Some Remarks on St. Gregory of Narek and East/West Relations

St. Gregory of Narek, the great Armenian poet and theologian who lived at the turn of the second millennium, was far less of a household name than the Coptic Orthodox Church before yesterday’s official announcement that Pope Francis is elevating St. Gregory as a Doctor of the Universal Church. As Rorate Caeli and other outlets have noted, St. Gregory lived and died during a period of history where the whole of the Armenian Church was out of communion with both Catholics and Orthodox. Although several attempts at healing the Armenian/Catholic divide took place between the time of the Crusades and the Council of Florence, official establishment of the sui iuris Armenian Catholic Church did not occur until 1749—nearly eight centuries after St. Gregory’s birth. This fact has stirred up needless panic in some circles, with various accusations of papal chicanery being hurled at the Holy Father for allegedly breaking down the borders of the “true Church” to let in a “schismatic” who might very well have been a “heretic” because “schism” and “heresy” and “being the worst among sinners” are, in the minds of some, all part of the package deal you receive for not being officially Catholic.

The recent—and again needless—controversy over the eternal status of the men I unreservedly refer to as the New Coptic Martyrs prompted some thoughts last week which, in part, took up the reality that numerous saints who are publicly venerated by one or more of the Eastern Catholic churches lived and died outside of the visible borders of the Catholic Church. I offered two examples: Ss. Isaac the Syrian and Gregory Palamas. Had I been a bit more searching about the matter, I should have added St. Gregory of Narek to that list as well.

Fr. John Hunwicke’s thoughts on the subject are worth quoting at length:

Any theological response to this query [over the New Coptic Martyrs] would have to take account of the fact that the calendars of “uniate” churches include commemorations of Saints who died without being in a state of full visible canonical unity with the See of Rome. These bodies include the (Melkite) Patriarchate of Antioch, the See of S Peter, whose Patriarch is, surely, the senior hierarch of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church after his Brother the occupant of the (other) Petrine See of Rome.

And any such response would need carefully to avoid any suggestion that Catholics not of the Latin churches are somehow not ‘real’ Catholics; or that the link between the lex orandi and the lex credendi does not apply to their liturgical rites to precisely the same extent as it does to the rites of the Latin churches.

The matter doesn’t end there, unfortunately. As Owen White recently observed, there are those—including some very good eggs that I am in league with—who are “looking for clear and hard lines everywhere.” That is, they want to be able to say this is the Church; these are the people who are in it; and everyone else, though not necessarily damned, cannot be affirmed as genuine saints, regardless of the sanctity of their lives or the sacrificial nature of their deaths. I believe their instincts to be in the right place; there is just a far broader—and cloudier—historical-ecclesial horizon to take into account.

Certain Catholics of a very traditional bent will have none of this, of course. They are self-assured in their belief that all non-Catholic Eastern Christians are schismatic heretics or heretical schismatics or whatever. A pity then that they may find themselves clutching their chests at my reminder that a certain pontiff known to be neither a renovator nor an ecumaniac, St. Pius X, granted toleration in 1908 to the practice of Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy dispensing their faithful from the once-extant prohibition of communicatio in sacris with the Eastern Orthodox. Could it really be that St. Pius X was abiding a clear and gross violation of Divine Law? Or did this saintly pontiff, like the saintly Greek Catholic bishop who sought the Pope’s express tolerance, see a bit deeper into the nature of East/West relations than we, good Catholics of the 21st Century, are accustomed to?