Closing Comments (For Now) on Orthodoxy and Catholicism

A single sentence in my earlier post, “A Brief Comment on Rod Dreher, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism,” has caused discomfort among a few readers on Facebook, some of whom appear to be converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. This is the offending line: “If there is anything distinctly ‘Eastern’ in Orthodoxy, it is its occasionally obstinate refusal to be open, honest, and self-critical, particularly when it comes to its complicated, and sometimes tragic, relationship with both Roman and Greek Catholicism.” Admittedly, the statement could use some unpacking and refinement in the light of both Remi Brague’s work on the (arguably unique) cultural openness of what we common refer to as “the West” and Fr. Robert Taft’s repeated calls for self-critical Orthodoxy. To say that openness and, later, self-criticism have eluded the Orthodox East over the centuries should not be a controversial statement unless, of course, one naively buys into the “pure East/degenerate West” rhetoric that is commonplace in certain Orthodox circles. As recent scholarship has shown, it wasn’t always so, though there seems to be a very long road left to travel before that finding becomes common knowledge.

Without laying any claim to covering even a fraction of the scholarly landscape, allow me to point to two fairly recent books which upset the claim that Orthodoxy, specifically Orthodoxy in the late Byzantine Empire, was entirely closed off and insular. The first, Orthodox Readings of Augustine (SVS Press 2008), collects a series of papers on the reception of St. Augustine in the Christian East, including insightful details on the use of Augustine’s De Trinitate by St. Gregory Palamas. Despite the existence of legitimate theological disagreements between the Bishop of Hippo and a number of Eastern Fathers, the anthology makes clear that the Byzantines did not reject him in toto but rather approached his work in the type of open but critical fashion expected from genuine men of learning. When it comes to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas—an even more polarizing figure for certain Eastern Christian factions—, Marcus Plested’s seminal achievement, Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, splashes cold water on the ubiquitous myth that the Orthodox never had any positive dealings with his thought. Unfortunately, this open engagement with Thomism and other schools of Latin theology came to a swift end with the fall of Constantinople and the dark centuries imposed by the Turks.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the late Byzantine engagement with Latin theology continued on after the so-called “Palamite synthesis,” a fact which ought to challenge the bunker mentality exhibited among contemporary neo-Palamites. For instance, Fr. Christiaan Kappes’s article, “A Latin Defense of Mark of Ephesus at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39),” 59 Greek Orthodox Theological Review 161 (2014), erases the Western portrait of Mark as a closeminded, obstinate, anti-Latin bigot too intoxicated on Palamite mysticism to comprehend the sterling rationalism of the Latins. At the same time, Kappes shows that that the Eastern image of Mark as a fierce defender of “pure Orthodoxy” against “corrupt Catholicism” needs serious revision as well. Mark of Ephesus, according to Kappe’s detailed analysis of his life and work, remained a stalwart defender of Eastern Christianity’s legitimate doctrinal, theological, and spiritual patrimony, but not at the expense of trying to learn what he could from Latin theology (both Thomism and Scotism) and find a way forward to healing Christendom’s tragic divide.

Sadly, contemporary Orthodoxy, at least at the popular level, is too beholden to certain tales about the past which bolster petty prejudices and untenable conclusions today. As Taft has stated many times, there remains an unwillingness on the part of the Orthodox to come clean about their past, one filled with plenty of despicable acts that demand genuine repentance. But as Taft has also stated, neither Catholics nor Orthodox have clean hands in history. Both sides ought to be held accountable for what they say and do or, rather, what they don’t say and refuse to do.

To close on a semi-positive note, let me restate a point I have found myself making several times over the past couple of weeks, namely that Orthodox priests and bishops, by and large, do a better job preserving and passing on the Apostolic Faith than their estranged Catholic counterparts. But let me temper this observation with a comment I made in the previous post, which is that Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, has failed to be an authentic source of cultural and spiritual renewal in its ancestral homelands. The reasons for this no doubt have something to do with the pathologies of late modernity, pathologies which infect East and West alike. Can the Orthodox, on their own, provide the cure? No, and neither can Catholicism. We need a united Church, and it’s almost unimaginable how that will happen under present circumstances. What we really need then is a miracle.


