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“Frank Dialogue”

Reasons for a forthright Catholic apologetic directed toward members of the Eastern Churches

Catholics have a mandate for an apologetic addressed to members of the Eastern Churches and others attracted to those traditions. That mandate is Pope John Paul’s burning zeal (surely a reflection of our Lord’s zeal) for reconciling the Eastern churches to the Catholic Church.

The most recent expressions of the pope’s zeal are an apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”), and an encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One”), both issued in late spring 1995.

Like all magisterial statements about the Eastern churches, both documents show deep appreciation of the Eastern traditions. The Pope says his purpose in writing Orientale Lumen was to deepen Catholics’ understanding of Eastern Christianity. He explicitly chose not to identify and discuss issues which divide Catholics and Easterners.

(An earlier article in This Rock analyzed some Evangelicals’ accounts of their conversion to an Eastern Church. A correspondent complained that I should have followed the example Pope John Paul set in Orientale Lumen. Was this a call for Catholics to say nothing about the issues which separate Eastern Christians from the Catholic Church?)

The Holy Father calls our attention to the richly ornate Eastern liturgy. He dwells at length on the central role of monasticism in Eastern life and spirituality. He enlarges on the Eastern preference for the theological method of apophatism. This approach focuses in adoring silence on the transcendence of God and emphasizes the human mind’s inability to comprehend the mystery of God. He commends the Eastern Churches for their capacity for inculturation, for incorporating the Christian gospel into many different ethnic cultures.

The Catholic Church and the churches of the East have particularly close bonds, says the Holy Father. “We [East and West] have almost everything in common; and above all, we have in common the true longing for unity.”

He appeals to the Catholic Church and the Eastern churches to concentrate on the “essential” imperative to unity. As he had said previously, “We cannot come before Christ, the Lord of history, as divided as we have unfortunately been in the course of the second millennium. These divisions must give way to rapprochement and harmony.”

Quoting from one of his earlier addresses, Pope John Paul declares, “The Church of Christ is one. If divisions exist, that is one thing; they must be overcome, but the Church is one, the Church of Christ between East and West can only be one, one and united.”

Some loyal Catholics already have misgivings about ecumenism. For them the word itself connotes adaptation and even compromise for the sake of an outward unity. These Catholics may feel some unease in reading Orientale Lumen. They may even wonder if the Church’s helmsman is steering the Church dangerously close to soft-pedaling her distinctive claims about herself.

Not to worry. Read on!

About three weeks after Orientale Lumen came Ut Unum Sint. The latter document, the first papal encyclical devoted entirely to ecumenism, should allay any Catholic anxieties about ecumenism as the Holy Father intends it to be carried on.

Incidentally, I have recently found two typographical errors in printing of the new encyclical’s title. One was Ut Unum Sit (“that he or she or it may be one”). The other was Ut Unum Snit (literally, “that one state of agitation”). It occurred to me that both could be applied to the human side of the Catholic Church today.

Ut Unum Sint delivers two clear messages. It declares in strongest possible terms the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism in general and to seeking reconciliation with the Eastern Churches in particular. The encyclical also clearly restates the Catholic Church’s teaching about herself and about how Christian disunity must be overcome.

Make no mistake about it; says the Holy Father, in effect: the Catholic Church is in the business of ecumenism to stay, and to take a leading role.

Years ago, as a recent convert from the Episcopal Church, I was sensitive about the Catholic Church’s ecumenical outreach. I asked why the Catholic Church was continually explaining herself to the other traditions, and why she seemed always to be the initiator-or least the most committed member-of ecumenical dialogue. I even said, “Let those other people come to us and explain themselves to us for a change.”

That attitude changed as my understanding of the Church matured. I began to see that to be true to her own nature as Christ’s one Church, she must always take the lead in reconciling separated traditions to herself. This realization on the part of the Church flowered in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. Its roots, however, extend to earliest days of the Church. In all ages she has sought to reconcile separated groups and individuals to her unity.

