What Divides Orthodox and Catholics?: How the faithful can foster ecumenism on the level of church culture
What brought that Serbian to put Sharpie to cardboard was not a dispute over doctrine, but instead a fear of the invasion of a culture perceived as alien. Upon closer questioning, the protester might have argued, Catholics are heretics! For many Orthodox Christians, however, such a claim is a secondary argument shoring up the main point, which is that Roman Catholics and Orthodox are just different. For many Orthodox, Romes alleged heresies are inevitable because of differences in outlook and traditions. Even if theological issues could be settled, that deep sense of otherness would remain a serious obstacle to reunion.
It is not clear that many Catholics think this way about Orthodox Christians, however. Catholic attitudes likely reflect the casual assumptions typical of a dominant culture. In its recent document on the nature of the church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reasserted Catholic teaching that the Orthodox belong to real churches, lacking only communion with Rome to be complete. The external affairs spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Kyril of Smolensk, responded to the document by stating, It helps us see how different we really are. Even when Rome tries to emphasize the close relationship between Orthodox and Catholics, its Eastern dialogue partners take these statements as a sign of distance.
Are Catholics and Orthodox truly that different? For half a century now the two sides have been referring to each other officially as sister churches. A list of theological sticking points looks relatively short, and the Catholic understanding of papal supremacy is generally agreed to be the greatest difficulty. Old disputes over the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed (the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son) and the modern Roman dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, both about Mary, are usually agreed by ecumenical cognoscenti to be subspecies of the problem of papal assertions. No one thinks this division can be solved entirely on a theological level. There are political wounds to be healed as well, especially over perceived proselytism by Catholics, most notably in the case of the Uniate Eastern Catholic churches.
Such theological and political problems are the bread and butter of official ecumenical dialogues, but much more rarely discussed are the profound cultural differences of the kind the Serbian protester feared. I do not mean culture in an ethnic sense, but as shorthand to describe a mode of being Christian, and such differences are most profound on the level of ecclesial culture. Ecclesial cultures develop distinct theological ideas, but these theological aspects are not simply thought; they are also deeply felt at the level of popular piety and practice. Questions of ecclesial culture tend to be underweighted in ecumenical dialogue. Perhaps this is not surprising, since finding a theoretical common ground that is intellectually defensible may prove easier in practice than helping hundreds of millions of the faithful receive such a resolution.
Two major cultural differences can be detected in the way Orthodox and Catholics live out their visions of Christianity. The first includes attitudes toward liturgy, an area where differences are surprisingly difficult to define, because they go far beyond ritual variance. A common misunderstanding is that Orthodox value reverence more highly than Catholics in the contemporary West, but this is not necessarily true; a clown Mass is also reverent in its own way. It matters, though, precisely what is revered. We move closer to the truth if we say that the Orthodox see liturgy as the primary work of Christians, from which every other activity flows. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to see liturgy as one of many Christian labors; it is important and obligatory, but exists among many important works. While it is impossible to make such statements without employing massive generalizations, this difference between the two traditions is nevertheless a source of alienation.
One way the cultural difference manifests itself can be found in each traditions views of private prayer and asceticism. One can legitimately make the case that in Roman Catholicism these have undergone a considerable process of privatization. Orthodox churches, on the other hand, have retained a more profound sense that asceticism is a communal work. I have been told more than once by Orthodox priests who are otherwise quite ecumenically minded that they would be reluctant to support immediate reunion of the churches because of what seems to them to be a lack of respect for the discipline of fasting by Catholics. How, they ask, can they tell their people to fast from midnight on the night before they receive the Eucharist when they could go to a local Catholic Mass an hour after breakfast? At the root of such an attitude lies a fear that without proper protections Orthodoxy will succumb to the siren song of Western individualism.
Catholics of a conservative bent might take heart from this, thinking that in this respect they can count the Orthodox as allies in the battle against liberalism and secularism, but this is true only up to a point. Many conservative Catholics talk about offering up some ascetical act for victims of abortion or some other worthy goal. It is difficult to imagine that an Orthodox Christian would think that way, and the Orthodox/Catholic divide is far more complex than any internal conflicts within the Catholic Church. For many Orthodox, what today is called traditional Catholic piety may seem just as alien in some forms as are liberal expressions of the faith.
