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The Imperative and Requirements of Orthodoxy

On Sunday evening, January 29, 2006, the St Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel was packed during Vespers for the feast day of the Three Hierarchs, followed by the annual Fr Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture. During the service, a collective gasp was heard as a prayer was intoned for the ailing Avery Cardinal Dulles, the keynote speaker for that evening’s lecture. At the end of the service, Dr Paul Meyendorff, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, announced that the Cardinal had fallen ill earlier that day and would be unable to present his talk on “The Imperative of Orthodoxy”.

In his place, Rev Joseph T Lienhard, SJ, professor of theology at Fordham University read the cardinal’s prepared speech. A diverse and standing-room-only crowd filled the Metropolitan Philip Auditorium. The speech began with a clarification of the word, “orthodoxy” as it was used in the title. Fr Joseph read, “Orthodoxy is right praise in liturgy and right teaching; doctrine which is true, sound and concordant with the church.” Several subsections of the speech included, the value of orthodoxy, the history of orthodoxy, objections to orthodoxy and the perils of orthodoxy. He concluded with, “Orthodoxy is like a romance, full of surprises for those who explore it.” ~St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

This event came to my attention at church yesterday, and all of us who heard were rather bewildered by the idea that a Catholic cardinal would give a talk on Orthodoxy (or even “orthodoxy”) at an Orthodox theological seminary. It is, of course, unfortunate that Cardinal Dulles became ill, and I, for one, hope that he is well, but the entire episode brings to mind a question: “What were they thinking?”

Let me preface this with a few irenic points. From the little snippet in the description at the seminary website, there was nothing obviously objectionable in Cardinal Dulles’ remarks (though I daresay the seminary would hardly publicise anything that might be objectionable), and they seem profitable in much the same way that Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is mostly profitable. Second, I understand that the Orthodox do not have a monopoly on the use of the word orthodoxy, just as Catholics do not have one on the words catholic and catholicity. Third, I grant that the more serious Catholic theologians, of which Cardinal Dulles is certainly one, presumably have as much commitment to their understanding of what constitutes orthodoxy as the Orthodox have to theirs. All of that being granted, again I ask, “What were they thinking?”

These are the sorts of events that undoubtedly seem like a very clever sort of Orthodox ecumenism to its practitioners: show that prominent, important Catholics also value “orthodoxy,” and soon enough we’ll begin to think only about the things we have in common. This is the sort of clever ecumenism that has prompted the shift in terminology to calling the anti-Chalcedonian churches Oriental Orthodox because, well, they believe in an orthodoxy, too. Not exactly our Orthodoxy, mind you, but an orthodoxy all the same, and that’s better than nothing, isn’t it? Of course, part and parcel of orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is that there be complete agreement and precision (akribeia) in understanding and practise. If akribeia does not matter, many of our holy Fathers among the Saints suffered and struggled against compromising persecutors for no reason. That akribeia doesn’t simply mean getting the “big things” (the Trinity, Christology, sacraments) right and not worrying about “non-essentials,” because all of these things were entrusted to us and it was not really given to us to determine what was and was not essential. But between Catholics and Orthodox or between Orthodox and anti-Chalcedonians, for instance, there is not even agreement on some of the “big things.” So why this semantic game with the word “orthodoxy”?

It is just this sort of clever ecumenism, like the language of “two lungs” expressed at Balamand, which sounds very nice but ultimately comes off as rather superficial, that irks Orthodox Traditionalists from all jurisdictions and makes us wary of every kind of ecumenism. There is assuredly some good kind of effort to reconcile separated Christians, but from the Orthodox perspective this has always been premised on reconciling the separated to the Church, not vice-versa.

As St. Cyprian’s treatise reminded me the other day, homonoia (oneness of mind) is indispensable to real unity and, thus, to real Orthodoxy. Without that prior agreement, Christians might gather together and yet the Lord would not be present among them. One quality of any orthodoxy that remotely resembles Orthodoxy is the love of the Truth. Part of that love of Truth is love for our fellow man, whom we cannot rightfully deceive with false promises or affirmations of agreement when we know that agreement does not exist. Inviting Cardinal Dulles to speak on the topic of orthodoxy for the premiere theological lecture at the seminary, which may or may not have been intentionally provocative, was nonetheless deceptive, as it was meant, I assume, to blur distinctions, muddle the language we use and obviate the very real differences that plainly prevent our two confessions from sharing homonoia. That is how many Orthodox will receive the news of this talk, and will further harden them against genuine reconciliation in the day when God wills that it should come. That is tragic, and it is the mistake that all those who flirt with a false sense of unity where, unfortunately, no unity exists.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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