In a commentary on this latest encyclical, Richard John Neuhaus points out that the Catholic Church has not simply “joined” the ecumenical movement; she has “reconstituted” it. He would even say that, in the final analysis, the Catholic Church is the ecumenical movement. Or, more modestly, that the Church is “the center of the movement toward Christian unity in our time” (Crisis, September, 1995, 26).

Pope John Paul makes clear his determination to do all in his power to reconcile the Eastern churches. Again in this encyclical he uses words he has frequently employed with regard to reconciling East and West: “The Church must breathe with her two lungs!”

Using strong language, the Pope repeatedly refers to the Catholic Church and the Churches of the East as “Sister Churches.” This theme, he says, has been prominent in discussions of the Joint International [Catholic-Orthodox] Commission about how to proceed in reestablishing communion. In fact, the Commission “has laid the doctrinal foundations for a positive solution to this problem on the basis of the doctrine of Sister Churches.”

The second message of Ut Unum Sint is this: The Catholic Church alone has preserved the fullness of the truth and the means of grace with which God endowed his Church. “Full unity will come about when all [Churches and communities] share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church.” The Catholic Church, in other words, is the one true Church. The unity which Christ wills for his Church requires that all Christians be reconciled in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Perhaps more fully than anyone else, Pope John Paul realizes that the papacy is the fundamental issue on which all other Christians are separated from the Church. His passion for the unity of all Christians is matched by the clarity of his teaching about the papacy.

Nine sections of the encyclical enlarge upon the essential central role of the Bishop of Rome in ecumenism. He declares that fostering Christian unity is itself a specific duty of the successors of Peter. The service of unity has been entrusted by Christ to one (the Bishop of Rome) among the College of all the Pastors.

The ministry of the Successor of Peter has been established by God as the Church’s “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity,” in the words of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church. The Spirit sustains that ministry “to enable all the others to share in this essential good.” The ministry of the Bishop of Rome is “the visible sign and guarantor of unity” of all Christian (Ut Unum Sint, section 88; italics his). One might paraphrase the Pope’s teaching by calling the papacy “the sacrament of unity.”

Having delivered these two messages, the Holy Father opens several windows to give needed ventilation to ecumenical dialogue. He calls for “frank dialogue” that will enable the differing traditions to look at themselves “in the light of the apostolic Tradition.” Thus each participant in dialogue will be led to ask himself whether the corporate life of his tradition adequately expresses “all that the Holy Spirit has transmitted through the apostles.”

Again, ecumenical dialogue leads (or should lead) the participants to question one another, as well as understand and inform one another. Dialogue helps participants to see their actual disagreements clearly. These disagreements must be approached charitably, respecting the demands of the consciences of all the participants. Catholic ecumenists are required “to avoid both false irenicism [pretending that unity exists where it does not] and indifference to the Church’s ordinances.”

Thus we see that the reconciliation of the Eastern Churches is top item on the Holy Father’s ecumenical agenda. We Catholics must carry on conversations with members of the Eastern Churches, in person or in print or both. To be fruitful, those conversations must involve what the Holy Father calls “frank dialogue.”

As we said earlier, the tone and content of Orientale Lumen, and of all magisterial documents and practically all Catholic writing about Easterners, is very respectful. In the opinion of some, it is even deferential. Yet Easterners as a whole are famous (dare one say “notorious”?) for their candor in telling us what is wrong with the Catholic Church. The time has come for equally candid (though always charitable) talk by Catholics.

There can be no productive dialogue if Catholics continue to avoid plain talk in conversations with Easterners. Any mature relationship, whether ecumenical or personal, must be based on honesty. In speaking of Catholicism, the Easterners seldom miss an opportunity to call a spade a dirty old shovel. In dialogue, Catholics must begin at least to call a spade a spade.

In other words, it’s time for Catholic ecumenists to soft-pedal their “what-riches-you-can-give-us-and-how-much-we-need-you!” talk. We need some “listen-friends- apart-from-us-you-have-always-had-some-real-problems-which-won’t-go-away-until-you-come-back-home!” talk.

