the general subject and a particular question.

In # 14 Freeper Sitest posts…
“What would happen if some theological dispute occurred within Orthodoxy that caused different patriarchies to fall out of communion with each other? Let's say the EP and a couple of big folks on one side, the Patriarch of Moscow and some other folks on the other side.

And let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the dioceses and laity followed their respective patriarchies.

Where would Orthodoxy then be? Who would be Orthodox, and who would be in schism from Orthodoxy?

Thanks in advance.”

For general information the author of the above question is Roman Catholic.

Schisms have been a part of the history of the Church since its foundation. This is a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless. I think the point behind this question and its wording is that Orthodoxy lacks a final arbiter of what is and is not kosher. We have no Pope and thus logically from the RC point of view should be highly susceptible to schisms. In a later post Sitest clarifies his question by stating that he is hypothetically talking about a really serious theological issue and not some jurisdictional squabble.

My answer would be that there have been a number of very serious theological schisms in the Church’s history, almost all of them in the first millennium. Probably the most serious was Arianism which at one point was actually the dominant school of thought. However through councils and often heated debate all but two of these schisms have been either healed or simply died out. The first of the two which have not died and remain in existence to this day is the Monophysite heresy which produced the schism of the non-Chalcedonian churches. The second is the papal schism produced by a combination of factors the most serious being the gradually increased claims to universal jurisdiction over the entire of the Church by the Patriarch of Rome, one of the five Apostolic Patriarchates and universally recognized as primus inter pares by the entire Church until the schism. Since none of the other four patriarchates recognized the papal pretensions there is no difficulty in establishing who is and who is not Orthodox (though doubtless Roman Catholics would disagree).

Of these two the non-Chalcedonian Schism is a lot closer to resolution than many would think. Conversations have been ongoing and have substantially closed the gap between the churches. In the case of the Roman Schism it is good to be able to report that the two sides are talking to one another and not at one another or just glaring at each other across an icy rift. Nice things are generally being said by both sides and the Pope is scheduled to travel to Turkey to meet with the EP in November. But that’s about as far as the good news goes for now. Despite very cordial conversations and theological commissions little real progress has been made in resolving the substantive issues which divide Rome from Orthodoxy. In fact it would have to be said that the divisions are more profound today than they were in the 13th century. Some might call me a pessimist but I see little likelihood of any resolution to this schism in my lifetime.

However, since the Latin schism of 1204 or 1054 (for those who prefer the more traditional but IMO less accurate date) there have been no serious schisms on theological grounds in the Church. All of the schisms which have occurred since the Pope’s departure have been more or less over matters of church discipline or inter jurisdictional quarrels. But the question poses a hypothetical problem that is worth talking about.

First I should say that I think it’s beyond unlikely that anything like that would occur today because the Church has settled down and unlike in the West where doctrinal development or innovation (depending on one’s point of view) is ongoing it has pretty much ceased in the East. Grave theological schisms are something peculiar to the West since its departure from Orthodoxy. I also really don’t like the way the question was worded since it poses a hypothetical with out enough detail to answer. It’s a bit like asking someone if a movie is pornographic or not without naming the movie.

That said the general rule of thumb in Orthodoxy where there is a serious disagreement on a matter of faith is, what is new is suspect. If you stand up and say I believe and confess in what was taught by the Church of the Seven Councils and what has been hitherto understood to be the Holy Orthodox Catholic Faith you are probably on pretty safe ground. Anyone attempting to add anything to the faith without a Great Council of the Church which is received by the whole Church is likely in a place he/she probably should not be. The final authority in Orthodoxy is not the Pope, or the EP or any other patriarch. It’s the whole Church. And since the communion shattering schism with Rome there has been no grave theological division within Orthodoxy because the faith is settled.

Now a quick word on the much maligned EP. Poor Patriarch Bartholomew. He presides over a church of only a few thousand. He is denigrated by some for papal pretensions (a common charge whenever a bishop says or does something that someone else doesn’t agree with). His position is highly tenuous within a country whose government is overtly hostile to his presence. And yet, he is clearly identified by church canons as being primus inter pares. He holds the first place of honor among the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church. There are certainly some in Orthodoxy who think that primacy means the right to be the first person in the procession and the right to sit at the head of the table, and that’s about it. Trying to assert something more than that when your See is the merest shadow of the once great Roman Empire of the East is a pretty uphill battle at the least. But yet any reading of the history of the first millennium shows very clearly that primacy existed. And while it was not even remotely close to what apologists for Rome have attempted to claim, neither was it a purely figure head position analogous to the Queen of England’s status today. Primacy meant something. The problem is that its exact boundaries and prerogatives have never been defined for a number of reasons, of which two stand out.

