Surgeon General’s Warning
Roman Catholic readers are asked to seriously consider hitting the “Back” button and not reading further than this warning.
This piece is being kept online for the benefit of Orthodox readers.
Rome’s position is that Rome and Orthodoxy agree on all essentials needed for appropriate reunion. Orthodoxy’s position is that there are unresolved essential differences which need to be addressed before appropriate reunion. This piece is intended to specifically, clearly, forcefully, and bluntly articulate some (not all) of unresolved essential differences for what is held as essential in the Orthodox Church in response to Roman communication that acknowledged no genuine Orthodox objection to Roman ecumenism. It remains posted because it may be helpful for Orthodox who are searching for why Orthodoxy disagrees with Rome and Roman ecumenism.
You have been warned.
As an Orthodox, one of many “Amos and Andy” moments that I’ve seen mentioned that Orthodox agree that Roman sacraments and orders are valid, lists a third point of contact I forget, and then comments that Orthodox aren’t interested in reunion, and leave it at that. What I have never heard mentioned or acknowledged is the Orthodox perception that there are unresolved doctrinal issues, and that Orthodox desire doctrinal reconciliation before restored intercommunion with Romans the way Romans desire doctrinal reconciliation before restored intercommunion with Protestants. Even if devout Romans are honored enough that they are fully welcome at practically any Protestant table.
I’ve only once seen a Roman ecumenist call for dropping the Filioque Clause from the Creed instead of just including the Filioque clause in the West and not including it in the East, and demanding that Orthodox join Rome in saying it doesn’t matter. The position may be mainstream in Roman ecumenism for all I know, but I have only met one Roman with a solid enough head to say, “You know, if the Great Schism was over the Filioque Clause, and East and West alike agree that it was inserted into the Creed not by any Ecumenical Council or any other authority Orthodox recognize as able to legitimately alter the Creed, maybe we should drop this instead of continuing to retain use of the Filioque and expecting that Orthodox will happily agree it doesn’t really matter that much.”
And this is really a matter of, “If I can’t talk to you about a matter as blatant as a dropping the Filioque clause altogether, how on earth can I talk to you about the real barriers to legitimately restored communion?”
This is in relations to Orthodoxy what Amos and Andy are to race relations.
What is one concrete doctrinal area where there is a doctrinal difference? Let me pull off one that won’t be pooh-poohed as “You say tomayto, I say tomahto:”
One elephant: In Rome, all theology fits under systematic theology.
In Orthodoxy, all theology fits under mystical theology.
In Orthodoxy, systematic theology is seriously off-limits as such, and I remember one Orthodox priest mentioning in a lecture that when priests come to him and are trying to work out the first Orthodox systematic theology, he encourages them, because that will help their heresy trial come sooner. In Orthodoxy, there is no theology but what you know mystically. And that means, as posted in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism:
But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!
…To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism. Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.
See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiæ.
St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology” Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial. Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.
Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.
Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.
Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.
On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.
We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…
Lost in translation?
There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”
Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.
This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.
Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.
I’ve gotten responses like “You have no idea what Thomas Aquinas means to us.” Um, in fact, I do. I think it is a fair statement (if I may cite a Catholic roommate from my years studying Catholic theology) that the two chief Doctors in Rome are the Blessed Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, with a steady leadership for the Blessed Augustine in most of history and Thomas Aquinas pulling ahead at times, including our own time. So I am explicitly raising a concern about the #1 Roman classical spokesman today. (Also, I’ve also read McDermott’s distillation, and studied unabridged questions and answers from his Summa Theologiæ). And the reason I am bringing this up, besides the fact that it is grounded to Orthodox, is that I can name a second elephant in the room (to Orthodox) that is unlikely to get a widespread Roman reply of “Thomas, Schmomas! You say tomayto, I say tomahto.” The response may be red-hot anger, but there is no anger I’ve seen about making a mountain out of a mole-hill.