The point is simple. If Catholics continually emphasize only the virtues of the separated Eastern Churches, and ignore their serious weaknesses, we will only confirm them in their isolation from the rest of the Christian world, and especially from Rome. We will encourage in them a “who-needs-Rome?-look-at-what-the-Catholics-say-about-us!” attitude. We do the members of Eastern Churches a disservice by not heeding the Holy Father’s call for frank dialogue.

There is still further reason for a forthright Catholic apologetic directed toward members of the Eastern Churches. Catholics need to respond positively to aggressive evangelizing done or inspired by recent Evangelical converts to one or more of the Eastern Churches. (For background, see “Evangelicals Who Journey East,” This Rock, April 1995, 8-12.)

Many Eastern apologists disseminate erroneous information about the Catholic Church. To combat this harm, Catholics must understand both the needs which lead Protestants to listen to an Eastern apologetic, and the Eastern offers for meeting those needs.

First of all, Protestants have, from their beginning, been fascinated by the early Church. They speak of it most commonly as “the New Testament Church” or “the primitive Church” or “the apostolic Church.” Some denominations claim they have “restored” the “primitive Church” in their own denominational life. Many denominations claim they “are” or they “duplicate” the New Testament Church. All claim some tie with the church of the apostles.

Underlying this preoccupation with the early Church is the assumption that the closer you get to the source of the stream, the purer will be the water. It follows from this assumption that early Christianity is purer, clearer, than later Christianity.

Cardinal Newman addressed this mistaken belief in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. With regard to the history of a philosophy or a belief, he asserted, the stream is not clearest near the spring. “Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope.”

In the early paragraphs of his Spirit of Catholicism, Karl Adam makes the same point. “The Gospel of Christ would have been no living gospel, and the seed which He scattered no living seed, if it had remained ever the tiny seed of A. D. 33, and had not struck root, and had not assimilated foreign matter, and had not by the help of this foreign matter grown up into a tree, so that the birds of the air dwell in its branches.”

Despite historic Protestant claims to have “restored” or gone back to the early Church, many realize that their link with the early Church is at best very weak. There is a growing desire among many Protestants to be part of “the historic Church.” A strong sense of spiritual rootlessness in Protestants sometimes leads them to consider and even accept the Eastern solution. This, for example, was the path followed by Frank Schaeffer, as recounted in his book Dancing Alone. 

This rootlessness often expresses itself in a yearning to be part of the ancient and ongoing tradition of the Church. Easterners regard themselves as people of the ancient tradition par excellence. No church speaks so often of “tradition” as do the Eastern churches. They believe they are uniquely qualified to fill Protestant Christians’ need for tradition.

This is an attractive offer for Protestants, who cannot be expected readily to see deep problems in the Eastern appeal to tradition. But let’s face it: There are ancient heretical as well as orthodox traditions. How are they to be distinguished? The standard Eastern response is that traditions must be tested by sacred Scripture. But who will do the testing? And who will judge the judges?

In the writings of Eastern theologians there is a circularity of argument regarding the Scripture-and-Tradition issue. Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of tradition. (Catholics would agree.) And how do we interpret the tradition? We interpret it in the light of Scripture. See the result? Scripture tests tradition tests Scripture. Eastern theology offers no way out of this circle.

Closely associated with this desire for rootedness and for tradition is a growing interest in the early Church Fathers, those theologians and saints and church leaders of the early centuries. The assumption lying behind fascination with the early Church itself also undergirds the increasing attention non-Catholics are giving to the Church Fathers.

Newman denied that earliest Christianity is purest Christianity. His denial applies with equal force to regarding the Fathers as the standard of doctrine. The Church Fathers were pioneers and for that reason very important in the development of Christian doctrine. But trailblazers do not necessarily understand the country through which they travel better than do later travelers. Much of the larger picture and practically all of the details remain for later travelers to discover. Furthermore, who in the Eastern churches will interpret for us what the Fathers actually teach?

