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What Divides Us

In his 1985 encyclical, “Slavorum Apostoli,” Pope John Paul II wrote that all Christians should have an appreciation of the wide variety of traditions in the church, especially with regard to the two great Eastern and Western streams of Christianity:

For full catholicity, every nation, every culture has its own part to play in the universal plan of salvation. Every particular tradition, every local church must remain open and alert to the other churches and traditions and … to universal and catholic communion; were it to remain closed in on itself, it too would run the risk of becoming impoverished (n. 27).

Sadly, however, history shows how difficult it has been for Christians to see this diversity as an enrichment. Indeed, all too often, there seems to have been an expectation that there can be only one authentic way of being Christian and that differences should be suppressed for the sake of unity.

As a result of this history, the Eastern Christian world is now divided into four different groups: the Assyrian Church of the East, once called “Nestorian”; the family of Oriental Orthodox churches, once called “Monophysite”; the Orthodox churches, also referred to as “Eastern” Orthodox; and the Eastern Catholic churches, which are a part of the Catholic communion of churches in union with the bishop of Rome.

Each of these groups has its own distinctive characteristics and traditions. But in view of John Paul II’s encyclical, which of these characteristics and traditions should be taken as examples of legitimate diversity and which are so serious as to be “church-dividing”?

Because it formally adopted “Nestorian” Christology in the fifth century, the Assyrian Church of the East is not in full communion with any other church. Its relationship with the Oriental Orthodox churches is tense due to differences between them in the area of Christology. The Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East emphasizes the distinctiveness of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The Christology of the Oriental Orthodox emphasizes the unity of those same elements. Many Oriental Orthodox are so critical of the Christology of the Assyrian Church of the East that, a few years ago, they insisted it be expelled from the Middle East Council of Churches. These differences in Christology are without question church-dividing issues.

Relations with the Catholic Church, however, have been much more constructive. In 1994, Pope John Paul II and Church of the East Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV signed a Common Declaration, declaring that their Christological differences were not church-dividing, and that the distinctive traditions of each church are legitimate.

In 2001, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that the ancient Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, often used by the Church of the East, should be considered valid even though it does not contain an Institution Narrative (the part of the Eucharist when the priest repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper). This removed what some considered a theological obstacle to reconciliation between the two churches.

The only major issue dividing Assyrians and Catholics appears to be the role of the pope in the church.

The six Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara and Syrian) did not receive the Christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in 451.

From 1964 to 1993, they engaged in a dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox, one that eventually recommended that these two church families could move toward the reestablishment of full communion. Even though these churches have quite different liturgical and theological traditions, they share a common Eastern Christian ethos. But since the dialogue’s recommendation, there has been little movement toward the restoration of full communion.

The major issues that still appear to be church-dividing include the lifting of the mutual anathemas against certain councils and theologians that took place centuries ago, as well as remaining Christological differences. In practice, however, the two families of churches often work together, as they do at the World Council of Churches, and make up a single family of churches in a new ecumenical forum, Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.

Relations between the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic churches improved after Vatican II and a series of visits between their respective primates and popes. In the declarations and speeches that emerged from these encounters, it became very clear these churches recognized each other as churches with valid sacraments and legitimate traditions in spite of the great differences in cultures, languages and theological traditions that have emerged after 1,500 years of separation.

The remaining church-dividing issues include the nature of an ecumenical council and, especially, the question of a universal primate of the worldwide church.

The Catholic Church’s relationship with the Eastern Orthodox churches has become increasingly complicated, especially after the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the reemergence of the region’s Eastern Catholic churches.

As in the case of the Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox churches, there are a number of divergent practices that are seen as legitimate local traditions. These include the ordination of married men to the priesthood, a high degree of autonomy in church government, the use of leavened bread at the Eucharist instead of the unleavened bread used in the West, and a very distinctive liturgical and spiritual ethos.

Even though these differences were once put forth as reasons for division, today few would say this is true. In fact, nearly all of those differences are already found in the Eastern Catholic churches, which are in full communion with the Church of Rome. There is some debate about the issues that still divide us, but most theologians conclude the two most important ones are the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and the role of the pope in the church.

The Nicene Creed that Catholics and Orthodox frequently recite at the Eucharist was elaborated at the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople of 381. The article dealing with the Holy Spirit read, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.” As a way of combating certain heresies, and to affirm more clearly that Christ is God, several local Western churches added the phrase “and the Son” (in Latin, filioque) to the formula about the Holy Spirit. And so it read, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

At first, Rome strongly resisted this addition, but around the year 1000 the creed with the filioque began to be used there as well. This change greatly offended the Eastern churches: The West unilaterally added the filioque without consulting the East. But many Eastern Christians also considered it to be heretical. Rivers of ink were spilled over this problem as polemics over this fine point of the theology of the Trinity raged for centuries.

In recent years, there has been considerable movement toward resolving this issue. Some theologians proposed that East and West should simply recognize the formulas of each other’s churches as legitimate, each in its own context, as two valid ways of describing a mystery that human words can never exhaust.

