Self-Sufficiency vs. Mutuality: Reflections on the Great Schism and Catholic-Orthodox Reconciliation

One way of thinking about the East-West schism of the past thousand years is that it occurred because each of the sides came to believe it could be the church, wholly the church, without the other.  Each began to envision an ecclesial future in which the other had no place.  For a variety of reasons, this sense of self-sufficiency was stronger, earlier, in the Latin than in the Greek church.  None of the four major Eastern Sees was as prepared as Rome was to detach itself from the rest that made up what came to be called the Pentarchy (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome).  The circumstances in which Rome did detach itself were complex, characterized by long and troubling periods of official Byzantine iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries.  Eastern hierarchs themselves, during this period, made much of the singular authority of Rome as a counterweight to Byzantine iconoclast emperors.  After the 7th ecumenical council (II Nicaea, in 787), Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople, responding to those who questioned the orthodoxy of that council, wrote the following:

This Synod possesses the highest authority....  In fact it was held in the most legitimate and regular fashion conceivable, because according to the divine rules established from the beginning it was directed and presided over by that glorious portion of the Western Church, I mean by the Church of Ancient Rome.  Without them, no dogma discussed in the Church, even sanctioned in a preliminary fashion by the canons and ecclesiastical usages, can be considered to be approved, or abrogated... (Patrologia Graeca 100, 597A, 621D; translation as found in Dvornik, Byzantium, 96)   

What's most striking here is that for Patriarch Nicephorus, the Byzantine church couldn't proceed as if it were the whole church, apart from the church in the West: the Christian East needed Rome.  The same sense of need for the other was not reciprocal, however.  Another Eastern hiearch, Nicetas of Nicomedia, writing in the 12th century, complained precisely that

the Roman Church to which we do not deny the primacy among her sisters, and whom we recognize as holding the highest place in any general council, the first place of honor, that Church has separated herself from the rest....  When, as a result of these circumstances, she gathers a council of the Western bishops without making us (in the East) a part of it... [then] although we are not in disagreement with the Roman Church in the matter of the Catholic faith, how can we be expected to accept these decisions which were taken without our advice and of which we know nothing, since we were not at that same time gathered in council? (Anselm of Havelberg, Dialogi, III, Patrologia Latina 188, 1219AD; English translation as found in Dvornik, Byzantium, 145-46)

From Nicetas's perspective, the mistaken move on the part of the church of Rome was to act apart from the other major churches, all of them together referred to by Nicetas as "sisters".  The concept of sister churches entails a kind of mutual belonging and interdependence.  Interestingly, there had been a time (415AD) when one of Rome's bishops, Innocent I, had willingly referred to Antioch as the "sister" of the church of Rome; and indeed he suggested then that sisters can't tolerate being separated from each other for very long.  (Ep. 23, PL 20, 546A)  As Rome's sense of self-sufficiency increased, especially with the Gregorian reforms in the 11th century, it called itself the mother, rather than sister, not only of all the other Western churches but of the major Eastern Sees as well.  Rome would establish a Latin patriarch in Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade (1204), and, in the post-Reformation period, parallel Latin patriarchates in such traditionally Orthodox lands as Antioch and Jerusalem.  Orthodoxy, by contrast, has never to this day appointed an Orthodox bishop of Rome.  Nor has Orthodoxy -- until now, at least -- held any council that it identified as "ecumenical" since communion with Rome was broken.  In these respects, Orthodoxy in concrete practice has continued to regard itself as being in some sense less than the whole church of Christ, less than self-sufficient.  It has a more vivid memory of the "undivided" church of the first millennium and a more carefully preserved vision, at least implicitly, of a future in which full communion between the two will be restored.

A huge piece of the story of Christianity in the past hundred years has been how the Catholic Church in the 20th century came to recognize again its need for the Christian East in all the latter's distinctiveness.  The Catholic Church dramatically broke out of its previous mode of complete self-sufficiency.  It came again to speak of itself as sister church, and not mother, of the Orthodox.  It took all sorts of actions and made numerous official statements, such as in John Paul II's Orientale Lumen, that conveyed the idea that without Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church cannot be fully itself.  Pope Francis, who will be meeting next month with Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem, fifty years after the historic meeting there between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, has spoken of what the Catholic Church stands to continue learning from Orthodoxy about synodality and collegiality.  Formally, the Catholic Church has not undone its self-identification as the true church of Christ, but it has nuanced this self-understanding considerably with its shift from saying that the church of Christ is the Catholic Church to saying that it "subsists in" the Catholic Church.  Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of that phrase, and some Orthodox hardliners -- as well as Catholic hardliners -- have tried to argue that it changes nothing, but I would argue (and will, in a future post) that understood correctly, what Catholic ecclesiology really means by saying that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church is actually consistent with a relationship of genuine interdependence and mutuality between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.   

What looms now as an equal or greater question and challenge in East-West relations is not whether the Catholic Church can admit its need to be reunited with Orthodoxy, as for so long it did not do, but whether Orthodoxy can admit its need for reconciliation with the Christian West.  From the mid-18th century on, Orthodoxy has come more and more to mirror and to echo, in its own rhetoric and stance, the kind of self-sufficiency and triumphalism for which in centuries past it chided Rome, e.g. in the words of Nicetas quoted above.  Nicetas in the 12th century had no difficulty in referring to Rome as a sister church -- in spite of the break in communion that had occurred, for that break was still regarded as less than permanent -- but there are Orthodox today who refuse to recognize the Catholic Church as a sister church of the Orthodox.  A significant reason for their refusal is an acceptance of the schism as a permanent rupture, a fait accompli, rather than as a tear in the fabric of the church that has never been absolutely complete, and might (indeed, must) still be repaired, just as divisions that opened up between Greek East and Latin West in the first millennium -- some of them lasting for many years -- were healed without either side having ceased to be church in the meantime.

Georges Florovsky maintained that "even divided Christianity is still one Christianity, at least in aspiration" ("The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement," Theology Today 7:1 [April 1950], 69).  It's true that an entire millennium of division reflects a deeper wound than the briefer interruptions in communion that occurred in the ancient "undivided" church.  But insofar as the Psalmist in his prayer to God is correct in saying that "a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past" (Ps. 90:4), we should perhaps be careful to avoid making too much of the length of time, per se.  Nor should we overlook the many signs that some healing of the wound of the Great Schism has been occurring as the Catholic West has turned much more receptively toward the Christian East in the past half century and more.  As Pope and Patriarch meet this May in Jerusalem, the place where the Lord prayed that "they may all be one" (Jn. 17:21), we may join ourselves to this prayer of our Lord in great hope of further progress along the path of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, traveled in truth and love.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics. He is currently vice president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America

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