No Christian community talks as much about the Church Fathers as do the Eastern churches. In their apologetic they pride themselves almost as much on being the Church of the Fathers as on being theChurch of Jesus Christ. They never tire of saying that they alone have preserved and do faithfully follow the teachings of the Fathers.

Decades ago a Broadway musical featured a song which the star, portraying a lady of questionable virtue, sang to one of the several men in her life. She assured the man to whom she was singing that she was “True To You in My Own Fashion.”

Easterners are indeed true to the Fathers in many respects. But in key doctrinal areas they are true “in their own fashion.” Here is a basic example. Easterners ignore or misinterpret what a great many Fathers, Eastern as well as Western, said and did regarding the papacy. They deny the universal papal jurisdiction which many Fathers repeatedly affirmed and relied on for deliverance from widespread Eastern heresies and from imperial efforts to dictate the Church’s teaching.

There are other instances in which the Eastern traditions have been true to the Fathers “in their own fashion.” One is the indissolubility of marriage, unanimously affirmed by the Fathers and denied by the Eastern practice of allowing people to divorce and remarry three times. (Why three? “Three strikes and you’re out”?) Another is the radical change in the discipline of clerical celibacy made by the Eastern Churches in the late seventh century.

Consider still another area in which Protestants are susceptible to an Eastern apologetic. Protestantism is inherently anti-hierarchical and democratic-even egalitarian-in its outlook.

(But not necessarily in its denominational practice. See Paul M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition [1959]. This classic sociological study by a Baptist focused on the American Baptist Convention. Harrison shows that Protestant structures which in theory grant the least authority to denominational officials, in practice make possible the greatest exercise of raw power. His analysis, of course, applies in significant ways to non-ecclesiastical administrative structures as well.)

It is true that the Eastern churches have bishops and archbishops and patriarchs. With that structure, a reader may ask, how can they speak to the Protestant democratic mind? The answer is, by their emphasis on church councils. Eastern theologians often speak of the “conciliar” principle as basic in Eastern Church life. An Evangelical convert to one of the Eastern churches, Peter Gillquist, in his book Becoming Orthodox, describes the role of the ecumenical councils as “discerning God’s will in consensus.”

“Consensus” is hardly appropriate for describing the councils’ definitions and the process by which they reached them. It ignores the chief fact about decisions of the councils (the first seven) which Easterners generally accept as ecumenical. The fact is, each depended on papal ratification for its binding effect. Almost all of these councils’ decisions had been prepared for by previous papal councils and decisions. Throughout centuries of theological turmoil, the papal influence was paramount.

Here, again, the Eastern apologetic is clouded in some respects by giving only partial information, and in other respects by giving plain misinformation about the historic events to which that apologetic appeals.

Another concern on the part of thinking Protestants to which Easterners can and do speak is the tragic disunity among the non-Catholic churches. That disunity which clearly contradicts Jesus Christ’s will for his people leads some Protestants to look beyond jaded and powerless ecumenical structures for a true solution.

There are now in the world countless separate, recognizable Protestant denominations. For years, totally new denominations have been appearing at an incredible rate. Where is it all to end? How can all these competing institutions ever be united? Will Christians never be able to live in the unity for which Christ prayed just before his passion and death?

Eastern apologists have an answer. “You want to share in the unity which Christ wills for his Church? Then come into the one true Church, the Eastern [they would say “Orthodox”] Church, and you will share in that unity; there and nowhere else.” The Eastern answer sounds like the Catholic answer to the question about unity. Ut Unum Sint declares that full Christian unity “will come about when all [Churches and communities] share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church.” This “unity of the one and only Church,” says Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, is “something she can never lose.”

But look more closely at the Eastern answer. When Easterners invite us to come into the one true Church, the “Orthodox” Church, we have to ask, “Where is it?” The Catholic Church is a recognizable united institution which anyone can identify for himself. Not so with the Eastern churches.

