For the first time, it occurred to me that Orthodox Christians have way more to “lose” in seeking reunion with the Catholic Church.
You see, I had the joy of attending an ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, focusing on our (currently imperfect) unity as Apostolic Churches. On the Catholic side, there was a bi-ritual Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest Fr Simon, and on the Orthodox side, a Coptic Orthodox priest Fr Antonios.
And it was fantastic.
I learnt so much, not least of which was that there even is an Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Neither it nor Coptic Orthodox are what you would automatically think of as your standard representatives of “East” and “West.” Both have their own fraught histories of schism and persecution, but also growing understanding and even reconciliation. Both apostolic churches are familiar with the difficulties – and the hard-won joys – of full, ecclesial communion.
I also noticed something I never had before, although it wasn’t brought up in our discussions. I could be wrong about this but I think Catholics are more “ok” with reunion than Orthodox are. By “ok”, I don’t mean that we’re keener at all, or work harder for it – quite the opposite! – just that we don’t instinctively see the barriers to unity as being as high.
I think this is because the Orthodox churches have more to “lose” by unity than Catholics do. I came up with four reasons for this. The first two are doctrinal, the second two are more cultural.
1. The Orthodox churches would have to “submit” (however we define that term) to the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St Peter, for any full communion to take place. Catholics, however, wouldn’t because no patriarch makes the claims that the Bishop of Rome does. Potentially, the Catholic Pope would have authority over the Orthodox churches to decree doctrines on faith and morals, but not vice versa. Understandably, many Orthodox are very hesitant – if not downright opposed – to such a thing. For Catholics, nothing would really change.
2. The Orthodox churches would have to accept additional dogma. This is because the Catholic Church has continued to have (what she regards as) ecumenical councils and to infallibly define doctrines, such as the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, Papal Infallibility, Filioque etc. In contrast, Catholics are pretty much ok with everything the Orthodox do and teach because really, not that much has changed since the Early Church. (For example, Oriental Orthodox recognise 3 councils, Eastern Orthodox 7, and Catholics, 22. That’s quite a difference.) Again, it’s much less of an accommodation on the Catholic side.
3. The Orthodox churches tend to define themselves in contradistinction to Catholicism. How do you know you’re Orthodox? You’re not Catholic. But again, in contrast, the bete noir for Catholics is Protestantism (and vice versa), so it’s just not that much of a big deal for Catholics. We tend to far more concerned with “disproving” Protestantism than debating the virtues of Hesychastic prayer. We see our Orthodox brothers and sisters as potential allies and we want to get them on board! (On board St Peter’s barque, that is.)
4. The Orthodox churches, even when combined, are smaller than the one Catholic Church, and could easily exert a cultural dominance over the Orthodox churches. Leaving aside any “official” or doctrinal directions from Rome, there would (again understandably, I think) be the fear that the traditional patrimonies of each church would be swallowed out by that great, omnivorous beast of Rome, even if entirely unintended on Rome’s part.
Catholicism could be see as part and parcel with a growing globalised Western hegemony, exporting “Western” pews and statues along with Big Macs, materialism, and that apathetic pluralism that characterises so much of Western Catholicism. Just because of her size, there is no corresponding fear among Catholics about “Easternisation” or “Orientalisation”. If anything, we are so keen for that because a) we admire the richness and resilience of the Orthodox churches, and b) icons. (‘Nuff said.)
That’s my impression of why Catholics seem more “ok” with reunion than Orthodox, because we honestly have less to “lose”, and in another sense, more to “gain”.
Do you think that’s a fair assessment or am I completely off the mark? I’m terribly new to all this so please, correct me or berate me as you see fit! Love to hear your thoughts.
(Also, I’ve turned off the comment sign-in so you should just be able type in your name if you want to.)