Thursday, April 10, 2014

"The Church"?

"Well, there I'm troubled by the debate over Sacraments and that sorta stuff," said a protestant fellow student to me one night over dinner years back. "There are so many fundamental disagreements in the Christian Church."

"Not as far as I am concerned," replied the Raddiest Trad.

"The Church." It is a term used and abused like none other, but it is rarely given any proper definition. In vogue now is a propensity among practitioners of "high" Christianity to obscure very serious and heartfelt delineations between various parts of Apostolic Christianity—which I define as groups with valid Holy Orders which can be traced back to ancient patriarchal sees—almost to make "the Church" neither black nor white, but every shade of grey. One wonders how people of this tendency would react to St. Polycarp's denomination of Marcion as the "first born son of Satan."

This obscurantism comes after the collapse of several centuries of juridical identification of "the Church," which in turn meant "the Church" was defined by one's patriarchal position. Catholics de facto believed the Roman patriarchate to be "the Church" and all outside of it to be either schismatic heretics or probable "Uniate" would-be heretics. The Orthodox, continuing what was left of the Byzantine Empire, likewise identified communion with Constantinople as "the Church." Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox are tougher to pin down, as no one see defines them nor one cultural tradition, setting them apart from post-Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy and Counter-Reformation Catholicism. At yet the absence of definite leadership is something of an enduring problem in the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches, perhaps the reason why the Ethopian Church re-united with Rome until cultural imperialists masquerading as missionaries bungled the situation beyond repair and Ethiopia returned to non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Indeed, to be in "the Church" could mean to think Latin is heaven's native tongue, to think those born outside of Greek ancestry were un-favored, or that anyone outside of nothern Africa was not to be trusted. The Anglicans, even before the Tractarian days, further complicated the matter by positing themselves to be the via media betwixt "Romish" superstition and continental protestantism. To be English was to be Anglican which was to be authentically Christian.

How things have changed!

Nowadays most protestants believe anyone who professes Christ and attends services at some sort of ecclesial community a few times a month is a member of the "Christian Church." Some Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, although juridically out of communion with each other, consider each other both fully part of "the Church," a feeling particularly powerful within the Melkite and Orthodox patriarchates of Antioch. Most Roman Catholics and Orthodox admit some degree of communion with each other. Similarly non-Chalcedonian Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox profess a common faith. The hard line Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox most often play party pooper in ecumenical dialogue. 

Still, this sort of thing is only true to an extent. "Communion" means many things, above all the sharing of Sacraments. It also means fellowship, community, and union with God in the sharing of the Sacraments. There is certainly a high degree of communion shared by the Melkite Catholics and the Antiochian Orthodox (inside Lebanon). Similarly there is some communion, loosely understood, between Rome and the various Orthodox Churches and between the Orthodox who accept and those who deny Chalcedon. But it is not a complete fellowship or communion. These groups normally only share Sacraments under conditions of extreme duress, such as immanent death or danger of death. Painting "the Church" as the collective of these groups—which share much in common—dangerously brushes past their serious differences.

The watery divide between the Greek and Roman Churches, in my opinion, began long before the year 1054 and did not coagulate until after the destruction of Byzantium. If one is to take an honest approach one finds the bickering between Rome and Constantinople began because of the Greek patriarch's imperially subsidized ambition in the late first millennium and became a lasting schism because of Roman stubbornness. Indeed, the anti-legalism and anti-rationalism that has come to define post-Byzantine Orthodoxy contrasts sharply with the juridical and rationalistic approach of Bellarmine and Liguori, more so than Palamas contrasts with Aquinas.

What is the point? "The Church" can, I think, be found on three levels:
  1. What we believe
  2. How we believe it
  3. With whom are we in communion
The third point is often the target of those who were earlier labelled obscurantists (seeing the organizational aspect of the Church as an artificial construct) while the most legalistic persons often focus on the second point (good luck convincing some Roman Catholic clergy that Eastern Catholics just do not have a concept of Original Sin). In the example of the Melkites and Antiochian Orthodox, the first and second points match near perfectly, but the third point is contended. Does that mean we must discount the third point? Certainly not.

The entire point of belonging to a communion is to know where the Church can be found visibly. Schism of course comes from the Greek word for "tear" or "rip." Ripping up the Church is serious business. Schism is not necessarily the same as heresy, but often relates to it. When the Alexandrian Church rejected Chalcedon few outside of Alexandria doubted that the Egyptian patriarchate had separated itself from the Church. Perhaps at that point the Church—which was Latin, Greek, Armenian etc—felt diverse enough that a consensus between her various contingent groups sufficed to define a schism. But what to do when the only remaining portions, the Greeks and Latins, withdraw from each other? What then? Re-define "the Church" to mean all groups regardless of substantial differences? The Church is communion and where communion lacks the Church lacks. Obscuring this obscures the root cause of much schism: the difference in what is believed and how it is believed.

The most substantial problem, to my view, of glossing over the institutional aspect of "the Church" and the communion which visually defines it is that one would paradoxically call the Church united and divided. Go to a rural Russian village and tell the peasants that they really believe the same things as Katharine Jefferts Schori! The institutional aspect of the Church—which is often a disaster—is still essential because it signals to the faithful where they need to be. If a "house divided against itself cannot stand" why can a Church, in several degrees of schism from itself, continue to be "the Church?" When a couple divorces and the children go off to college the spiritual bonds between the former spouses remain, although they go ignored, yet de facto there is no family any more. Communion and Church cannot be imagined. Christ came to call twelve men who He firmly united in the Holy Spirit and guided in Truth. "The Church," for the welfare of the faithful, must continue this feature, which I believe is essential. Why would one be Coptic Orthodox over Romanian Orthodox unless one was of Egyptian descent? Yet we as Catholics can at least point to Rome as the visible marker of the Church's communion. This facet of Rome may be more important than infallibility of the Pope, given that the Church already understands herself to be infallible in dogmatic matters. If one holds communion with this man, the Pope, the visible marker of the Church, one holds definite communion with the Church of Christ. The Fathers of the Church rarely talk about Matthew 16:18 when they referred to the Bishop of Rome and when they do they speak of him both as the rock and as the marker:
"On him [Peter] He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigned a like power to all the Apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?" (St. Cyprian)
It is quite useless to speculate on the would-be opinion of someone deceased, but I think the above passage summarizes why Adrian Fortescue, despite his openness to Greek Christianity at the height of Pius X—a pope he rather disliked, he remained a Catholic and a Roman one at that.

Far from fomenting division, I favor building unity from a realistic point of view. I would like the Catholic Church to cut off all ecumenical dialogue with pagan sects and even with protestants, with whom we have little in common aside from most of the Bible and Baptism. The Church cannot be divided, but it certainly can be built up. If we really must do ecumenical gatherings let it be private, local conferences with Eastern Orthodox and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox. I would not oppose some level of inter-communion with the Orthodox, but I suspect that they would have a hard time selling the idea to their homeland congregations.

Talk about substantial matters and fear not to be one's self. Bishop Nicholas Samra, Melkite bishop of the American eparchy, announced at his enthronement that Melkites must have the courage "to be ourselves." We Romans, after the long overdue collapse of our business corporation hierarchy, have ignored in both liturgy and theology much of our Roman roots. Those must also be recovered to build up communion within the Church and to entice others to communion. 

The Church, by its nature, is not divided, but it certainly is troubled and has been from the beginning. 

"For peace in the whole world, the well being of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord!" -Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

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