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Thursday last week was the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and the last day of the Octave of Christian Unity.
Some years ago Fr. Thomas Loya, an Eastern-rite Catholic priest, gave a talk in which he said (I'm going from memory) the Western Church is the masculine to the Eastern Church's feminine: the West is much larger and more active, whereas the East is less expansive. Western churches thrust upward, whereas Eastern churches are more rounded and shorter. Furthermore the Western mentality is more analytic, where the East is more mystical.1 Both of these principles are essential aspects of the unity that is (or should be) the Church.2
The plan of this post is to use this conceit to understand Church history, and to see how it may help show us the road forward to Christianity unity. DISCLAIMER: Much of this is based on conversations I've had with fellow Christians of various Churches and denominations, so don't think of it as an academic document: it's more like a "cartoon ecclesiology." I offer it to help us understand the broad outlines of Church history, and to stimulate conversation. I welcome any clarifications and corrections that readers may offer.
It seems clear to me that the West is the masculine side essentially because its head is the Papa, the Pope. What we in the West often forget is that Pope wears two hats (tiaras?). We're all familiar with his role as head of the Church, but at least until recently, he also bore the title of "Patriarch of the West."3 Historically there are four apostolic Churches in Christianity: Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and Rome; Constantinople was added later. Each of these Churches is headed by a patriarch who has special charge over the ceremony and discipline of that Church. Of course, as bishops, each of these patriarchs also certifies doctrine as orthodox and catholic in his respective region, but in his added role as head of the Church, the Pope is in charge of doctrine in the entire Christian Church in ensuring correct doctrine (e.g., by approving the decrees of Ecumenical Councils, and rejecting false councils, like the robber council of Ephesus). As Head of the Church, the Pope enforces doctrine, but as Patriarch of the West, he controls discipline and ceremony; the latter role is (traditionally) restricted to the Western Church.
Another thing we Westerners overlook is that, despite the formal mutual excommunications in A.D. 1054 ("The Great Schism"), the East and West were actually in communion until the thirteenth century sacking of Constantinople by soldiers of the Fourth Crusade. This event is probably the saddest of Church history: supposedly Christian soldiers ravaged the great Christian city, raping nuns, and stabling horses in Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful churches in all Christendom. To top it off, after the perpetrators of this crime acknowledged their sin, the Pope forgave them without imposing any substantial penance.
To this day, this painful memory is seared into the Eastern Christian memory. I contend that it colors all of their views and opinions of the Western Church. Using this post's conceit, the sacking was like a man drunkenly raping his wife; the easy forgiveness was like his sober self-justification; the long memory of the East is like that of an injured wife.
Today, it's not unusual to hear Orthodox Christians decry the doctrinal "innovations" of the Catholic Church. I contend that Catholics and Orthodox substantially share the same beliefs. The "innovations" are reformulations of the same doctrines that the Orthodox maintain, but the West's analytic bent and concentrated authority has allowed it more flexibility in expressing these doctrines in new ways to engage a changing world and protect against new errors. (There's a reason Islam didn't develop in the West's backyard.) The Orthodox for their part maintain doctrinal "purity," but at the expense of being frozen in first-millennium formulations and unable to speak to the modern world. The Orthodox sometimes do acknowledge their doctrinal unity with the Catholic Church, but what very understandably stands in their way of consistent acknowledgement is the cultural scar left by the sack of Constantinople.
Unfortunately the West has not always used its authority for the good of the Church. The abuses of the medieval papacy are well known (though often exaggerated), and need no recitation here. Suffice it to say that some of them exercised their authority not for the good of the ruled, but for their own aggrandizement. In northern Europe in particular, the clergy were poorly formed and poorly disciplined. The result was the Protestant Reformation. A Protestant colleague of mine reminds me of the embarrassing fact that Luther didn't leave the Church, but was excommunicated by Rome. It's difficult to decide whether to call the Protestant Churches abandoned children or runaways, but in any event they are estranged from their true home, and not entirely by their own doing.
In reality, authority needs to put itself in service of the Tradition handed down through the bishops from the Apostles. Christian unity cannot be regained without the proper exercise of authority. The abuse of authority illegitimates those particular uses of authority, not the authority itself.
