“That they may all be one,” our Lord prayed. Like many Catholics, I’ve made this prayer my own since my childhood, especially with regard to the Orthodox. I expect that most people who read this have done the same. With the hope of making a tiny contribution toward the restoration of communion between Orthodox and Catholics, I’ve gratefully accepted an invitation to post here thoughts and reflections on Orthodox-Catholic relations and how we might imagine the future unity for which we pray.
In this opening post, I present a few points to set the stage. First, I’m not a theologian by profession. My training is in philosophy. Yet, I hope that by sharing with candor the fruit of my own prayer and reflection on my encounter with the Eastern Churches and on Orthodox-Catholic relations generally I may offer something of value.
Second, there is an assumption that sometimes surfaces among Catholics that is good to set aside from the start – I speak only of Catholics for now. It is the assumption that the Orthodox Churches in some way departed from the Catholic Church and therefore must today change themselves in order to return to her. This position has been called an “ecclesiology of return.” (Cf., e.g., Serving Communion by the St. Irenaeus Joint Orthodox-Catholic Working Group §10.13.)
Contrary to this ecclesiological position, numerous dialogues have shown that the Catholic-Eastern Orthodox schism, for example, is better understood as the result of mutual estrangement between East and West, a growing apart over centuries. Grievous sins were committed on each side against the other, but at no time did either Church elect to abandon the other. Therefore, many Catholics today tend to speak of a “restoration” of communion between Orthodox and Catholics, instead of a “return” by one side to the other.
Third, and consequently, we don’t know with certainty what communion between Orthodox and Catholics is supposed to look like, i.e. in terms of structure. In part, this is because the restoration of communion depends upon the resolution of theological, doctrinal, and canonical disagreements directly related to the nature and structure of the Church. It is safe to say, however, that future unity between Orthodox and Catholics will not resemble in structure the current unity between Eastern Catholics and Roman Catholics. For those unfamiliar with the Eastern Catholic Churches, we’ll return to them in a later post.
Fourth, just as it is often mistakenly assumed that the schism between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example, occurred suddenly in the year 1054, it is also assumed that the restoration of communion between us might occur suddenly once our theoretical disagreements are resolved. Furthermore, some assume that, upon the resolution of our theoretical disagreements, we are obligated by the will of Christ to embrace communion and unreserved mutual acceptance. So quick a restoration of communion is neither likely nor likely prudent.
Instead, I expect us to see a more gradual process – in which theology, doctrine, ecclesiastical law, and history are re-examined together in light of new mutual understanding; in which Orthodox and Catholics are progressively prepared to discern both what is advantageous and disadvantageous in the traditions of the other, relative to their own; and in which decisions by individual churches and hierarchs to concelebrate across the previously divided communions are guided by pastoral prudence.
Finally, I will lay my cards on the table: I think that the resolution of all church-dividing theoretical disagreements lies at hand and that we will soon witness new processes of rapprochement. However, both before and after we receive this grace, we have much to do.
Speaking for Roman Catholics, I think that we have much to learn in order better to respect and to appreciate the traditions of Eastern Christians and that in some ways we ought to adapt the expression of our faith in order to make clearer for our Eastern brothers and sisters, and for ourselves, its orthodoxy. It is good for us to bring to a degree of clarity acceptable to the Orthodox the orthodoxy of doctrinal developments in the West and to answer as best we can even canonical questions that may arise among them concerning the continuity of apostolic succession and the apostolic faith within the Catholic Church. Then, we will have given an account of ourselves and will have helped to cast out any fear or suspicion that lingers between us. To this work, I hope to make a small contribution in subsequent posts.
Ben Martin is VP for Investment Operations at Atlantic Merchant Capital Investors and VP for Evangelization at Caritas in Veritate International. He lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Amelja and their sons Peter and James.