During the past six or seven centuries, succeeding pontiffs have repeatedly invited the separated Eastern Churches to return to communion with Rome. The few responses from the East have been negative — with only one exception, as far as I can determine. One member of an Eastern Orthodox Church responded positively in print… a Russian Orthodox layman named Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).
Soloviev was a philosopher, a theologian, a poet, a mystic, a political thinker, and a literary critic. In The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar credited him with being second only to St. Thomas Aquinas as “the greatest artist of order and organization in the history of thought.” Soloviev was an intimate friend of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the model for one of Dostoyevsky’s most admirable characters, Alyosha Karamazov (in The Brothers Karamazov).
Almost ten years ago, Soloviev’s Russia and the Universal Church, published in 1895, appeared in an English abridgement — The Russian Church and the Papacy (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001). It contains the development of two Solovievan themes: One is an analysis of the harm inflicted on the Russian Church (and therefore on all Eastern Orthodox Churches) by separation from Roman jurisdiction; the other, an apologetic for the papacy, which in my opinion has scarcely been surpassed.
When the Head Is Cut Off…
The most serious effect of the Russian Church’s schism (Soloviev doesn’t shy away from the term) is caesaropapism — control of the Church by the secular powers. Before the schism, each time the emperors tried to direct the Church in the East, the Eastern Fathers appealed to Rome. The pope always championed their cause and defeated the imperial designs. But once the Eastern Churches cut themselves off from Catholic communion, they surrendered their freedom to the secular powers.
The Russian Church has inherited caesaropapism from Byzantium, “where this anti-Christian principle had developed unhindered ever since the ninth century” (The Russian Church and the Papacy; unless otherwise noted, all the following quotations refer to this volume). Having cut its ties with Rome, the Russian Church became a purely national church, and it’s impossible for such a church to exist independently of state control.
Indeed, Soloviev says, a state is justified in exerting its supremacy over a spiritual authority that only represents a particular national church. True ecclesiastical freedom — the freedom of the ecclesiastical body to govern its own affairs — is possible only when the national church’s hierarchy is linked to “the international kingdom of Christ.” That is, linked to the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike the national churches, the Catholic Church has always maintained her ecclesiastical freedom.
Apart from communion with Rome, particular national churches can have no true unity. As those familiar with Orthodoxy well know, there’s no such entity as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Soloviev explains that in the East there exists nothing but separate and isolated national churches. The unity that the separated Eastern Churches claim is “a unity based on a broad but hollow indifference, implying no organic bond and requiring no effective fellowship between particular Churches.” Consequently, Soloviev insists, among the Eastern Orthodox, the universal Church is merely a concept, an abstraction.
Soloviev uses various pejorative terms to describe the Eastern Orthodox opponents and critics of Rome. They’re “anti-Catholics,” “anti-Catholic controversialists,” “Orthodox schismatics,” “semi-Orthodox,” “Orthodox anti-Catholics,” “pseudo-Orthodox.” To all who deny the necessity of the papacy as a permanent center of unity for the universal Church, he issues a challenge. Let those opponents show us unity in the universal Church apart from the papacy. Let them name one action taken that affects Christendom in its entirety apart from the papacy.
In his argument, Soloviev recalls a popular Russian legend to illustrate the difference in outlook between the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Orthodox Churches. Saints Nicholas and Cassian were once sent from Paradise to visit the earth. They met a peasant whose heavily loaded wagon was stuck in the mud. St. Nicholas proposed that they help the peasant, but St. Cassian objected that he didn’t want to get his coat dirty. St. Nicholas plunged into the mud and by his efforts enabled the peasant’s horses to pull the wagon free.
When they returned to Paradise, St. Nicholas’s clothes were tattered and covered with mud. When St. Peter asked for an explanation, St. Nicholas told him what he had done. St. Peter asked St. Cassian whether he had been with St. Nicholas to help the peasant. St. Cassian’s excuse was, “Yes, but I don’t meddle in things that are no concern of mine, and I was especially anxious not to get my beautiful clean coat dirty.”
St. Peter commended St. Nicholas for braving the mud to help his neighbor. He promised St. Nicholas that after himself, St. Nicholas would be the most loved of all saints by the Russian peasants. He would have two feasts each year. St. Cassian, on the other hand, would have to be content with his clean coat. He would have only one feast, celebrated only in leap years.