First is the inevitable knee jerk hostility to the very term primacy since Rome went off the deep end. Anyone who uses it more than once in any reference to ecclesiology is instantly suspect by some of crypto-papism. The second reason is that the Church has until recent times not been free of the interference of the secular government. Historic, political, and cultural circumstances have combined to make primacy a largely moot point until the second half of the twentieth century.

Some hints of this controversy are visible in the comments on FR. One interesting point made is that one does not have to be in communion with the EP to be Orthodox. This was made as a counterpoint to the Roman Catholic position that where Rome is, there is the true faith. It is certainly true that in Orthodoxy we do not accord to any individual hierarch the promise of divine protection which Christ made to His Church as a whole. If Rome can fall into heresy so in theory could the Ecumenical Patriarch. However a very critical point needs to be made.

Unless you are talking about some very overt heresy it is (IMO) a very dicey proposition to claim that you’re Orthodox while not being in communion with the EP. The Catholicity of the Church implies accepting more than just your own little group as being Orthodox. This is one reason why I have serious problems with some of the various “True Orthodox” and radical Old Calendarist groups. (The calendar issue is not one that excites me. If pressed on the subject I would say that I think from a legal point of view the adoption of the reformed calendar was done in a highly irregular manner and one that is doubtfully canonical. But it’s not heresy.)

So yes, you can in theory be not in communion with the EP and still be Orthodox. The EP has in recent years been acting in a heavy handed manner in relation to some of the other jurisdictions and has been particularly snippy with the Russian Church. A really grave inter jurisdictional quarrel might justify a temporary breach in communion, but it would have to be very serious to tell one group of Orthodox Christians that they may not commune the Holy Mysteries with another group of people who are admitted to be Orthodox Christians just because their bishop is a jerk. I think my bottom line on the subject of non-communion with the EP is this.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is not the Orthodox Pope. BUT, he is canonically the first among the bishops in the Orthodox Church. Not being in communion with him does not mean I am going to instantly dismiss your jurisdiction as being heretical or schismatic. But it is a red flag. If you are not in communion with him, then you have some explaining to do. It means your group is at least suspect in my eyes until you come up with a good reason for violating the peace and unity of the Church by refusing communion with the patriarch identified by the canons of the Ecumenical Councils as holding this dignity. As of this writing the only jurisdiction not in normal communion with the EP that I am prepared to accept as being fully canonical is the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (and that for very unusual reasons bound up in the tragic history of the last century).


Anonymous said...

The key point is that, prior to the Hildebrandian/Cluniac Reform Movement's domination of the papacy after the first millenium, no apriori institutional aspect of the Churched judged schism. Consensus of the hierarchy has been (and still is) considered a strong indicator, hence small splinters were usually labelled as the schismatics. But, sometimes, the minority position was ultimately vindicated -- for example Maximos the Confessor held firm against Monoletism when "the whole" Church was buying into the error. Also, sometimes the laity have to stand up against a nearly unanimous college of bishops -- as in Constantinople after the Counicl of Florence.

Ultimately, which party is in error is decided by God, and each party must make its case under the judgment of Tradtition (not traditions). Generally, over time, because the Holy Spirit is active in the Church, the truth will out. Hence, consenus of the Church as whole over time is the best indicia of truth. But, even this is not an air tight criteria, as the Truth is ultimately a charism of the Church and the Spirit listeth where it will. Indeed, afer nearly 1500 some odd years of schism, the leading scholars of both the Oriental Orthodox and Byzantine-Commonwealth Orthodox Communions are beginning to realize they both sides have been Orthodox--holding the Apostolic Deposit--all along!

Anonymous said...

A counter question for your Catholic interloqutor: if the Pope fell into clear heresy and refused to recant, which would be the Catholic Church -- the Pope and his few followers or the mass of Atholics who hold onto the faith?

But that could never happen he says? Perhaps his question deserves the same answer.

Mark G