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Bridging the East-West divide

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  • Fr John Brian
    Bridging the East-West divide Benedict set to carry on John Paul II s dream of Christian unity By CHRISTOPHER MERRILL National Catholic Reporter, September 2,
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2005
      Bridging the East-West divide
      Benedict set to carry on John Paul II's dream of Christian unity

      National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005

      Even as the French and Dutch electorate voted down the European Union
      constitution, putting on hold the process of European integration, Pope
      Benedict XVI was calling for the reunification of Eastern and Western
      Christendom. In his first papal trip, to the Italian seaport of Bari,
      Benedict reinforced the theme of his sermon at his inauguration Mass, in
      which he called for Christian unity, pledging to make the cause of
      reunification a “fundamental” commitment of his papacy. In the end,
      Christian unity may prove to be more enduring than any treaty negotiated by
      the parliamentarians in Brussels, providing spiritual direction for a
      continent adrift in both political and theological terms.

      The reunion of the Eastern and Western churches was the dream of Pope
      Benedict’s predecessor. Pope John Paul II’s failure to heal the schism may
      well be driving the new pope’s agenda. There was much speculation upon
      Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election in April that he would use his papacy
      to revive religion in an increasingly secularized Europe. But if we take him
      at his word, which he speaks as Christ’s earthly vicar, he may have his eye
      on an even bigger prize -- bridging the divide that dates from the anathemas
      exchanged between papal legates and the ecumenical patriarch of
      Constantinople in 1054.

      In fact, even before 1054 the two sides of the Holy Roman Empire had been
      growing apart for centuries as a result of the physical distance between
      Rome and Constantinople, cultural and linguistic differences, and the
      separate economic and political challenges facing them. Theological
      disagreements masked the main dispute: papal claims. The Greeks, following
      apostolic practice and the tradition of the first seven ecumenical councils,
      advocated a consensual approach to solving problems, while the Latin West
      remembered that Jesus had anointed Peter as the rock upon which to build his
      church. Thus if the pope is viewed in the East as first among equals, among
      the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and
      Rome, he holds an incomparably higher place in the West. This has been
      especially true in the wake of the first Vatican Council (1869-70), when
      papal infallibility was proclaimed -- a decision the East does not

      It was, in short, an issue of governance, not unlike what former French
      President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and his committee tried to resolve by
      writing a constitution for the growing European Union. And just as French
      and Dutch voters have cast the future of the European Union into doubt, so
      did Eastern Christians disdain the councils that attempted to reunite the
      church, at Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1438-39.

      The first council involved Emperor Michael VIII of Constantinople, who in
      1261 captured the city back from the Latins who had taken it over in 1204
      during the Fourth Crusade. Michael’s conquest of Constantinople stirred up
      hostility among his Latin neighbors, and at Lyons, he was seeking papal
      support to ward off attacks from the Italian Charles of Anjou. Accordingly,
      the Orthodox delegates at Lyons accepted papal primacy and the doctrine of
      the filioque (literally, “of the Son”), a sixth-century Spanish addition to
      the Nicene Creed stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from a single
      fount of divinity -- “from the Father through the Son” -- but from the
      Father and the Son.

      The delegates’ acceptance of this doctrine led to widespread resistance and
      counter-resistance in the larger Orthodox world. Orthodox divines argued
      that since the filioque clause had not been sanctioned by an ecumenical
      council, a union based on faulty doctrine was doomed. In northern Greece,
      for example, on the Holy Mountain of Athos, more than two dozen monks locked
      themselves in the tower of the Bulgarian monastery and castigated the
      imperial envoys seeking their support for reunification. The envoys burned
      the tower down. The martyred monks became saints in the Orthodox world.
      Emperor Michael was deemed an apostate. And his sister declared, “Better
      that my brother’s empire should perish, than the purity of the Orthodox

      The political situation in Byzantium had worsened considerably by the time
      of the Council of Florence, with the Ottoman Turks advancing on
      Constantinople. Though the delegates made a sincere attempt to bridge their
      differences at Florence, the union proclaimed there was no more enduring
      than at Lyons. Within 15 years the Ottomans had succeeded in taking
      Constantinople, and Byzantium was no more.

      The divisions between the two sides have deepened in the centuries since.
      While the Eastern church struggled to survive under the yokes of the Ottoman
      and Soviet empires, the Western church saw its authority whittled away by
      the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. The Russian Orthodox prelates
      who complain about the influx of Protestant missionaries since the end of
      Communism are echoing the sentiments of Roman Catholic clergy who for
      hundreds of years have had to navigate a changing religious terrain. When
      Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the emerging democracies of the
      former Warsaw pact belonged to a New Europe, he was unwittingly pointing to
      some of the fault lines in Christendom, which must be taken into account in
      any discussion of union, economic, political and religious. The recent
      setback to European unification is but the latest chapter in a
      millennial-old story.

      Likewise Pope Benedict’s efforts at rapprochement. In the 20th century,
      Anglican-Orthodox conferences were held in London, Bucharest and Moscow,
      leading to a statement of agreement in which high-ranking ecclesiastics
      concluded that the differences between the churches are not insoluble. And
      in his last years Pope John Paul II intimated that even the issue of papal
      infallibility -- a first condition for any dialogue with Orthodoxy -- was
      open for discussion. This is no guarantee, of course, that change is in the
      offing. There is enough distrust on either side to make European Union
      squabbles look minor. But it is a starting point for further dialogue. As
      the Protestant theologian Karl Barth suggested, “The union of the churches
      is not made, but we discover it.”

      The wild card may be in London. Prince Charles, a frequent visitor to Mount
      Athos and an attendee at Pope John Paul’s funeral, is in line to be the
      supreme governor of the Church of England. It is true that this is largely a
      ceremonial position: The monarch appoints archbishops, bishops and the deans
      of the cathedrals on the advice of the prime minister. But it is also a
      position of some influence. And if Charles, whose love life has furnished
      tabloids with material for the better part of two decades, chooses to follow
      his conscience in religious matters and uses his influence with the
      archbishop, then it may be possible to imagine the visible union of
      Canterbury, Constantinople and Rome -- the prize that, for all of his
      travels, eluded Pope John Paul II. No doubt the new pontiff, who at 78 is
      not likely to serve long, will work fast to discover that union.

      Christopher Merrill is the author of Things of the Hidden God: Journey to
      the Holy Mountain.

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