The article “A Catholic View of Orthodoxy” by Aidan Nichols, OP seems like an excellent place to begin my reflections on my own reasons for exploring the desirability of entering into the communion of the Church of Rome. I will present my own rambling and possibly incoherent comments on Father Nichols’s piece in several parts.
I have never been a polemical Orthodox. When I joined the Orthodox Church, almost a decade ago, I decided that I would do my best to avoid the plague of convertitis. I considered the Roman Church before considering Orthodoxy, and I chose Orthodoxy because, at the time, I could not bring myself to accept the papal claims. But I never wanted to be anti-Western, anti-Roman, or anti-Catholic. In fact, I have always maintained a healthy respect for the Christian West, and even a love for the riches of the Western Catholic tradition.
And if, by God’s grace, I do become a fulfilled Orthodox by joining the communion of the Roman Church, I am determined not to become a polemical Catholic or to reject or despise my previous Church.
Reflecting on Fr Nichols’s words, I am heartened, first of all, by his irenic and non-polemical tone. One might expect an article entitled “A Catholic View of Orthodoxy” to be a syllabus of Greek schismatic errors, or a triumphalist screed. Thankfully, since Vatican II, anti-Orthodox attacks on the part of Roman Catholics have become very rare indeed (very sadly, the same cannot be said for anti-Catholic attacks on the part of Eastern Orthodox). Polemics may be appealing and persuasive to some inquirers. The “true believers” may think that this is the sort of thing that’s really going to “reel ’em in”. Specifically in the case of many Protestants, perhaps polemical discourse has its place. I’m not sure that the same kind of polemics are going to be helpful in helping folks to see East-West problem more clearly. Personally, I am far more impressed by a sane and balanced approach to the heart-breaking scandal of Orthodox-Catholic division.
The first crucial point that Father Nichols makes is that the Orthodox should be the Catholic Church’s preferred, primary “ecumenical partner.” “[T]here cannot be any doubt that the Catholic Church must accord greater importance to dialogue with the Orthodox than to conversations with any Protestant body.”
Why is this? Clearly, it is because the Latin West and the Greek East were so very close. And we remain very close, despite the millenium of separation, the polemics, the betrayals, and the atrocities – even though this may not always appear to be the case to folks on both sides of the schism. We really do, for the most part, hold the same Apostolic, Catholic and Orthodox faith, expressed in the dogmatic work of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. We, Orthodox and Catholics, are together the bearers of Holy Tradition (“the Gospel in its plenary organic transmission through the entirety of the life – credal, doxological, ethical – of Christ’s Church.”)
The second crucial point that Father Nichols makes is that the schism is not merely a tragedy for one side or the other. It is a tragedy, a scandal, and in fact a “catastrophe” for both parties, for the West as well as for the East.
A triumphalist Orthodox reading of the schism might assign not only most of the blame of the schism to the Western Church, but most of the ill-effects of the schism as well. After all, it is the Western Church, following the spurious claims of the Pope of Rome, which fell away from the unity of Orthodoxy, and thus left the visible boundaries of the true Church of Christ (and, according to some extreme Orthodox readings, deprived of grace and the Holy Spirit). Translation: “Too bad for the RCs! They ought to come back to us.”
Likewise, a triumphalist Roman Catholic reading of the schism might sound similar, assigning most of the blame to the “Greek schismatics” who have rebelled against the true Vicar of Christ and have thus cut themselves off from the visible Church of Christ. Translation: “Too bad for the Orthodox! They ought to come back to us.”
Perhaps these are extreme caricatures. I hope they are. My point is that it’s not “too bad” for one side – it’s “too bad” for both sides. It’s “too bad” for Christendom. It’s “too bad” for the Body of Christ. Both sides have suffered the catastrophic effects of the tearing asunder of the seamless garment of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To use the powerful image of Yves Congar, the Church now has a major breathing problem. Both sides have been deprived of a lung, and it is madness for either side to ignore this and act as if all is well. Speaking for the Western Church, Father Nichols is frank about the Western Church’s need for the insights of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in order to withstand the onslaught of an increasingly hostile Western world. “Practically speaking, then, the re-entry into Catholic unity of this dogmatic, liturgical, contemplative and monastic Church could only have the effect of steadying and strengthening those aspects of Western Catholicism which today are most under threat by the corrosives of secularism and theological liberalism.”
Thank God that Father Nichols, echoing Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary Orientale Lumen, has the humility and honesty to admit that the Roman Catholic Church needs the Eastern Orthodox Church like it needs a lung transplant. Would that more Orthodox feel the same way about the riches of the Western Church, and in particular, the Petrine ministry!