These historical problems have been recognized by Rome and a dialogue has been opened. As Pope John Paul II observed in Ut Unum Sint, "the Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved... the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections. To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join my Predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness" (88).
Within the Catholic Church
Nevertheless not yet widely recognized is the extent to which this imperious exercise of paternal authority has caused damage within the Catholic Church.
This damage endangers the dialogue with other Christians. In the U.S., Roman Catholic bishops were jealous of members of their flock changing to one of the Eastern Rites to be ordained, since in those rites they could be married. They petitioned the Roman Pontiff to forbid Eastern-rite Catholics from ordaining married men in the U.S. This was a clear overextension of Pope's power as Patriarch of the West to the Eastern Rite. If we Catholics can't treat our own well, why would the Orthodox ever trust us to treat them well?
Furthermore, it cannot help the dialogue with the Orthodox, who rightly prize Tradition, to show a cavalier attitude toward Tradition. Unfortunately the Roman authority has at times been exercise at the expense of Tradition, instead of in service to it. The First Vatican Council's decree of "Ex Cathedra" papal pronouncements is an obvious (though commonly misunderstood and exaggerated) continuation of the centralization of power in Rome. Ironically, it is the Second Vatican Council, the supposed council of openness and democracy, that most centralized power. Following the Council (but not actually mandated by its documents), Pope Paul VI unilaterally forbade the traditional liturgy that dated from the Apostles and was codified at Trent—the so-called Tridentine Rite—to institute what is called the "Novus Ordo" or new order of Mass. The effect was to create a rift between tradition and authority that persists to the present.
Adherence to the new rite and the authority on which it rests, instead of adherence to the Faith, has become the de facto litmus test of Catholic belief. Not long ago, for example, the U.S. Bishops mandated standing to receive communion (a practice Cranmer first instituted in the English Reformation to destroy Eucharistic piety) as the norm, and required special episcopal permission for a congregation to receive communion kneeling. (And then they wonder at the faithful's failure to believe in the Real Presence!) It's as if they wanted to flatter their narcissism by distinguishing the power of their own offices from the power of tradition.4 The great concentration of power in Rome has prevented the other bishops from having to "grow up." They still act like children shielded from responsibility—and they have not comported themselves well in bearing increased responsibility. Witness the recent highly publicized scandals of the American Church.
With such juvenile behavior, it can be no surprise when Catholics fail to take their pastors seriously, even when they try to lead their flock to Christ. In Braveheart, the nobles of Scottland have sold out to the English king. William Wallace rises to its defence, but he still sees the need for the nobles, and in particular for Robert the Bruce, to whom he says:
Now tell me, what does that mean to be noble? Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don't follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I.
Similarly, certain segments of the Church hierarchy seem to have abandoned their flocks to the wolves. This doesn't necessitate dispensing with the hierarchy, but in recalling them to their charge.
The crisis in the Church is a crisis of fatherhood. Fatherhood is the proper use of God-given power. St. Paul sets forth the proper use of husbandly authority in chapter 5 of his letter to the Ephesians.:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... (Eph 5:22-25)Fathers, like husbands, must sacrifice their own interests for the good of those they rule. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11).
The Church has taken concrete steps to heal the rift with the Eastern Churches and with the separated brethren of the West. For example, Pope John Paul II's year-2000 apologies, and his overtures to the Orthodox hierarchy, including offering monetary support, no strings attached, to Orthodox clergy in spreading the Gospel.
We need to pray that Rome and the Western hierarchy will one day see in the same light their responsibilities to the faithful who have remained loyal to Rome. We need obedience to appropriate authority to achieve unity, but this unity can only be in the Apostolic Tradition.
1. The concrete reasons for this difference are pretty plain: the East needs more props for liturgy, and has married priests. Plus I think the emphasis on the restfulness of the resurrection, as opposed to the striving of our Lord's passion is an additional reason.
2. I see The Dark Crystal as an allegory of the Schism, written from (possibly) an Anglican point of view. "Many ages ago in our arrogance and delusion, we shattered the pure Crystal, and our world split apart."
3. He inexplicably dropped this title in the last couple years, and it has the Orthodox (and the historically conscious) in a quandry.
4. One might wonder if this narcissism bears any relation to the infiltration of homosexuals into the ranks of the clergy.