Two elephants: The Saint and the Activist
Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.
Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.
The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.
And, if I may delicately point this out: the text above was written during Pope BENEDICT, and now I am writing under Pope FRANCIS, and there’s a difference.
In An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism, ©2009, I predicted an Orthodox schism. Now, as I write in 2019, the schism is fresh. I saw as non-negotiable retained communion with Patriarch BARTHOLEMEW even as I said, “It’s ‘Ecumenical Patriarch,’ not ‘ECUMENIST Patriarch’!” Now Russian heirarchs have broken communion, and while I see that as profoundly sad, I believe they made a very painful right choice (and respect Orthodox who disagree).
However, Pope FRANCIS has greatly eclipsed Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW in every way. The Pope Is Not a Holy Fool like your St. Francis of Assisi. He looks to some Orthodox, and some Romans so far as I can tell from reading them, to be a second Arius.
Also, did I mention that ecumenism is anathematized heresy in my jurisdiction, and the bottom up laity often agree that ecumenism is not just one heresy among others, but the ecclesiastical heresy of our day?
Three elephants: The Roman “BOTH-AND”
One of the mindsets or approaches that is foundational to Rome is the famous “BOTH-AND”, a “BOTH-AND” that can perhaps embrace BOTH systematic theology AND mystical theology, BOTH saint AND activist. To Orthodox, this mantra seems to mean “BOTH Orthodox AND heretic.” As I saw it, the “BOTH-AND” seems to grab something that is allowed in Orthodoxy, and something that is forbidden (or two things that are forbidden).
I haven’t heard Orthodox preach about an “Orthodox EITHER-OR,” even once, but to some extent it is much easier for Orthodox to say “EITHER true mystical theology, OR effective systematic theology; EITHER Saint OR Activist, EITHER Orthodox OR heretic.” And Orthodox do seem to be particular about having mystical theology and not systematic theology, enough so that trying to endow the Orthodox Church with its first Orthodox systematic theology is begging for a heresy trial. Roman readers may well enough see the difference as minor or insist on a BOTH-AND. However, they would be wise enough not to expect Orthodox to regard the question of “Is this systematic theology or mystical theology?” to be anywhere near so fine or insignificant of a distinction as it obviously seems to Roman faithful.
Four elephants: Anglo-Catholidox and trying to be married without a spouse
In my years wasting time on Facebook, I ran into Anglo-Catholics, Anglo-Catholidox, Anglo-Orthodox. And I really did (and do) find many of them charming. But I would expect Romans who reflect a bit to possibly also see them as charming but making a fundamental error about what it means to be a Roman.
A standard enough phrase for Romans to articulate is that to Protestants, submitting to God and submitting to the Church are two acts. In Rome, it is one act. And I would add now, after indiscretions, that Roman communion and submission to Church authority are one thing.
If you can look and see how Anglo-Catholics try to be fully Roman within non-Roman church structure, you might see that (as a friend kindly rephrased it for me) it is an attempt to be married without a spouse.
Anglicans, some of them at least, have claimed to be both Roman and Protestant, are trying to be Roman in a way that precludes being Roman. Any number of Roman details may be imitated from the outside, but being formed as Roman comes as a package deal that cannot be both live and piecemeal, and no imitation of Rome from the outside can change that.
Um, hello, have you heard of Orthodoxy?
Trying to be Orthodox from within Roman Communion, even Eastern Catholic, is as confused as trying to be Roman from within the Anglican Communion, if not more. But I won’t argue the “if not more,” and only ask Roman readers to see in the Orthodox Church something they recognize well enough in Rome.
This is another of several ways that Romans have an ecclesiological “Amos and Andy” show.
(I might briefly insert another topic here. In practical spiritual life, almost everything that is required in Orthodoxy is permitted in Rome.)
