Could current problems in both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches lead to a healing of the Great Schism?
In 2019, Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem declared, “The Church of Jerusalem, which is the Mother of all the Churches, is the guarantor of the unity of the Orthodox Church.” It was a single line in a minor speech to a group of Russian scholars. Yet its consequences may be felt throughout the whole Church, both in the East and in the West.
Historically, every Orthodox bishop has at least paid lip service to the Patriarch of Constantinople’s claim to be the principle of Orthodox unity. Hence the title Ecumenical Patriarch. That authority has been slipping rapidly away in the last decade. For instance, in 2018, Bartholomew I of Constantinople recognized the independence of an Orthodox church in the Ukraine. For three centuries, Ecumenical Patriarchs had delegated control of the Ukraine to the Patriarch of Moscow, since the Ukraine has always been situated firmly within Russia’s hegemony.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Of course, the Russian Church had no intention of ceding authority—especially not in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimea, which was supported by an overwhelming majority of the local population. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow immediately broke communion with Bartholomew. The result has been a schism between bishops loyal to Constantinople and those loyal to Moscow—the Greek and Slavic factions, respectively.
Schisms are actually quite common in the Orthodox churches. Constantinople and Moscow last split just twenty-six years ago, when Bartholomew undermined Moscow’s control of the Estonian church. But the fact that Theophilos (an ethnic Greek with close ties to Moscow) would position Jerusalem as the new “Mother Church” of the Christian East proves that the divisions within Orthodoxy may become terminal. We could be witnessing the largest realignment since the Great Schism of 1054.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for us Catholics to feel vindicated. As we know, the Great Schism ultimately occurred because the East felt the Roman pontiff was usurping the authority of the local bishops. They feared he would use his power to disseminate error, like the “filioque clause” in the Nicene Creed. They viewed themselves as defending the received doctrine against Roman innovation. That’s why they called themselves the Orthodox: the right-believing.
Many who would consider themselves “orthodox” or traditional Catholics now find themselves levelling a similar grievance against the current Roman pontiff. They believe Pope Francis is using the power of his office to disseminate error. Some have even accused him of heresy. Virtually everyone agrees that he has been too heavy-handed in his governance of the Church.
Yet Francis’ faults, real or perceived, are almost incidental. As in the East, the very existence of such a serious feud within the Catholic Church is proof of a major breakdown in the Church’s self-identity. Granted, a “conservative” rebellion against a “liberal” pope is hardly unprecedented. But this is the first such rebellion since the “conservative” party within the Church became identified with ultramontanism.
The word ultramontane means “beyond the mountains.” It was coined in reference to Western Europeans looking for guidance over the Alps, so to speak, to Rome. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was associated mostly with right-wing polemicists like Joseph de Maistre and Louis Veuillot.
When the First Vatican Council was convened, classical liberals such as Lord Acton were the strongest opponents of papal infallibility. (To his credit, Acton embraced the dogma once it was officially defined by the Church.) Still, many “conservatives” like John Henry Newman were deeply alarmed by the trajectory of the ultramontane party. Newman believed in the dogma, of course. But he balked at the slavish papalism of men like William George Ward, who famously announced, “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.”
In response to the Francis papacy, many traditionally-minded Catholics have likewise begun to question the extremes of ultramontanism. It isn’t that they doubt the dogma of papal infallibility. They don’t. They simply point out that the pope has absolute authority in only two spheres: (a) he can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals, on those rare occasions when he speaks ex cathedra, and (b) he can appoint bishops.
Many Catholics would say that his canonizations are an exercise of infallibility, and this is a majority position. Otherwise, most of his authority is customary. It’s based on Catholics’ natural tendency to defer to the Vicar of Christ. But there’s a growing movement to “decentralize” the Church, to curtail the ultramontane excesses that have taken root in the last three centuries.
We’ll call this camp the retromontanists. They’re going back over the mountains, reclaiming the traditional authority of local bishops and pastors.
Though I would never presume to put words in his mouth, I think Bishop Athanasius Schneider articulates a view much like retromontanism in his book Christus Vincit when he says,
I think that popes should speak rarely, in part because the inflation of the pope’s words obscures de facto the magisterium of the bishops. By his continuous pronouncements, the pope has become the pivotal point for daily life in the Church. However, the bishops are the divinely established pastors for their flocks. In some ways, they are quite paralyzed by this papal-centrism.