  1. Thank you for not giving him the backhanded compliment of being called “_Blessed_ Augustine”.

    Regarding those Orthodox who would like to play a similar game with St. Thomas: I remember one time an old Russian woman, Orthodox, who fled the KGB to come here with her family after her spiritual father was murdered, suggested that I read St. Theresa of Avila’s _Interior Castle_. “But,” I replied with mock indignation, “isn’t she _after_ the Schism?” The woman inhaled on her cigarette, slowly exhaled out of the side of her mouth, leaned forward, and with her thick accent slowly stated: “God make saint.”

    1. I love that anecdote, Gregory.

      And I know this little babushka was Russian, not Greek, but for some reason she reminds me of YiaYia from the yogurt commercials. :)

  2. Reunification will come when both sides want it. Sadly, right now, the Orthodox side, particularly the Russian Orthodox side, doesn’t want it. Perhaps it will take another generation or two, or three, to see the true cost of the divide, as well as the utter vacuity of the rationalizations for maintaining it.

  3. You say that both east and west are somewhat crippled, and posit that only unification is the answer to healing; why is unification this panacea? Where’s the logic that this is THE answer? Two cripples don’t equal a healthy runner.

    How hard would it really be to start acting more as if we were one? I’ve only heard of the Pope of Rome doing anything bi-ritual, for example. You’d think the Metropolitan Archbishop of Paris or New York or any-big-city would be able to educate himself to be bi-ritual, or have canons on hand to guide him.

    All talk, a lot of hot air. Maybe the Churches are the origin of global warming

    1. Are any Byzantine Orthodox bishops bi-ritual?

      On Byzantine Orthodox inability to ever offer self-criticism, their centuries long persecution of the Oriental Orthodox is never, ever mentioned. Or their inquisition against the Russian Old Believers, they really do have historical amnesia.

      1. No they’re not, but they aren’t the ones so hot to trot as westerners are; it’d be only logical for the onus to be on those who are most enthusiastic.

        Also, many Catholics tell me that the filioque issue is blown way out of proportion by Orthodox; some know that when the creed is said in Greek in Rome, it is without the filioque. So, if it’s not that big a deal and it’s ok to say the Creed sans filioque, why insist on it at all?

        1. Stephen, in the city I live near, there are several eastern rite Catholic Churches, three Byzantine, one Chaldean, and one Syrian; they have their bishops who are more than expert in celebrating the eastern rites. The Byzantine Orthodox? Well…’nuff said.

        2. On the Filioque, in both English and Latin it is not heretical…and it was inserted, in the west, but several synods. Not by the Pope as you keep insisting, even when real history has been pointed out.

          1. Dale, am I wrong in understanding that one Pope, Leo in the ninth century, said that the Filioque should not ever be in the Creed? And that later Popes changed this?

            1. No you are not. The Filioque was inserted by an Emperor, Charles the Great, into the Creed in his kingdom against the inroads of the Arians, the Pope. Leo II, supported the original Creed, but it was not later inserted by the personal whims of a Pope, but by councils in the west; again against the Arians and their rejection of the divinity of the Person of Christ. We have gone over this before.

              Both Sts Hilary of Poitiers, Ephraim the Syrian, Ambrose, Cyril of Alexandria, and Pope Leo I all supported the Filioque.

              It is not heretical, but should never have been inserted into the Creed. But to state that it was done on the personal whim of a Pope is not true; the Synod of Friuli, Italy in 796 supported its insertion and later it was endorsed in 809 at the local Council of Aachen. All against the position taken by Pope Leo III.

            2. One should also mention that the diocese and city of Rome and the Italian Church were some of the last hold-outs in insertion the Filioque into the Creed and this was not done until the 11th century, by a demand of an Emperor, not the Pope. The final hold-out was the very conservative diocese of Paris, which did not insert the Filioque until 1240.

              The Greeks seemed to have latched onto this simply in their attempt to further the disruption between the Greek and Latin Churches, in the same manner in which the Greeks latched on to minor incidentals in their barrage against the Oriental Orthodox in the 6th century.

              Of course, only the Armenians now use the Creed as formulated by an Ecumenical Council, if anyone has a right to cast aspersions on this issue, it is they.

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