The last part of the article “A Catholic View of Orthodoxy” is devoted to Father Nichols’ take on “one negative aspect of Orthodoxy” from his Roman Catholic perspective. This “one negative aspect” often comes to the fore when Orthodox are confronted with the topic of “Uniatism”*, or the existence of the Eastern Churches in communion with the See of Rome.
One might recall that the Orthodox-Catholic Joint International Commission actually suspended official talks in 2000, after reaching a bitter impasse at its meeting in Baltimore. The divisive issue was not the Papacy, or the Filioque. The issue was the problem of “Uniatism”. The disagreement in 2000 was so bitter that the Commission only recently decided to return to formal talks.
I have to admit that I have never been able to figure out the Orthodox obsession with Eastern Catholic “Uniatism”. But I can personally testify to the “animosity” and “barely contained fury” of some Orthodox with regard to this issue. I knew a very bright Orthodox lady, a member of the OCA, who was by all accounts very open-minded and irenic about most religious topics. But in the course of one conversation, I mentioned Eastern Catholicism, and I was shocked at the visceral reaction that this produced in her. She said, in effect, that these churches ought to be utterly obliterated. Their faithful should be forced to become either Roman Catholic or Orthodox, but preferably Orthodox. I stated, in effect, that you really can’t “put the toothpaste back into the tube” with regard to the Eastern Catholic Churches. They exist, they’ve existed for quite some time, they include real Christian souls, and you can’t simply nuke their tradition because it offends somebody. My arguments were to no avail.
What lies behind this reaction? According to Father Nichols, “The animosity, indeed the barely contained fury, with which many Orthodox react to the issue of Uniatism is hardly explicable, except in terms of a widespread and not readily defensible Orthodox feeling about the relation between the nation and the Church.”
Not all Orthodox, actually, are so “anti-uniate”. For instance, in the Middle East, the Antiochian Orthodox have never been particularly offended about the existence of Melkites among them. In fact, I am told that there exists a sort of unofficial, de facto communio in sacris between Orthodox and Melkites. Many families have both Orthodox and Melkites in them, and they think nothing of attending each others’ churches and even receiving each others’ sacraments. Now, I’m not claiming that this is technically a kosher practice according to both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but it is rather interesting nonetheless.
Father Nichols mentions the existence of “Western-Rite Orthodoxy” as a sort of “gotcha” to Orthodox who attack Eastern Catholicism. This criticism, however, is not particularly fair. The establishment of Western-Rite parishes within, for instance, the Antiochian Archdiocese in North America has not been without opposition from other Orthodox (particularly among the Greeks and in the OCA). According to a Western-Rite blog, the founder of the Western-Rite Vicariate, Metropolitan Antony Bashir, coming from the very friendly Middle Eastern Christian community described above, actually somewhat admired the Melkites and thought that it made all the sense in the world to have some “reverse Melkites” in his own jurisdiction. So, to be fair, Father Nichols’ “gotcha” here, with regard to Western Rite Orthodox “Uniatism” in the Antiochian jurisdiction, then, doesn’t really work.
For whatever reason, some Orthodox, like Metropolitan Antony Bashir, are not mortally offended by the existence of Eastern Christians in communion with Rome. He had no problem, likewise, with welcoming Western Catholics into his own communion. In the case of those Orthodox who are mortally offended by “Uniatism”, though, I can’t discern much rational explanation for their reaction, other than what Father Nichols identifies as “Orthodox nationalism”, “the close link between Church and national consciousness.”
To be fair, I must add to this a few very significant factors that Father Nichols does not mention. There is a distinct impression, perhaps based on real events in the past (I am not an expert in the history), that the existence of Eastern Catholicism is a plot on the part of Latin missionaries to bait Orthodox Christians into accepting union with Rome. And then, of course, there is the perception of persecution Eastern Catholics by Roman Catholics (e.g. the Archbishop Ireland / Alexis Toth debacle), as well as the strong tendency to “Latinize” the Eastern Catholics in liturgy, theology, spirituality and ethos (though Rome itself has more often than not encouraged the Eastern Churches to remain true to their tradition). All of these factors, I think, contribute to the “anti-uniate” sentiment on the part of many Orthodox, and probably with very good reason.
However, none of these considerations, in my mind, do away with the nationalistic problem that Father Nichols identifies. This linkage of a general “Easternness”, or particular nationalities and ethnic groups, with the “True Faith”, has always been very troublesome to me, especially as an Orthodox convert who does not come from an historically “Orthodox” cultural background. To its credit, American Orthodoxy has made great strides in overcoming nationalism and ethnocentrism. But can this really be said of Orthodoxy in general, throughout the centuries, and universally today?
To put it very bluntly, I am deeply concerned about Orthodoxy’s claim to be fully “catholic”, in the sense that Father Nichols describes here:
To a Catholic mind, the Church of Pentecost is a Church of all nations in the sense of ecclesia ex gentibus, a Church taken from all nations, gathering them – with, to be sure, their own human and spiritual gifts – into a universal community in the image of the divine Triunity where the difference between Father, Son and Spirit only subserves their relations of communion.
I know that this is certainly the Orthodox ideal, but I am not sure how this sense of catholicity plays itself out practically or concretely. For me, the problem is not merely nationalism, but of a certain exclusivist orientalism that constantly seeks to distinguish itself from some terrible monolith called “The West”. This is a fundamentally negative attitude, one which defines itself by what it’s not. It’s the sort of attitude that one does not become “really Orthodox” until he has shed his “Western” assumptions and has assumed something called “the Orthodox phronema” – a mindset which, it seems to me, is almost exclusively “Eastern” and only tolerates “Western” things if they are run through an “Orthodox” (read: Eastern) filter.
Father Nichols, a convert from the established state Church of England, feels that becoming Catholic has freed him “from particularism into the more spacious life of a Church raised up to be an ensign for all nations, a Church where those of every race, colour and culture can feel at home, in the Father’s house.” I am sorry to say that this has not been my experience as an Orthodox convert. My Orthodox friends might say that this is because I’ve never really assumed “the phronema” – which, as far as I can tell, means that I’ve never become an Easterner in mind and heart. Perhaps they are correct. To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to be just a “Greek” or just a “Latin”. I simply want to be a catholic, orthodox Christian, who has the phronema or mind of the entire catholic Church, East and West.
I will conclude my reflections on Father Nichols’ article in a third part, dealing with his specific ideas for the reform of the exercise of the Petrine Office in the event of corporate reunion with Eastern Orthodoxy.
* Please note that I do not mean to be offensive in the use of this term. I am using it in the sense that Father Nichols is using it, in a technical rather than a condescending sense.