Another major difference between these ecclesial cultures can be summed up in the principle of oikonomia, from the Greek word for household rule or management, which is often used in relation to questions of church order and regulations. The concept is not entirely foreign to Catholics, especially those outside the more legalist Anglo-German traditions, but the principle of oikonomia colors Orthodox praxis in ways that many Catholics would find surprising, even disturbing. The principle of oikonomia, for example, can be used in Orthodox churches to answer not merely questions of church order, but even morality. Two examples of the practice can be found in controversies over remarriage after divorce and the use of artificial contraception, both of which Orthodoxy accommodates within its moral vision under certain circumstances. Millions of ordinary Catholics have been intimately affected by their churchs insistence on the absolute indissolubility of marriage (hence, no sacramental remarriage after a divorce) and the intrinsic evil of artificial birth control. From the Catholic perspective, then, what pastoral ingenuity would permit a reunion with a church that (as it would surely be seen) allows divorce and contraception?
The Orthodox churches, though, are well aware of the percentage of Catholic applications for annulments granted in Western countries. They are also not blind to the extent to which Catholic teaching on contraception is ignored. If Catholics were to insist that their teaching more faithfully adheres to Christs message, how could they persuade ordinary Orthodox Christians that the current annulment process is anything but an expensive, time-consuming and psychologically intrusive version of an ecclesiastical divorce? And why would Orthodox priests risk alienating their own faithful by interfering in matters of family planning?
Living What One Professes to Believe
How can a church call on others to reunite with it on the basis of practices and beliefs its own members treat with apparent contempt? The question cuts both ways, because Orthodoxys vaunted freedom and principle of oikonomia depend on the personal holiness of those managing the household of faith. Where sanctity and justice are lacking, the overshadowing chaos and venality may be all that Catholics or the Orthodox faithful will see. For either side to present a good case for its own ecclesial vision, it must live that vision, not merely argue it. A real key to ecumenical progressthe conversion of the otherbegins with conversion of the self.
The notion that personal conversion lies at the heart of the ecumenical enterprise is far from new. In its Decree on Ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council referred to change of heart and holiness of life as spiritual ecumenism, calling it the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. In A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote, only in the context of conversion and renewal of mind can the wounded bonds of communion be healed. This conversion, he continues, might best be fostered within communities of faith: parishes, prayer groups, religious houses, monasteries or youth organizations, where the organic link between personal holiness and ecumenism might be taught and expressed in practical ways. Only at the grass roots can Catholics or Orthodox begin that long, slow process of reacquaintance without which the most optimistic pronouncements of ecumenical dialogues will prove pointless.
I belong to an Eastern Church united with Rome, and believe that fundamentally the Catholic and Orthodox visions are capable of communion with each other. But as an Eastern Catholic, I can also speak with some authority on the tensions that arise when we try to make that communion a tangible reality. With respect to those tensions, the Catholic side is overly optimistic. The toxic reaction Eastern Catholics (especially in Eastern Europe) often provoke by their mere existence should alert our Roman brothers and sisters to a widespread sense among the Orthodox that the differences between us are too great to be papered over. Any attempt to do so may appear inauthentic and even mendacious. Even when Orthodox leaders attempt to give voice to this unease in more moderate ways, they tend to provoke ecumenically minded Catholics to anxious perplexity. A perfect example is the negative reaction that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, received at Georgetown University in 1997 when he said of Orthodox and Catholics: The manner in which we exist has become ontologically different. Unless our ontological transfiguration and transformation toward one common model of life is achieved, not only in form but also in substance, unity and its accompanying realization become impossible.
That protester in Belgrade would have agreed wholeheartedly with the underlying sense that Catholics and Orthodox are different in fundamental ways. It is understandable that ecumenical theologians and ecclesiastical diplomats want to conduct ecumenism on the level of what unites us, but unfortunately our differences remain. In healing these divisions, especially those that exist on the cultural level, theologians and diplomats can do only so much. We spiritual ecumenists, faithful Christians, must do the rest.