Five elephants: Progressively dismantling relics of Orthodoxy
In my studies at Cambridge and at Fordham, I heard many times the conversational posture of “We Romans are getting our act together,” and without exception the change that was being acclaimed to me was just one more continuity with Orthodoxy being severed, like a boat attached to a moor with ropes and one more rope being cut, helping the boat break free of the moor.
In a most immediate sense, this is something I have primarily met among liberal Romans, although the change they heralded seemed like it was probably at least partly a real change. I also spent a year or so, when I was at the University of Illinois, at the Newman Foundation, and the community was the one place I met living faith during my prior master’s. And I do not remember there having members of Newman Foundation Koinonia lean in with a conspiriatorial glance and tell me how Rome is slowly and finally getting its act put together.
However, there is another shoe to drop.
Barriers and differences between East and West absolutely did not stop with the Filioque clause. Over centuries there have been further doctrinal developments, understood to be something that was always there, and pronounced irreformibly (as Avery Cardinal Dulles used the technical term in our class on the Profession of Faith). Most or all of these irreformable edicts create problems for Orthodox. To pick two examples of accretions made official in the 19th century, the Infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception are not only not required in Orthodoxy, they are forbidden. Orthodox have concerns, for that matter like Protestants, that the Immaculate Conception undermines the full humanity of the Mother of God, and therefore her divine Son, and (in a classic phrase–I don’t know who said it first) Rome “was offered primacy and demanded supremacy.” And Rome accumulates more of these as the centuries of history on.
And there is one frustration I’ll mention in regard to Cardinal Dulles. Pinning down certain things with him about Rome was difficult and slippery, like pinning down a water balloon you can’t see because it’s too dark. In the Orthodox Church, it is commonly said that no bishop has the authority to interfere in another’s diocese. Such is part of why the Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch. There is a definite primacy of honor for a Patriarch, but at least today, bishops didn’t interfere in others’ dioceses. And so I commented to Cardinal Dulles about Roman bishops being the Pope’s deputies, and Cardinal Dulles denied that bishops are delegates to the Pope, but volunteered no clarification. It was quite some time until he clarified that the Pope has universal jurisdiction, meaning that he is to work with bishops, and also can override. But as conservative a figure as Cardinal Dulles would contradict me if I said it seemed that Roman bishops were the Pope’s deputies, but he did not show the faintest clarification to state the Roman position more clearly (in this case, that the Roman Pontiff has universal jurisdiction). Not sure what to make of that, but apart from once being in the room with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, I have known no other Roman of near his position, and he would not communicate clearly to me.
A personal note
As mentioned along the way, my history is intertwined with Rome’s, and perhaps I should have joined. Newman Foundation Koinonia meant an awful lot to me, and it was of all the self-identified Christian groups that had a spiritual pulse, and it was a strong pulse. I found more of a mixed bag when I went in to get my doctorate at a Roman university in theology, but I had a Roman suitemate who was a wonderful man.
However, there are certain things that Rome does and says that are somewhat “Amos and Andy” in regard to the Orthodox Church, and almost of all of them represent moments when Roman ecumenism reaches out for a restoration of intercommunion, and in my experience never address the elephant in the room to Orthodox, namely the doctrinal unity that must precede any restoration of communions. Roman ecumenists, for the most part, politely decline when Protestants say “We agree on all essentials. Let’s have communion together,” but show an almost unshakable certitude in telling Orthodox, “We agree on all essentials. Let’s have communion together!” The Catholic claim is that we agree in all essentials. Orthodox squeamishly look at the elephants in the room, and wonder why having such a singularity of good theology be represented by Thomas Aquinas, along with the Blessed Augustine, be the polestar for all theology, and expect us to (now) accept the jurisdiction of Poop Francis, and so on. But this page has not been a “name the elephant” post, at least not to what I expect for Roman readers, but “There are elephants in the room that you don’t see.”
If you want a rapprochement with Orthodoxy, would you be willing to at least try to see the elephants in the room that are there for Orthodox?