Archive for the ‘Conciliarity’ Category

Part I

My English colleague, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, remarks (perhaps with a degree of frustration) that each time he attempts to explain what an Orthodox understanding of the universal primacy should be, the Catholics in the conversation invariably respond by expressing their complete agreement and affirming that what Bishop Kallistos has said is exactly what they teach! Bishop Kallistos might be pardoned if he were to suspect that this ready agreement from the Catholics might represent at least a small degree of wishful thinking.

However, there is also the matter of conciliarity. For rather more than a century, the Orthodox have been extolling the merits of sobornost‘ to such an extent as to give the impression that this is some sort of cure-all. One reason, perhaps, for this is the belief among some Orthodox, that ever since the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has been nervous about “conciliarism.” We shall come to that problem as well.

For the moment, I wish only to note that there is a considerable distance between the lofty theory of the universal primacy as Bishop Kallistos describes it, and the day-to-day functioning of the Roman Catholic Church. So too, there is a considerable distance between the love-feast of sobornost‘ and the sometimes disreputable reality of Orthodox administrative chaos with seemingly irreconcilable quarrels. It sometimes comes to the point that merely attempting to determine who is an Orthodox bishop in good standing and who is not can lead to lengthy and expensive litigation in the secular courts for want of any other arbiter.


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“It behoves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is the first or chief, and to recognize him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval: but, instead, each of them should do only what is necessitated by his own parish and by the territories under him. But let not even such a one [the primate] do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For this will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

These are the words of Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles. This canon is frequently quoted in the discussion of primacy and conciliarity in the Church; it is an early witness to the need to balance both of these functions in order for the Church to function well. I offer it to us here, quite frankly, in the hope that this early patristic text will provide both the Orthodox and the Catholics some food for thought.

It is no secret that I believe that the positions of the East and West are complimentary, and can be reconciled without either a facile “compromise” or a surrender of one side to the other. I am also convinced that authentic ecumenism does not have as its goal the mutual ratification of each other’s abuses. Nor does a worth-while ecumenical process lie in contrasting the highest ideals of one side with the most deplorable practices of the other side.


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