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The Eastern Doctrine of the Catholic Church

When a Catholic apologist begins to respond to the claims of the Eastern Churches and their denials of Catholic teaching, the first question he faces is, Whom or what shall he address?

The Eastern Churches have no teaching authority corresponding to the Catholic magisterium. Therefore they have no official catechism or statement of their fundamental beliefs binding on all members of Eastern Churches. Their richly elaborate liturgies enshrine key beliefs, but those liturgies do not focus on the issues that divide Easterners from the Catholic Church. They regard their bishops as their official teachers, but there seems to be no way for determining what those bishops now are teaching officially.

Eastern theologians in general regard ecumenical councils as the highest teaching authority. They say the structure and inner meaning of the Church herself is essentially conciliar. Yet for the Easterners there have been no ecumenical councils for well over a thousand years. None of the early councils Easterners accept speak to the issues that today separate them from the Catholic Church.

A Catholic apologist, therefore, necessarily approaches the Eastern theological scene with a certain tentativeness. On the divisive issues he can never be certain whether his arguments meet head-on the official, positive teachings of all the Eastern Churches. He must rely primarily on what Eastern theologians say, knowing that, like their counterparts in other traditions, the theologians are divided in their opinions.

The Eastern Churches have never made an explicit, authoritative statement about the nature of the Church. This fact is often stated in Eastern writings. Frequently Eastern theologians point with pride to the lack of precision in Eastern theology. They contrast it with what they regard as arid Catholic speculation.

Though Eastern theologians as a whole are unclear as to what they do believe about the Church, they are quite clear about what they do not believe.

The Orthodox Church, says Alexander Schmemann, has branded Catholic teaching about the papacy as “heretical.”[Alexander Schmemann, “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology,” in John Meyendorff, Alexander Schmemann, Nicolas Afanassief, Nicolas Koulomzine, The Primacy of Peter (London: Faith Press, 1963), 36f. Schmemann does not tell us how this declaration was made.] An encyclical letter issued by the Eastern Patriarchs in 1848 taught that “papism” is a heresy comparable to the fourth-century heresy Arianism. A Russian theologian reminds us that this encyclical “is still considered a document of belief for the Orthodox Church.”[Alexis Stavrovsky, “The Papacy and the Orthodox Church” in Diakonia (vol. 3, no. 3 [1968]), 312.]

How do you know what the truths of Christianity are? Push the question a step further, and you have a Christological issue: What has God done in Jesus Christ? Has he, or has he not, provided a means whereby the truths of the Christian faith can be infallibly known until the end of time? As these facts imply, the key issue dividing Christians is the issue of authority: How do we know what the truths of Christianity are? Push the question a step further, and you have a Christological issue: What has God done in Jesus Christ? Has he, or has he not, provided a means whereby the truths of the Christian faith can be infallibly known until the end of time?

The Protestant answer (the Bible alone) is no solution. The continuous emergence of new denominations among the 25,000 or more existing denominations demonstrates the futility of the Protestant approach. Nor does the Eastern ambiguous blend of Bible, Tradition, the episcopate, and ecumenical councils solve the problem of authority. The fruits of that solution are disunity among the national, ethnic churches, consistent subjection of those churches to the secular powers, and abandonment of ancient Catholic moral teaching (indissolubility of m arriage, c elibacy, artificial contraception).[Subsequent articles will deal specifically with these and other matters on which the Eastern Churches have departed from the faith of what they call “the Undivided Church.” (Catholics know that though large numbers may have left her communion, the Church has never been divided and can never be divided. Christ keeps his promise to her.) ]

Between Catholics and Eastern Christians (and indeed, all non-Catholics), the issue of authority necessarily focuses on the papacy-or, to use terminology of the modern ecumenical movement, on “ministry” or “ministries.” This is the term used by Meyendorff. The issue of ministries, he said, should be approached “both in the light of their God-established apostolic origin and in the light of the various ways they have been exercised in history”[John Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 63f.]–in other words, from the standpoint both of Scripture and of Tradition.

Catholics would agree. Unfortunately, Eastern writers (including Meyendorff) do not follow his sound advice. In making their case against Rome, Eastern scholars hurriedly pass over or ignore the scriptural data bearing on Petrine primacy.[In sharp contrast, Protestant scholars have produced countless books and learned articles giving their interpretations of the scriptural material on Peter and the papacy.] Here is a typical example taken from a popular introduction to Eastern Christianity:

The Orthodox Church “does not forget the celebrated ‘Petrine texts’ in the Gospels” (referring to Matt. 16:18-19, Luke 22:32, John 21:15-17), but “Orthodox theologians do not understand these texts in quite the same way as modern Roman Catholic commentators.” Period.[Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 27-28.] In a dozen years of studying Eastern sources in English I have found one– only one–short monograph entirely devoted to the scriptural data bearing on Petrine primacy.[Nicolas Koulomzine, “Peter’s Place in the Early Church,” in Meyendorff et al.The Primacy of Peter, 111-134. This will be examined later in some detail.]