Critics of “papal-centrism” usually argue that it reached its zenith under John Paul II. While acknowledging John Paul’s virtues, they’ll almost always lament the fact that he turned the pope into a kind of rock star (the ubiquitous phrase) not only for Catholics but for Christians around the world. That might not be a problem under, say, Benedict XVI. But under Francis, many have come to regret that the whole Church hangs on the pontiff’s every word.
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Yes: it seems to me like we’re headed straight for a Great Convergence that will end the Great Schism of 1054. Put simply, the Orthodox need more popery and Catholics need less.
The East needs a central authority that can serve to mediate between their patriarchs, especially when it comes to the appointment of bishops. Meanwhile, the West needs to remember that our bishops do not derive their authority from the pope. They are not the Vatican’s regional managers. They are Successors to the Apostles in their own right. They have their own teaching authority. They are the shepherds of their sheep, meaning they are ultimately responsible for the fate of the souls in their dioceses.
By decentralizing power back to the bishops, we remove the ability of the pope—or, what’s more likely, the Roman Curia—to “innovate” in matters of liturgy and theology. Remember that, at least since the reign of John XXIII, Vatican bureaucrats have completely overshadowed the papacy. Those who push the ultramontanist line, especially in the modern Church, are not usually empowering the Successor to St. Peter, but the heirs to Msgr. Bugnini.
Besides, the existence of this rigid, centralized hierarchy gives the impression that the pope serves a function much like the Mormon Prophet. He’s not only the head of the Church but a sort of divine loudspeaker through which God can phone into the world and rule His Church directly. This is not the traditional understanding of the papacy, by any means. It not only encourages papal hyperactivity, it also makes a certain amount of “innovation” inevitable. If a pope can innovate Church teaching, surely that means God wants him to innovate, no?
In the Church, as in the State, by centralizing power we almost guarantee that it will be abused. That isn’t how Christ instituted the papacy. It’s a recent development, and one that has not served the Church. By decentralizing that power structure, we would make it clear that the bishops’ role is not to create new teachings but to hand down the teachings we received from Our Lord, His Apostles, and the Fathers of the Church.
Put it another way: Both the Orthodox and the Catholics would call the pope the primus inter pares. The Orthodox need to place more emphasis on the primus; Catholics, on the inter pares.
What’s more, everywhere I look now, I see signs that traditional Catholics are moving closer toward the Orthodox position (in a good way).
For instance, a huge part of the reason that the Great Schism has never been healed is that the East and West have grown very different culturally. Orthodox churches are notoriously insular and, in the West, often become more like ethnic social clubs than places of worship. One hears this complaint most often of the Greek Church. As a result, not only are Greek-Americans largely indifferent to their faith, but non-Greeks who are interested in Orthodoxy frequently report feeling unwelcome in its parishes.
This is less of a problem in the Catholic churches now than it was fifty years ago, when a city’s French and Irish and Italian and Polish and Lithuanian communities would each have their own parishes. (I did once get some dirty looks for showing up at a Spanish-language Mass in a D.C. ghetto.) But we still have a real problem with Kitschtholicism. As Walker Percy wrote in a letter to Allen Tate’s wife,
One of the stumbling blocks to the Southerner (or the American) who is drawn to the Church is that he sees, not the Church of More, not the English Church which is his spiritual home, but the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori by way of the Irish Jesuits. If he does go in, he must go in with his face averted and his nose held against this odor of Italian-Irish pietism and all the bad statues and architecture. Of course this is somewhat exaggerated and prideful, because it is a salutary experience in obedience and humility to take St. Alphonsus. (Hell, he was a great saint!) But if Allen is forming a St. Thomas More Society, I want in.
Most retromontanists would probably agree. They’re localists, and not just in their ecclesiology.
Most would probably support the Unite the Tribes movement, which seeks to forge an alliance of the many “traditionalist” groups within the Church. (The Latin Mass, the Anglican Ordinariates, and the Byzantine Rite are the movement’s three main pillars.) They all oppose the trappings of our committee-made Church: the Novus Ordo Mass, the Glory and Praise hymnal, etc.
I’ve sometimes called this movement liberal traditionalism. It’s liberal in the best sense of the term, meaning generous and open-minded, not lax or heretical. It delights in the real diversity contained within the Universal Church. It has no more desire to Italianize the world than it does to read a new papal bull every morning with breakfast.
