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Monday, August 06, 2007

David Hart on Catholicism and Orthodoxy

Given the recent Vatican document - Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church - which defined the Eastern Orthodox Church as "wounded", I was intrigued when I came across a 2001 article from First Things in which David Bentley Hart was one of the posters ... The Future of the Papacy: A Symposium. Of course, it doesn't speak to the CDF document, And the Pope spoken of in the article is not Benedict but JPII, but it is kind of interesting to see what this Orthodox theologian has to say about the relationship between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There were a number of contributors to the discussion, including Robert Jenson and Cardinal Dulles, but here's just a little of Hart's response below ...


As an Orthodox Christian definitely in the ecumenical “left wing” of my church, I cannot speak for all my co-confessionalists; but I can record my own shame that so few Orthodox hierarchs have even recognized the remarkable gesture made by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995), in openly soliciting advice on how to understand his office (even indeed the limits of its jurisdiction), or been moved to respond with anything like comparable Christian charity. However, the Pope has perhaps always been somewhat quixotic in his reckoning of the severity of the differences between the communions, and so of the effort required to effect any real reciprocal understanding between them (let alone rapprochement).

Anyone familiar with the Eastern Christian world knows that the Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement, and unreasonable dread: it sees a misty phantasmagoria of crusades, predestination, “modalism,” a God of wrath, flagellants, Grand Inquisitors, and those blasted Borgias. But, still, and from my own perspective ab oriente, I must remark that the greater miscalculation of what divides us is almost inevitably found on the Catholic side, not always entirely free of a certain unreflective condescension. Often Western Christians, justifiably offended by the hostility with which their advances are met by certain Orthodox, assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of “psychology,” and the only counsel offered one of “patience.” Fair enough: decades of Communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every “alien” influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives. But psychology is the least of our problems ......

Of course a Catholic who looks eastward finds nothing to which he objects, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (but-here’s the rub-for him, this means the first seven of twenty-one). When an Orthodox turns his eyes westward he sees what appears to him a Church distorted by innovation and error: the filioque clause, the pope’s absolute primatial authority, purgatory, indulgences, priestly celibacy. Our deepest divisions concern theology and doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. The disagreements in theology can be mitigated: Western theologians now freely grant that the Eastern view of original sin is more biblical than certain Latin treatments of the matter; only the most obtusely truculent Orthodox still believe that the huge differences in Trinitarian theology that a previous generation found everywhere in Latin tradition indeed actually exist; etc. But doctrine is more intractable. The Catholic Church might plausibly contemplate the suppression of the filioque, but could it repudiate the claim that the papacy ever possessed the authority to allow such an addition? The Eastern Church believes in sanctification after death, and perhaps the doctrine of purgatory really asserts nothing more; but can Rome ever say that in speaking of it as “temporal punishment,” which the pope may in whole or part remit, it was in error? And so on .......

Jurisdictional squabbling aside, the Orthodox world enjoys so profound a unity-of faith, worship, spirituality, and ecclesiology-that the papacy cannot but appear to it as a dangerous principle of plurality. After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter. Eastern rites huddle alongside liturgical practices (hardly a peripheral issue in the East) disfigured by rebarbative banality, by hymnody both insipid and heterodox, and by a style of worship that looks flippant if not blasphemous. Academic theologians explicitly reject principles of Catholic orthodoxy, but are not (as they would be in the East) excluded from communion. There are three men called Patriarch of Antioch in the Roman communion-Melkite, Maronite, and Latin (I think I have them all)-which suggests that the very title of patriarch, even as regards an apostolic see, is merely honorific, because the only unique patriarchal office is the pope’s. As unfair as it may seem, to Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire.

All of which sounds rather grim. But having made the necessary qualifications, I can now praise John Paul II for all he has done for the unity of the apostolic Churches. He is, simply stated, a visionary on this matter. True, human beings cannot overcome the obstacles dividing East from West; but the unity of the Church is never-even when it is only two or three gathered in Christ’s name-a human work. Each church is grievously wounded by its separation from the other, and only those who have allowed pride and infantile anger to displace love in their hearts are blind to this ...... The present pope has long been the great, indefatigable voice of Christian conviction in a faithless age. If future popes follow his lead ..... love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. Sic, at any rate, oremus.


If future popes follow his lead ..... love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. - beautiful writing from Hart, as always - sadly, Benedict did not after all follow JPII's lead in this area.


Blogger Jeff said...


Great article by Hart. Really interesting to see the Eastern perspective explained so well.

Regarding Benedict's present hard-line attitides, I don't think it was always so with him...

Although it is not given us to halt the flight of history, to change the course of centuries, we may say, nevertheless, that what was possible for a thousand years is not impossible for Christians today. After all, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, in the same bull in which he excommunicated the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and thus inaugurated the schism between East and West, designated the Emperor and people of Constantinople as "very Christian and orthodox", although their concept of the Roman primacy was certainly far less different from that of Cerularius than from that, let us say, of the First Vatican Council. In other words, Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium. When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Pope's visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.

2:58 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Ooooh! Interesting link :-) He seemed to be more liberal back at the Vatican II council days also - wonder why he changed.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Rachi said...

great piece!! thanks for posting it- lots of points for both the Catholic and Orthodox to ponder there.

I disagree with the same points us most Orthodox as stated, the filoque, purgatory, papal infallibility etc. but there are other elements of the Catholic church that I really think the Orthodox can learn from- like the priority they have for convents and monastries.

I love Carmelite spirituality, the rosary, and old latin hymns, but I also love the the divine liturgy, byzantine chants and my prayer rope...sometimes I wonder where I all fit it.
But then I remember something a friend said to me: God didn't cause the schism, people did, so to God, there is no schism. I thought that was an interesting way of looking at things.

it would be good if we could all focus more on our unity in God, rather than the divisions, but I know that there will always be those who argue that the other is "wrong"

there's always hope :)
God Bless
love Rachel xoxo

7:36 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Rachel,

what is a prayer rope? I learned a little Byzantine history in school amd love the achitecture, like Hagia Sophia. I think Orthodox theology is very interesting too ... theosis :-) I'm finding out more about it by reading David Hart's book, The Beauty of the Infinite, but it's slow going.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Rachi said...

Hi Cystal
yeah I am still learning heaps on Orthodox theology, not sure if I could ever read enough!!

a prayer rope is a rope consisting of complicated knots, I think I read somewhere each knot is made of 9 crosses. They are made by monks, and are made in a spirit of prayer. Ropes can contain 33, 50 or 100 knots, with a bead, and sometimes they have a knotted cross as well (the bigger ones more than the smaller).

they are used as an aid in prayer- the bead is for an the "Our Father", and each knot for the "Jesus prayer".

I have a small one, 33 knots, and wear it on my wrist.
hope I explained that ok (and accurately!!)

I would love to visit Hagia Sophia one day...

God Bless
love Rachel xoxo

12:07 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the explonation, Rachel :-)

12:24 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

Crystal --

The story is that 1968 scared him and that's what made him so conservative.

I like what Rachael says about the schism. I personally feel in no way separated from my Orthodox sisters and brothers.

2:21 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

me too about the schism. I posted something a while ago - an article by Cardinal Dulles about Benedict at Vatican II. He told how he was close buddies with Karl Rahner and the other liberals, but that afterwards, he and Rahner "lived on different planets" :-)

3:03 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...


Why did you take down the post on Pedro Arrupe and Hiroshima? It was really interesting.

8:01 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Jeff, I was just in one of those delete moods, I guess.

10:31 AM  

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