Nor do Eastern writers look as closely as they should at the ways in which “ministry” or “ministries” have been “exercised in history.” As we shall see, they ignore or deny the decisive role the papacy played in establishing and preserving orthodoxy (note the small “o”) in the early centuries of the Church.

To draw out Eastern interpretations of the papacy, it will be necessary to start not with the scriptural record but with a particular doctrine of the Church. This doctrine is the presupposition used by most modern Eastern apologists for interpreting the biblical material on Peter. “Eucharistic ecclesiology” is the title given by its proponents to the doctrine we are going to consider. It has been espoused by prominent Eastern theologians in recent decades. Meyendorff says that in contemporary Eastern thinking about the Church “there is remarkable agreement” in focusing on Eucharistic ecclesiology. Indeed, he regards this doctrine as “the basis, the nucleus of Orthodox ecclesiology itself.”[Catholicity and the Church,134, 135.]

Nicolas Afanassief (1893-1966) is generally credited with being founder of this school of thought. He claims Eucharistic ecclesiology is not new but ancient. In setting forth this doctrine, he says, he is only recovering the Church’s original way of understanding herself. At some point in the third century–Afanassief holds Cyprian of Carthage responsible–the Church went off on an ecclesiological sidetrack. According to him (though not in these terms), the Church traveled that sidetrack for over sixteen centuries, until he and his followers brought her back on the main line.

Eucharistic ecclesiology focuses on the local church, the local Eucharistic community, as the real Church. (As in Catholic terminology, for Eastern theologians “the local church” is the diocese under the direction of its bishop.) Proponents of this doctrine take as their starting-point part of a sentence from a letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the church in Smyrna. Ignatius wrote, in a famous line, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[“Letter to the Smyrnaeans” (James A. Kleist, S.J., translator, The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch [Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1949]), section 8. ]These words, says Meyendorff, mean that “the Catholic Church is the fullness of the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.”[Catholicity and the Church, 134f.]

In other words, in the first three centuries each local church was regarded as “the Church of God in all its fullness.” The fullness of being belongs to the local church, “and outside it nothing is, for nothing can have being outside Christ.” The basic principle of Eucharistic ecclesiology, in other words, is that “the unity and fullness of the Church attach to the notion of a local church, and not to the fluid and indefinite notion of the Universal Church.”[Nicolas Afanassief, “The Church Which Presides in Love” (Meyendorff et al.The Primacy of Peter), 74, 75,76.]

Eucharistic ecclesiology’s advocates distinguish it from what they call “universal ecclesiology.” The two are mutually exclusive. Universal ecclesiology is Catholic ecclesiology, “crowned,” says Schmemann, “by the Vatican dogma of 1870.”

According to Catholic universal ecclesiology, the Church as organism is expressed adequately only in “the universal structure of the Church, its universal unity.” The Church (in the full, true sense of the term) is the “sum of all local churches, which all together constitute the Body of Christ.” Universal ecclesiology conceives of the Church in terms of the whole and its parts. Each local church is only a part of the Church; it is Church only because it is part of the whole.[Schmemann, 35.]

Advocates of Eucharistic ecclesiology deny what they regard as a parts-and-whole mentality. The local church is not a part or member of a wider universal organism; it is simply “the Church.” In the Eucharist we have the whole Christ, not a part of him. Therefore the Church which is “actualized in the Eucharist” cannot be simply a member or a part of the whole; it can only be “the Church of God in her wholeness.”[Ibid., 38.]

If we believe in the indivisibility of Christ’s Body,then we must believe that fullness of the Church is to be found in each of the local churches.[Afanassief, 75.] As Meyendorff expresses it, if the local church is only part of a universal Church, then Christ is only partially present in each local community. But the notion of a partial presence is “utterly alien” to the theology of Paul.[John Meyendorff, Orthodoxy and Catholicity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), 4.] Consistently, these theologians argue that the word ekklesia (Greek for “church”) in the New Testament always refers to the local church, not to something called universal Church.

There is another reason for their rejection of universal ecclesiology. We shall discuss it after a backward look at the case for local-church or Eucharistic ecclesiology.

Its advocates start with Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote that “where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[“Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” 8.] None can deny that where Christ is, there is his Church. But Ignatius is not saying that each local church is the fullness of the Church. He is not saying that the universal Church is only a “fluid and indefinite notion.”