So, we might say that the Orthodox need to become more universal in its character, while Catholics need to embrace more of its regional and national particulars. Once again, the East and the West balance out one another.
The third obstacle to reunion must be theological, though even these divisions are rapidly disappearing. For instance, several of the Eastern Catholic churches do not use the “filioque clause.” Rome simply allows them to omit it. Moreover, Catholic and Orthodox bishops have signed countless statements affirming that we have virtually no fundamental disagreements in theological matters. That is why we call the Orthodox schismatics and not heretics.
Really, the historical difference between our two communions lies in how we “do” theology. Put simply, the East has always been more speculative; the West has always been more legalistic. Fr. Robert Hugh Benson once said, “It is the primary function of the theologian not to theorize and soar, but to interpret, explain and disclose to ordinary men the mysteries of God’s revelation.” That is the quintessentially Roman position. Gregory Palamas and Seraphim Rose certainly would not have agreed. (Nor would St. Bonaventure, for that matter. He soared with the best of them.)
What’s extraordinary, though, is that even here the Catholics and the Orthodox are drawing nearer to one another.
For instance, just in the 20th century, conservative and traditionalist Catholics have been urging successive popes to dogmatically affirm the Marian title of Co-Redemptrix. This is a very surprising turn. The title has long been popular with Franciscans, whose theological tradition is closer to the East’s. (Again, think of St. Bonaventure.) It has always been opposed by the Dominicans, who are rightly known as the bastion of orthodoxy. Yet it was Pope Francis who gave the classic Latin retort when he said that such Marian titles are the result of an “exaggerated” devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But that’s not quite true. The supporters of the Co-Redemptrix title are not only emphasizing Mary’s unique goodness. They’re making a fundamental point about the nature of sanctity, of sainthood. The saint so fully participates in Christ’s being, they say, that he literally becomes part of Christ. And, as the only sinless mortal in history—the greatest saint who ever lived, or ever will live—Our Lady naturally serves as the exemplar of this “becoming,” or theosis.
Of course, the concept of theosis exists in the Western Church as well. St. Augustine of Hippo said that “God, having Himself become a partaker of our humanity, has afforded us ready access to the participation of His divinity.” St. Thomas Aquinas not only affirmed theosis but also something like the idea of Mary as Co-Redemptrix:
For it is a great thing in any saint that he has so much grace that it suffices for the salvation of many, but when enough is had for the salvation of all men in the world, this is the greatest, and so it is with Christ and with the Blessed Virgin. For any peril you can obtain salvation from this glorious Virgin.
The doctrine is found everywhere in the Bible, as well. In the Gospels, Our Lord says, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21). Likewise, St. Paul declares, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20).
So, this is nothing for Catholics to fear. On the contrary. By drawing nearer to the Orthodox on the question of theosis, we also draw closer to the Fathers of the Church and the Holy Gospel.
I’ll close with this final thought. We say that the Great Schism of 1054 left the Church with a wound that has never healed. But what do we mean by that? If we mean that the Orthodox simply fell into schism, then it’s the schismatic that is wounded, not the Church. Likewise, if they mean that Catholics simply fell into heresy, then it’s the heretic that is wounded, not the Church.
If the Church herself is wounded, then the Orthodox must have taken something that we Catholics need, and we Catholics must have taken something that our Orthodox brothers need. The Church can only be made whole if the two parts are brought back together again. We need each other, not only in a sort of mystical way but in a very practical sense, too. We need their emphasis on Tradition, and they need our emphasis on Authority.
In that sense, Pope Francis’ emphasis on “synodality” may be a blessing in disguise. Of course, as many people have already pointed out, Francis himself is very much an ultramontanist. He looks to Rome (i.e., career Vatican bureaucrats) for leadership. But while we may chuckle at this little irony, we should think carefully before condemning the principle of synodality itself.
Needless to say, this has nothing to do with the scripted curial subcommittees that pass for synods today. Think, rather, of the synods held by the Early Church, where bishops came from every corner of Creation to strive and argue and praise and condemn, giving a real voice to the sensus fidelium.
Circumstances in both the East and the West may oblige orthodox Catholics and catholic Orthodox to work more closely together, to preserve the Apostolic Faith from those within our own communions who would pervert it. I do really think that Great Convergence is coming. And not a moment too soon.
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/L’Osservatore Romano]