There is no institution to which one can point and say “That is the Orthodox Church.” There is no “Orthodoxy.” There are only separate, totally independent, national, ethnic churches. Which of the sixteen or so national Churches is a convert supposed to join? The Russian? the Greek? the Antiochian? the Rumanian? The list of possibilities goes on and on.

Members of these various churches to which we commonly but mistakenly give the generic term “Orthodoxy” or “the Orthodox Church” share basically the same faith. But the terms “Orthodoxy” and “Orthodox Church” are only abstractions. They correspond to no empirical entity. A member of the Russian Church does not automatically belong to the Greek Church; a member of the Bulgarian Church does not belong to the Rumanian Church.

Suppose an American Protestant ignores history and decides to become an “Orthodox” Christian. Where is the “Orthodox Church” he wants to join? It does not exist. He will have to make his choice (“pick a number . . .”) among the thirty-eight separate jurisdictions of Eastern churches in this country.

What we generally call “Orthodoxy” is in fact a very loose federation of “autocephalous” (each its own head) churches. Though essentially united in what they believe, they are deeply divided by nationalistic, ethnic differences, rivalries, yes, even hatreds, most of whose origins go back many centuries.

A century ago, a learned member of the Russian Church (who embraced Catholic teaching on the papacy) pointed out that the human race is divided into racial, cultural, national groupings. He asked, rhetorically, will Christ seek to draw humanity to himself in these groupings by giving them “independent national Churches”? (He was speaking of the disunity among the Eastern national churches.) Did Christ say to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Churches?” (Vladimir Solovyov, Russia and the Universal Church, 86).

We have noted a number of different yearnings which lead Protestants to listen to the Eastern siren song. They all boil down to one basic yearning: the yearning for Catholicism, for the whole faith, for the true Church of Jesus Christ. But prejudice (often very strong) against the Catholic Church is deeply rooted in the Protestant mind. So what to do?

Now comes the pièce de résistance of the menu by which Eastern apologists tempt Protestant spiritual palates. Or change metaphors and simply call it “the clincher,” or the winning card. Here it is. Eastern apologists can assure inquirers that the Eastern Churches are not Roman Catholic. The Eastern Churches promise prospective members all the benefits of being “Catholics” without having to submit to the Antichrist, the pope. (Yes, long before Martin Luther, there were Easterners calling the pope “Antichrist.”)

Because they reject the pope as successor of Peter and earthly head of the Church, Eastern apologists have important common ground with Protestants. (“Any opponent of Rome is a friend of mine!”) A Protestant will find in the Eastern ethos an affirmation of all his anti-Catholic prejudices. Indeed, Easterners are much better at being anti-Catholic. They have been doing it so much longer than Protestants.

The reader who has persevered to this point may well say, “Wait a minute! You misled me! You gave me a title about ecumenical dialogue and then went into apologetics. What does all this have to do with ecumenism?”

Some would say, very little. There is a widespread notion that “ecumenism” (the work for Christian unity) and “apologetics” (the strongest possible statement of the Catholic Church’s teachings) are antithetical. In an age of ecumenism, Catholic apologetics is rejected by many, ignored or simply not understood by others. As a course of study, apologetics has been banished from seminary and college curricula.

The truth is that for the Catholic Church ecumenism is apologetics is ecumenism. Savor a few samples from her teaching, and see for yourself.

Earlier we quoted from Ut Unum Sint what Pope John Paul teaches about the unity of Christians. Full Christian unity, he says, “will come about when all [Churches and communities] share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church.” None need wonder to which Church the Pope refers.

Vatican II expresses the expectation that out of official theological dialogue between Catholics and other Christians “will emerge still more clearly what the situation of the Catholic Church really is” (Decree on Ecumenism, 9).

And what is that “situation,” with regard to Christian unity? Simply this. Only within the Catholic Church can other Christians find “the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning,” unity which “she can never lose.”

It necessarily follows, as the Council Fathers point out at the end of the Decree, that the objective of all ecumenical activity (what they called “this holy objective”) is “the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ.” This teaching is the foundation of authentic Catholic ecumenism. It is the starting-point of Catholic apologetics.


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