In his letter to the Ephesians (17), Ignatius tells us our Lord allowed myrrh to be poured on his head “that he might breathe incorruption upon the Church”–not just a local church. By his Resurrection, Ignatius tells the Philadelphians (1), Christ raised a banner for all times for his saints and faithful followers, whether among the Jews or the Gentiles, that they might be united in a single body, that is his Church.” Again, the universal Church. The words “where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” will not support the interpretation given them in Eucharistic theology.

Take the argument based on the indivisibility of Christ’s body. We must believe that the fullness of the Church is found in each local church, not in some “universal” Church, if we believe that Christ’s body is indivisible. Meyendorff claims that if there is a universal Church and the local church is only part of that Church, then Christ is only partially present in each local community.

A full answer to this argument would require a lengthy excursus in metaphysics and sacramental theology. The concept of indivisibility is being used loosely here. For now, suffice it to say that this logic is self-destructive. If Christ’s being fully present in the universal Church means he is only partly present in the local church, then how can he be fully present in more than one local church? The claim of Afanassief et alia that Christ is fully present in each local church contradicts their understanding of indivisibility.

There is another flaw in Eucharistic ecclesiology. Its advocates assure us that the fullness of Christ is to be found in each local church (diocese), not in some abstraction called “universal Church.” The local church cannot be simply “part” of the “Church” it is “the Church” because Christ’s body cannot be divided. Now appears the flaw. What is the relation of each parish to the local church? If each local church cannot be part of a universal Church, how can each parish be part of a diocese? After all, the parish itself, not the diocese, is the Eucharistic community,.and that community is basic to the thinking of Afanassief and his followers.

Only Schmemann seems to have seen this problem. He says in his chapter on primacy that he cannot there deal with “the difficult problem of the parish in its relation to the diocese.” He says this problem has never been “seriously studied and interpreted theologically,” but then he immediately dismisses the problem.

Indeed, he assures us there is no problem. There cannot be a problem, because, if there were a problem, it would “contradict the basic principles of Eucharistic ecclesiology” and thereby “contradict the nature of the Church.”[Schmemann, 39, fn. 3.] This is a crucial point because, as Schmemann in effect admits, Eucharistic ecclesiology goes down the tube if it cannot satisfactorily relate the parish to the diocese in its scheme of things.

Here is an unresolved, even an untouched, problem. Not to worry, says Schmemann. The local parish will somehow fit into our conception of the diocese (“local church”) because it has to fit in. Why does it have to fit in? Because if it did not fit in, our whole theory of the Church would be contradicted. But that could not happen. So, it will fit, though none of us knows how.

Never mind that Eucharistic ecclesiology is based on a misunderstanding of part of one sentence from one letter of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignore the fact that no reputable Protestant scholar (and no Eastern scholar outside the circle of Eucharistic ecclesiology) holds that the word ekklesia in Matthew refers only to the local church. (For Protestants, of course, “local church” would mean not a diocese, but an individual congregation.)

Forget that Eucharistic ecclesiology’s understanding of the indivisibility of Christ’s Body renders impossible the existence of more t han one “local church&q uot or that it wrongly identifies local church and Eucharistic community, which are never truly identical (it never happens that each single member of the local church participates in a Eucharistic celebration). Quite apart from all these considerations, the inability of Eucharistic ecclesiology to relate the individual parish to its diocese is a fatal flaw.

As noted earlier, supporters of Eucharistic ecclesiology admit that, since the third century, universal ecclesiology has held sway in Eastern canonical practice and thinking. Cyprian of Carthage is responsible, they say, for the Church’s having operated on the basis of a faulty ecclesiology for sixteen centuries. Can it be true that the Church has been so wrong so long on a basic doctrine? What happened to Christ’s promise to lead her into all truth?

Why did no one before Afanassief detect Cyprian’s allegedly disastrous error? Speaking of the authoritative role of the Church Fathers, Meyendorff acknowledges that “each father may have had his own one-sided views of the mystery of Christ, and he must then be corrected by the consensus.”[Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church, 79f.] Where was the consensus in Cyprian’s day? Why did it not correct such far-reaching error (as is supposed) as his?

If the Fathers of the third century were as vigilant as Meyendorff seems to believe, and if their “consensus” (whatever that may be) did not question Cyprian’s views, then those views must have been acceptable to the “consensus.” Universal ecclesiology, rather than twentieth-century Eucharistic ecclesiology, therefore was the original and authentic understanding of the Church as a whole.

Turn now to the other reason the Eastern local-church ecclesiologists reject universal ecclesiology. The clearest statements are in the writings of Afanassief and Schmemann. They insist that Eastern theologians who operate from the working assumptions of universal ecclesiology (and a great many still do) simply cannot refute Rome’s claims for the papacy. Universal ecclesiology leads logically to Roman primacy as Rome understands it.