The discussion moved forward in 1995 when the Holy See issued a “Clarification” on the filioque, which said that in spite of the use of the creed with the filioque in the liturgy of the Catholic Church, “The Catholic Church acknowledges the conciliar, ecumenical, normative and irrevocable value, as the expression of one common faith of the church and of all Christians, of the symbol professed in Greek at Constantinople in 381 by the Second Ecumenical Council. No confession of faith peculiar to a particular liturgical tradition can contradict this expression of faith taught and professed by the undivided church.”

There have been a number of calls for Catholics of the Roman rite to return to the liturgical use of the Nicene Creed in its original form, including a lengthy study of the question issued by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation in 2003. So far, however, the division remains: The creed in its original form is used in the Eastern churches (Orthodox and, with rare exceptions, Eastern Catholic), while the creed with the addition of the filioque is used in the Roman Catholic Church.

Most Orthodox consider this difference to be truly church-dividing, as it touches upon one of the central mysteries of the faith. But some Orthodox and most Catholics tend to see this as two different theological approaches to the same mystery, each valid in its own context, which should no longer divide us.

The issue that looms largest in relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches is the role of the papacy in the church, especially the dogmas about the pope’s infallibility and his universal jurisdiction as decreed by Vatican I in 1870.

Divergence on this point goes back much farther, even centuries before our formal divisions, when the Western understanding of the pope’s role in the church rarely if ever fully corresponded to that of the East. It is important to recall that there was never a time in history when the Eastern churches – even when in full communion with Rome – would automatically accept decisions by the pope by virtue of his office. And there was never a time when popes would, for example, appoint bishops in the Eastern churches. The pope has always had a much more direct authority over his own Western church than he ever had over the Eastern churches.

The centuries of separation exacerbated these differences to the point that one’s obedience to or rejection of the papacy was seen almost as an article of the true Christian faith. In addition, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox experience during those years has made it increasingly difficult for them to see any value in a universal primacy.

It is true that the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople plays a role among the Orthodox churches that some see as a form of primacy, but any such claims have been generally rejected by the Slavic-speaking Orthodox churches, particularly the Russian.

For their part, the Oriental Orthodox have existed for well over a thousand years as a kind of “flat” communion with no one bishop or patriarch serving even as a symbolic point of unity among them. Thus, it is difficult for them to see the value in a universal primate, especially one that would have authority to intervene in the internal affairs of their churches.

The recent decision by Pope Benedict XVI to set aside the papal title of “Patriarch of the West” has complicated the situation somewhat. Many theologians, in both the West and in the East, had seen this title as a way of expressing the special relationship that the pope has with the Western Church, thus making it possible to say that he has a different relationship to the churches of the East. Now that the title has been abolished this is no longer possible. The explanation issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in March, emphasized that this decision did not in any way compromise the Catholic Church’s respect for the ancient patriarchates of the East, and that the renunciation of this title should be seen as an ecumenical opportunity. The consequences are still unclear, and it will remain for theologians to unpack what ecumenical opportunities this may provide.

In the meantime, important work is being done by historians and theologians to examine in great detail the dogmatic teachings of Vatican I with regard to papal primacy and infallibility, studies that have done much to clarify the situation of that time and to create greater understanding and appreciation of those teachings. Moreover, there seems to be a growing appreciation by other Christians –including many Orthodox –of the role that some sort of universal Christian primate could serve in the world today.

One cannot expect the Orthodox to re-receive a form of the Petrine Ministry soon. Such a development, however, would not be entirely alien to the Orthodox experience. In the first millennium, the East recognized that the bishop of Rome held the first position in the church hierarchy, even if they questioned the implications of this authority. But some Orthodox have now come to believe that some form of primacy corresponds to the church’s very essence, and that it applies to the church at the universal level.

Metropolitan John of Pergamon insists that primacy must exist in order to preserve the synodality of the college of bishops. He points out that historically all councils and synods, in the East and the West, have always included a presider, or “protos,” whose role is to bring order and coherence.

It has become commonplace for Orthodox theologians who hold this view to cite the ancient 34th Apostolic Canon, which probably dates to the fourth century. According to a recent translation, the text reads:

The bishops of all peoples should know the first among them and recognize him as the head, and do nothing that exceeds their authority without his consideration. Each should carry out only that which relates to his own diocese and to areas belonging to it. But the first among them should also do nothing without the consideration of all.

The idea here is that the primate and the body of bishops in a region should work together, each of them having an essential role in decision-making. Thus, the bishops cannot act without the primate and the primate cannot act without the bishops.

Many theologians, Catholic and Orthodox, feel this principle could prove very fruitful in the effort to elaborate a theology of the papacy that would be acceptable to all the churches and respond to the increasing desire for a universally recognized head of the church. It could help to find a way in which the East and the West could embrace the ministry of a single pope to whom they would nevertheless relate in different ways.

When Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I of Constantinople visited Rome in 1987, Pope John Paul II told him that the Catholic Church was ready to respect fully the Orthodox tradition of self-government. Thus, many of the building blocks of a solution are in place. But the precise placing of those pieces into an overall structure acceptable to all these churches has only just begun.

It has been said that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are now separate because they are used to being apart. But there is an increasing awareness that our separation also hinders our witness at a time when the Christian faith is seriously challenged from various quarters. Above all, it is only with an awareness and appreciation of our different traditions that we can embrace the fullness of the Christian experience and attain that catholicity of which Pope John Paul II so eloquently spoke.

Paulist Father Ronald Roberson coordinates ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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