The Body of Christ is in critical condition. The “two lungs” of the Church—the East and West, the Orthodox and Catholics—have largely failed to draw breath together since the Great Schism in 1054. Similar to an autoimmune disease, one body has fought itself. It is time, as Blessed John Paul II states in his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, for the Church to “breath with her two lungs!”
The East and West have begun to recognize the impenetrable force they can become working together, especially in combating the rising tide of secularism that seeks to overwhelm culture. This trend is being felt most notably in Europe.
During the time of the Second Vatican Council, on December 7, 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I mutually lifted the millenium-old excommunications. Since then, the two lungs have begun to breathe in sync and the vital signs of the Body of Christ have improved. Dialogue and cooperation has increased. They are resolving theological matters and presenting a unified witness to political ones.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The Orthodox and Catholic Churches have recently taken a stance that the best defense against secularism is a good offense. They have met various religious groups in Europe that have rejected traditional Christian teachings with more than just suspicion; they met them with warning and rebuke in virtual unison.
Notably, the Church of England, a driving force in the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, has caught the attention of the Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs. In 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI created the Anglican Ordinariate for disaffected Anglicans, Cardinal Walter Kasper as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, stated the causes for creation of the Ordinariate:
…the ordination of women to the priesthood and then to the episcopate, the consecration of a homosexual bishop, the blessing of same-sex couples: decisions that have provoked serious tensions within the composite Anglican world. The thrust of these events has also widened the rift with Catholics.
A few years later, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, resigned and the Church of England nominated Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, to take his place. He received a rather unusual congratulations letter from Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations. The letter stated,
Regrettably, the late 20th century and the beginning of the third millennium have brought tangible difficulties in relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The introduction [of the] female priesthood and now episcopate, the blessing of same-sex ‘unions’ and ‘marriages’, the ordination of homosexuals as pastors and bishops—all these innovations are seen by the Orthodox as deviations from the tradition of the Early Church, which increasingly estrange Anglicanism from the Orthodox Church and contribute to a further division of Christendom as a whole.
The exact issues that have pushed the Church of England away from the Orthodox and Catholics are uniting the latter. This month, the Patriarch of Moscow, when speaking to the Council of Russian Orthodox Bishops, noted the positive trend of increased relations with the Catholics and criticized other groups for their drifting away from the teachings of the Early Church.
Other than calling out the religious groups that have fallen by the wayside, the Orthodox and Catholics are also fighting side-by-side in court. A case that recently arose in Italy, Lautsi v. Italy, went before the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of whether Italy could put crucifixes in their public school classrooms as a testament to their Catholic history. The Court, in 2006, ruled that simply hanging a crucifix denotes a process of indoctrination.
One of the most vocal critics of the Court’s decision of Lautsi v. Italy was the Orthodox Church. Italy appealed the case, and in 2010, the Court reversed its decision. David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation, lamented in a press release,
It is to be hoped that the (majority group of) judges were not yielding to the huge political pressure put on them by Italy and what looked like a ‘Holy Alliance’ of Catholic and Orthodox states that backed its appeal and by the Vatican, the Greek Orthodox Church and other reactionary religious interests whose fears of losing influence in an increasingly secular Europe will have been abated by this judgement.
The secular elitists, who believe Europe has no room for religion, are feeling the pressure. The same press release went on to say, “Unprecedentedly, ten states intervened voluntarily to support Italy, forming a ‘Holy Alliance’ between Catholic and Orthodox states (Armenia, Malta, Lithuania, San Marino, Monaco, Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus).”
Last month, the Orthodox and Catholics joined together in a campaign to protect a Catholic Cathedral in Romania. After a joint campaign by the two, a judge ordered the demolition of a 19-story skyscraper overshadowing the cathedral, and built with improper permits or authorizations. The media outlets are realizing the importance of this. Romania is a predominantly Orthodox country. One of the greatest roadblocks in the reunification efforts, the Orthodox claim, is that Catholics are “poaching converts” in traditionally Orthodox land. The fact that the Orthodox would fight for the Catholics in their country is a sign of thawing relations—and a cultural battle for keeping religion in the public sphere.
Pope Benedict XVI witnessed the atrocities of the Nazis in Germany; Patriarch Kirill witnessed the atrocities of the Soviets in Russia. These two leaders cooperated in recent years because they understood that a moral collapse often leads to a societal collapse. They understood exactly what is at stake. As the European Union grows, likely to soon include Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, the united front of the Churches will become a powerful force against secularization.
While the Body of Christ’s condition is critical, it is off of life support. The coalition of Orthodox and Catholics has begun. Recovery won’t be easy, but it is increasingly possible.
Editor’s note: The photo above of Pope Benedict XVI and His Holiness Bartholomew I of Constantinople was taken on November 30, 2009.