One argument popular in Eastern apologetics is that the Church can have no visible head because Christ is her invisible head. Schmemann flatly rejects the argument, branding it “theological nonsense.” Followed consistently, the argument would also eliminate the office of the bishop as the visible head of each local church.

If universal ecclesiology is true, says Schmemann, “the need for and the reality of a universal head, i.e. the Bishop of Rome,” becomes “not only acceptable but necessary.” Clearly reflecting Catholic teaching, he declares, “If the Church is a universal organism, she must have at her head a universal bishop as the focus of her unity and the organ of supreme power.” Again, there can be no denying that if universal ecclesiology is true, “then the one, supreme, and universal power as well as its bearer become a self-evident necessity because this unique, visible organism must have a unique, visible head.”[Schmemann, 36.]

Furthermore, in universal ecclesiology not only is primacy in the Catholic sense necessary. That primacy “is of necessity power and, by the same necessity, a divinely instituted power; we have all this in a consistent form in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church.”[Ibid.] Afanassief concurs by saying that in universal ecclesiology, “a unique, personal power founded on rights is a necessity. You cannot construct a universal ecclesiology without admitting the idea of primacy.”[Afanassief, op. cit. 107.] A Catholic can only say “Amen!”

One can see why this school of Eastern apologists seeks to elaborate an ecclesiology which does not lead to these (for them) disastrous conclusions. One senses in them the same attitude one finds in Protestant apologetics: If it’s Roman, it has to be wrong.

Afana ssief and his follower s admit that universal ecclesiology has been the framework for Eastern canonical practice and doctrine. It certainly has its defenders today in Eastern churches, especially the Greek Church. P. N. Trempelas has written a vigorous refutation of Eucharistic ecclesiology and its presuppositions,[Bernard Schultze, S.J., “The Primacy of Peter and His Successors According to the Principles of Universal and Eucharistic Ecclesiologies” (Diakonia, vol. 4, no. 4 [1969]), 341-345.] though from an anti- papal perspective.

The advocates of Eucharistic ecclesiology seem to be in the majority today. Yet they readily grant that universal ecclesiology (non-papal, of course) has dominated Eastern teaching and canonical practice for sixteen or more centuries. So who is right? What is the official position of what we commonly but loosely call “Eastern Orthodoxy”?

What we can say is that the modern school of Eucharistic ecclesiology has not validated its credentials as being the original and only authentic understanding of the nature of the Church. From time to time in future articles I will return to it for some of its slants on certain.aspects of the issue of authority (the matter of ecumenical councils, for example). Still, the main thrust of the Catholic apologetic must be addressed to the dominant Eastern version of (non-papal) universal ecclesiology.

A Catholic magisterial statement cannot clear up confusion in Eastern thinking, but it can and does illuminate the relation of the local church to the universal Church and, indeed, of the particular congregation to the diocese. In 1992 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion.” At one point the letter notes the rise of Eucharistic ecclesiology. This approach tends to place a “one-sided emphasis on the principle of the local church.” Then the letter succinctly states the essence of Afanassief’s position. Advocates of Eucharistic ecclesiology claim that “where the Eucharist is celebrated the totality of the mystery of the church would be made present in such a way as to render any other principle of unity or universality inessential” (11).

In an address to the bishops of the United States, the letter notes, Pope John Paul II stated quite that “the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular churches or as a federation of particular churches.” (We should note in passing that “Eastern Orthodoxy” is precisely that: a federation of particular churches.) In fact, the universal Church “is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual, particular church.” According to the Fathers, the universal Church is “the mother and not the offspring of the particular churches.” The church of Christ–one, holy, catholic, apostolic–is the universal Church, the world-wide community of Christ’s people. The universal Church becomes present in all her essential elements in particular churches.

Only Catholic universal ecclesiology can harmonize the realities of local church and universal Church. “From the Church, which in its origins and its first manifestation is universal, have arisen the different local churches as particular expressions of the one unique church of Jesus Christ” (9). A person’s baptism necessarily occurs in a particular congregation, but that baptism inserts him into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He belongs to the universal Church “in an immediate way” (10).

While the Eucharistic sacrifice is always offered in a particular community, it is never “the celebration of that community alone.” The truth is, when a particular community receives the Eucharistic presence of Christ, it receives “the entire gift of salvation” and shows by that fact that it is “the image and true presence of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Chu rch” (11).

Refe rring to the Eastern Churches, though not by name, the letter reminds us and them that “communion with the universal Church, represented by Peter’s successor,” is an “internal constituent” of each particular church, essential to its fullness. Therefore, the present situation of the Eastern Churches, separated as they are from Peter’s successor, is that “their existence as particular churches is wounded” (17). And that—the wounded condition of the Eastern Churches—is the ultimate reason for the Holy Father’s burning desire to reconcile them to himself.


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