Mount Athos objects to ecumenical openness
Published: Friday, April 13, 2007
Mount Athos objects to ecumenical openness
By George Weigel
Last December's visit by Pope Benedict XVI to
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of
Constantinople revived speculation that the
millennium-long division between Rome and the Christian East might soon end.
That was certainly the dream of Benedict's
predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, who
really did seem to believe that Rome and
Constantinople could achieve ecclesial
reconciliation by the end of the twentieth
century, so that a millennium of division --- the
formal split having taken place in 1054 --- would
be succeeded by a new millennium of unity, in a
return to the relations that prevailed in the
first centuries of Christian history.
It was a noble vision, but it may not have
accurately measured the depth of the chasm
between Catholicism and some parts of the
worlds-within-worlds of Orthodoxy. Recent
comments on Benedict's December pilgrimage by the
Orthodox monks of Mount Athos suggest that the
division is deep and wide indeed.
Mount Athos, a craggy peninsula in northern
Greece, is home to 20 self-governing Orthodox
monasteries. In fact, Mount Athos is virtually a
country unto itself; its formal designation in
Greece is the "Autonomous Monastic State of the
Holy Mountain." No women or female animals are
allowed on Mount Athos; visitors are strictly
limited; only male members of the Orthodox Church may become monks.
And, while Mount Athos comes under the
ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Athonite
monks, who regard their monasticism as what they
term "the non-negotiable guardian of the Holy
Tradition," were very unhappy with Ecumenical
Patriarch Bartholomew and the way he treated his Roman guest in December.
Why? Because, the monks complained, "the Pope was
received as though he were the canonical bishop
of Rome." There were other complaints, but that
was the first listed in a statement released last
December 30 by the Assembly of Representatives
and Superiors of the twenty monasteries: Why was
Bartholomew treating Benedict as though the
latter were, in fact, the bishop of Rome?
Well, if we can't agree on that, we do have, as
Jim Lovell told Mission Control, a problem.
To be sure, Athonite monasticism, "the
non-negotiable guardian of the Holy Tradition,"
is a particularly stringent form of Orthodoxy.
And if the monks of Mount Athos have their
dubieties about the ecumenical openness of
Patriarch Bartholomew, it is, perhaps, not
surprising that they imagine Benedict XVI as a
usurper and a teacher of heresies.
Yet this Athonite intransigence reflects a hard
truth about Catholic-Orthodox relations after a
millennium of division: namely, that, for many
Orthodox Christians, the statement "I am not in
communion with the Bishop of Rome" has become an
integral part of the statement, "I am an Orthodox Christian."
The obverse is not true. I very much doubt that
there are more than a handful of Catholics around
the world whose confession of Catholic faith
includes, as a key component, "I am not in
communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople."
The truth of the matter is that, outside
historically Orthodox countries and certain
ethnic communities, the thought of how one stands
vis-à-vis the Patriarch of Constantinople simply
doesn't enter Catholic heads. Perhaps that's a
problem, but it's nowhere near as great an
obstacle to ecumenical progress as the conviction
in some Orthodox quarters that non-communion with
Rome is a defining characteristic of what it means to be "Orthodox."
1054, it now seems clear, was not a
date-in-a-vacuum. Rather, the mutual
excommunications of 1054 were the cash-out, so to
speak, of a drifting-apart that had been going on
for centuries, driven by language and politics,
to be sure, but also by different theological
sensibilities. Are those two sensibilities
necessarily Church-dividing? The Catholic answer
is, "No." But that is emphatically not the answer
of Mount Athos, and of those Orthodox for whom
the Athonite monks are essentially right, if a bit over-the-top.
All of which suggests that John Paul II's dream
of a Church breathing once again with both of its
lungs is unlikely of fulfillment anytime soon.
Unless, that is, Islamist pressures compel a
reexamination within Orthodoxy of what a life-line to Rome might mean.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics
and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.