Friday, June 17, 2016

Let the Holy Spirit Shed Her Wisdom

Patriarch Bartholomew of
It was only three and a half years after the 1959 announcement of the Second Vatican Council that 2500 Bishops, Abbots, and General Superiors of Religious Congregations gathered for the Council’s first session in the nave of the Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican to begin deliberations that would radically alter the face of Catholicism throughout the world.  On the other hand, it has taken the Orthodox Churches fifty-five years to prepare for the first Holy and Great Council, the first such gathering of the Orthodox in 1139 years and the first since the Great Schism which divided the Orthodox and Catholic worlds.  (This refers to the Fourth Council of Constantinople, regarded by some, but not by all as “Ecumenical,” which healed the Photian Schism and was actually held not in 887 but 879-80.)
The rules are different for this Holy and Great Council than for an authentically Ecumenical Council.  In an Ecumenical Council—and here I am referring to the first seven Councils which are accepted by both Churches of the East and West—all bishops are invited to participate and the vote of each bishop counts.  There is also free (and often free-for-all) discussion of the agenda with decision by majority and not by universal consensus.
The rules set forth for the upcoming Holy and Great Council to be held the end of this week in Crete call for each self-governing Orthodox Church to send 24 Bishop-delegates and each Church will have but a single vote in the final deliberations.   Moreover, the documents of the Council have been pre-agreed on (with some exception regarding the proposed legislation on marriage) and not subject to editing upon the discussion and voting.  It is then quite rigidly structured.
And now, at the last minute, the Holy and Great Synod appears to be imploding as several of the constituent Churches—including the most powerful, the Russian Orthodox Church—withdraws.  Orthodoxy is not a single Church, nor even like Catholicism, a communion of Churches but rather a family of Churches in communion with one another.  Let me explain.  The Roman Catholic Church is a single Church comprised of local Churches (dioceses) who have irrevocably submitted their autonomy to the Patriarchal Church of the West, the Bishopric of Rome, the papacy.  The Catholic Church (as distinguished from the Roman Catholic Church) is a communion of Churches, the largest and most influential of which is the Roman Catholic Church, in Eucharistic Fellowship with the Bishop of Rome.  Some of these Churches in Communion are the Melkite Patriarchate and its constituent local Churches (eparchies or dioceses), The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishopric (some would say Patriarchate) and its constituent Churches, The Maronite Patriarchate of Antioch and its constituent Churches, The Syro-Malabar Major Archbishopric and its constituent Churches, and others.  While there is, and certainly more so after Vatican II, a certain amount of autonomy exercised by these Churches in communion with Rome, it does not compare with the total independence of each of the fourteen Churches that comprise Orthodoxy.  The authority exercised by the Patriarch of Constantinople over the other Churches is purely titular and without any means of enforcement.  Thus the Patriarch is unable to prevent the Holy and Great Synod from dissolving before it even assembles.
There are factions within Orthodoxy that have long militated against the assembly of a Holy and Great Council.  One motivation is political.  While the primacy belongs to Constantinople, the power has long belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate which holds—by far—the allegiance of the largest number of believers.   Moscow has long been jealous of the influence of Constantinople and anxious to take over, as the “Third Rome” the universal primacy.  But even among the smaller Churches there has been a certain amount of jostling over precedence as might be expected in a religious culture so sensitive to the details of ceremonial as in Orthodoxy.
Even more serious, however, is that there is a significant number of Orthodox who fear that any assembly of bishops will bring the Church into encounter with modern heresies.  Many Orthodox oppose ecumenism for fear that it will introduce into Orthodoxy the “modernist heresies” that have infected the West.   Indeed Ecumenism is seen by many, particularly in Russia and Greece, as the arch-heresy.  The lack of a contemporary theological education on the part of many clergy and bishops in the more remote corners of the Orthodox world has confused theological substance with human traditions—a situation with which we Catholics are not unfamiliar on the part of our Katholik Krazies.  Changes in the liturgical calendar, for example, are often treated with the same apprehension as would be the controversy over the Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.  I am not saying that the krazies in the Orthodox world are irrational to fear a Council.  Assemble a Church and should the Holy Spirit decide to process from the Father (and the Son) onto that assembly, who knows what will happen?  Vatican II is pudding-proof of that.


  1. Fascinating stuff....please give us more. So, without having me do a crash course in 1,000 years or whatever of (Catholic) Church history or getting a PhD in theology...there are "Catholic" Churches that are not ROMANA Catholic but are loyal to Rome ? So why don't they just call themselves RCCs ? Why are they holding out for their separate identity ? Is this a Sacraments thing or a loyalty to the Pope thing ? If they did something tomorrow like women priests or SSM, would they still be in communion with Rome ?

    Finally, the RCC is what % of the "Catholic" Church -- 95%? 99% ?

    Thanks -- Anonymous in NY

    1. The Church is Catholic, not Roman. Roman is simply the Rite to which most of us belong. These various Churches in Communion with Rome are ancient Churches--some going back to the Apostles, with distinct identities and traditions that it is essential for them to preserve even as it is essential for us to preserve (and in some cases recover) the essentials (note, essentials, not peripheral traditions) of the Roman Rite. They have no desire to be Roman and in fact, since Vatican II, have actively been purging Roman customs that have crept into their rites and canon law over the centuries. There is no danger of them moving ahead of the larger Catholic Church on ordination of women to the priesthood (diaconate is another question) or Same Sex Marriage, but such action would undoubtedly cause a break in the communion, a schism.

  2. It seems to me, perhaps, that this unfolding series of events, when contrasted with Vatican II and its half-century follow up, shows an advantage that the Catholic Church has on a structural level as compared with the Orthodox Churches. It seems that in the geopolitical battle between which of the two patriarchs is actually first, there is long-standing friction between Constantinople, which has the history and symbolic value, and Moscow, which has the actual numbers, wealth, and (at the moment) friendly and cooperative secular government. By none of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches actually being able to compel one another to pursue a specific course of action or posture towards something, the O.C. is limited in its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Even if all of the churches are ideologically in sync, there are frequently internecine politics or bad history that come between the various groups.

    By contrast, with the entire worldwide Catholic Church ultimately being ruled by the Pope, whose Curia has selected all of the bishops of the world, some of whom are personally elevated by the pope to the College of Cardinals, who then in turn elect the next pope, there is a closed circuit created. This is not without its significant weaknesses at times, and still ossifies the Church at times to have merely token or heavily delayed responses to a changing world, but it also means *should* the Church decide to actually do something, everyone either gets in line and does it, 1.2 billion strong, or else they are schismatics and essentially become a Catholic-flavored Protestant group. My point is this: while the Church often moves at the approximate pace of a glacier, it also basically moves as a whole, and there is tremendous strength, resilience, and staying power in unity.