The Catholic Church, Soloviev says, has not been afraid to dip her cloak in the mud of history. In ministering to the people in its communion, the papacy, like St. Nicholas, has shown more concern for her flock than for her appearance. The Eastern Church, however, has emphasized isolation over engagement — a choice that puts her firmly in the camp of St. Cassian. This “is the chief point of difference and the fundamental cause of the schism between the two churches.”
In Soloviev’s mind, the contrast between East and West can be summed up simply: While the Eastern Church prays, the Church of the West both prays and works. The Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos are perfect examples. They spend their lives in prayer and in contemplation of the uncreated light. While these activities are vital to the Christian life, they are not the totality of it.
But far from being an obstacle, this contrast between East and West can actually serve as a basis for reunion — a kind of necessary complementarity. Soloviev begged his fellow Russians to recognize that Catholics have “precisely the same religious basis that we have. Whatever is holy and sacred for us is also holy and sacred for them.”
Indeed, reconciliation of the Eastern Churches with Rome would require creating nothing new. The Russian upstart did not ask that they change their nature or repudiate their own rich heritage. Rather, he called on the Russian Church (and all the separated Eastern Churches) to restore the universal character of their faith by reuniting with the only truly universal Church… Rome.
Controversy and Outrage
Not surprisingly, Soloviev’s position was not warmly accepted by his fellow Orthodox. The more aggressive among them attacked him fiercely. But he waved them off, along with their arguments. The Orthodox apologists, he said, had little interest in what East and West share in common. Rather, they’ve grown attached to the differences. For them the distinctive Russian religion seems to consist of mere denials of Catholic doctrine: the Immaculate Conception, the filioque, the papacy (at one point, he described Orthodoxy as “simply a national protest against the universal power of the pope”).
So the Orthodox are protesting against the universal jurisdiction of the pope? Protesting in the name of what? he asked. What alternative do they offer? An ecumenical council? Since breaking with Rome, the Eastern Churches haven’t been able to convoke an ecumenical council and probably never will be. And so the controversialists try to “confront the actual councils of the Catholic Church with a council that can never take place, and to maintain their cause with weapons that they have lost and under a flag of which they have been robbed.”
The controversialists Soloviev opposed had no problem seeing each bishop or priest as a vicar of Jesus Christ, and yet they denied that same quality to the successor of Peter. In doing so, they set limits to what Jesus could do in establishing His kingdom on earth. They readily granted that Christ has authority to act through His ministers in any part of His visible kingdom. And yet, they say, it’s just going too far to imagine that Jesus gave the keys of the whole kingdom to Peter.
Reconciliation and Return
The papacy, Soloviev said, is the only independent, international, ecclesiastical authority by which the Church’s universal mission can be fulfilled. He was convinced that whoever yearns for the kingdom of God on earth — as he himself indeed did — must also yearn for the universal Church and the papacy, which is the only means by which mankind can be led into that kingdom.
The Catholic Church is unique in several fundamental respects. It’s the only Church that contends for universal social unity against nationalistic and individualistic concerns. And it’s the only Church that has successfully defended the freedom of spiritual power from state control. “In a word,” Soloviev said, “it is the only church against which the gates of Hades have not prevailed.”
Soloviev is reported to have accepted last rites from a Russian Orthodox priest. Yet four years before his death, he received communion from an Eastern Catholic priest after having made a profession of faith that he never retracted:
As a member of the true and venerable Eastern or Greco-Russian Orthodox church; which speaks neither through an anti-canonical synod nor through the employees of the secular power, but through the utterance of her great Fathers and Doctors, I recognize as supreme judge in matters of religion him who has been recognized as such by St. Irenaeus, St. Dionysius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian, the Blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the confessor, St. Theodore of the Studium, St. Ignatius, and on and on — namely the apostle Peter who lives in his successors and who has not heard our Lord’s words in vain: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18); “Strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:3w2); “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs” (cf. John 21:15, 16, 17)….
Toward the end of his profession, the Orthodox papist recalled the voices from the West that had urged reconciliation. Their entreaties, he said, need “only a simple amen from the Eastern Slavs.”
“I come to speak this amen,” he said, “in the name of a hundred million Russian Christians, in full and firm confidence that they will not repudiate me.”
May Soloviev’s amen be one day echoed throughout the East.
This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine.