And yet, now that I am Orthodox, I see a couple of things about the East-West relationship more clearly than I did back then, as a Catholic. Catholics tend to think of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy as relatively minimal, and much easier to overcome than they actually are. Even if Catholic and Orthodox leaders came into dialogue with the greatest possible amount of goodwill, there are theological facts that cannot be ignored or overcome. The 800 years of history since the Great Schism has seen tremendous theological development in the West. Whether this represents progress or decline is beside the point; the point is, Catholicism is now fundamentally different from Orthodoxy on some important points. For someone like me, it’s sobering and even sad to realize how far apart the churches are, because I can’t see how reunion is possible on a basis of shared belief, without requiring either Catholicism or Orthodoxy to change things that can’t be up for negotiation. What I’m trying to say is I thought as a Catholic that the Orthodox had a lot more room to move than they really do, and were just being obstinate, and fixating on historical grievances. Even though you can find without too much trouble individual Orthodox believers who don’t require much provocation to launch into an anti-Catholic rant about the Sack of Constantinople, the plain fact is that even if you forget all the historical animosity, you have two expressions of the Christian faith whose self-understanding would appear to close the door to the restoration of full communion. Which is not to say that we cannot and should not work for unity at every possible level. But I just don’t see how unity in every respect is possible. ~Rod Dreher
Rod’s entire post is very good and worth reading. I remember reading Rod’s WSJ article when it first came out. I had not yet converted to Orthodoxy by May 2001, but I was certainly well on my way to embracing Orthodoxy. In the event, it was not for another year and a half that I would do so fully and be baptised, but I was already fairly sure that this would be where I would go. Seeing that Rod has changed his view some, I am terribly interested in rehashing all of the reasons why I reacted very strongly against the article when I read it originally, but one point stood out for me that came back to me when I re-read the article:
There are deep theological divisions between East and West, and any ecumenism that pretends otherwise is false. But isn’t working more closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause?
This, like the references to Pope John Paul II’s good works of anticommunism (which were very good and which do not appear to the Orthodox to be terribly relevant to the discussion about relations between the confessions), struck me as conveying the gap between Catholics and Orthodox as well as anything I had read. To help explain that gap, these lines deserve some additional comment.
First, the question of ecumenism. It isn’t, I think, that ecumenically minded Catholics and Orthodox have undertaken efforts at reconciliation consciously supporting a “false” ecumenism that does not take full account of the depth of the divisions. They do not pursue this path in the full knowledge that they are ignoring glaring problems–I do not presume to accuse anyone of such willful neglect of the truth in this case. Instead, almost of necessity, in order to begin any ecumenist venture people from both confessions must convince themselves that reconciliation is at least remotely possible. They then convince themselves that reconciliation is much more straightforward than it really is and that doctrinal disputes are not necessarily as grave as they may actually be. Orthodox negotiations with non-Chalcedonian churches often follow the same path, where somehow the people working on the commissions and committees to determine whether or not reunion is possible always manage to come back with optimistic answers of, “Yes, we basically believe the same thing,” when anyone not involved in the effort looks at the same problem and simply cannot see it.
The reason why many Orthodox, especially Traditionalist Orthodox, tend to look down on ecumenist efforts is typically because these efforts are almost always bound to be just this kind of “false” ecumenism that pretends the differences are minor, semantic or culturally constructed and therefore of no deeper significance when they are anything but minor, semantic or the product of cultural misunderstanding. This is not really as much of a knock on the ecumenists as it sounds. Ecumenists have to make these sorts of arguments about some of these disputes, because otherwise they and everyone else know that the disputes will be intractable if there is not some way found to go “around” them by relegating them to the category of historical and cultural accident.
This is why Rod’s 2001 line about “fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause” expresses the Catholic-Orthodox gap so well. With the exception of some spirited medieval defenders, including Thomas Aquinas, and the addition’s traditional place in all Western forms of the Nicene Creed (and in spite of the Catechism’s endorsement of the addition), Catholics have tended to regard the entire Filioque question as something not much better than “fussing” about terminology. If you push some theologians hard enough, I bet they would say, “What big difference does it really make anyway?” Between a Latin mind that could entertain the scholastic principle of diversi, non adversi and the Byzantine mind that was focused intently on akribeia, there was bound to be tension. But once the significance of the issue itself no longer seemed to be equally great in the eyes of both confessions, a resolution of the controversy was all but impossible.
In addition to the tremendous dogmatic significance of the change (and again, this is an area where, even when Catholic theologians fully appreciate Orthodox objections, they usually cannot quite take it as being as meaningful as we do), Filioque became bound up with claims of papal authority and prerogative during the unionist episodes in Byzantium in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. That is what makes it such a charged issue beyond its simply theological significance. If you think the Orthodox have irritatingly long memories about 1204, just get some folks started talking about Lyons II (1274) and Michael VIII or Ferrara-Florence (1438-39), John VIII and Bessarion. Athonite monks cultivate the memory of what is sometimes called Michael VIII’s “reign of terror” that he inflicted in the wake of Lyons II to enforce the union on unwilling Byzantines. The name of John Bekkos, hero to Henry Chadwick and ecumenists everywhere and Michael VIII’s patriarch, remains a curse in the mouths of many Greek Orthodox.
Not everyone might be willing to say along with the fifteenth century Byzantine admiral Lukas Notaras some variant of, “Better the turban than the mitre” or the Athonite cry of “Orthodoxy or Death!” but most Orthodox still view this attitude, as they view the stories about the martyrdom of Tsar-Martyr Lazar at Kosovo Polje (where, according to the hagiography, the military defeat of 1389 comes across as a spiritual victory for the Kingdom), as something of an ideal. To put it bluntly, it is difficult to negotiate with people whose history (or their interpretation of that history at any rate) tells them that the act of negotiation itself is usually an unacceptable compromise.
St. Mark Evgenikos, the lone holdout at Florence, is commemorated as one of the three Pillars of Orthodoxy in fairly pointed anti-Latin fashion along with St. Photios and St. Gregory Palamas, and he, like St. Maximos or St. Athanasios before him, represents to the Orthodox a heroic defender of the Faith. While anti-ecumenists have tended to emphasise these figures more than others, it is the case that there is a certain kind of instinctive anti-ecumenism woven into the history and mentality of Orthodox peoples. Unionism has occasioned too many betrayals and too much bitterness for some to ever consider it a legitimate path. For those who do not understand this, I am afraid they may never understand, which is half of the problem.