Monday, August 18, 2014

Constantinian Christianity

Popular now among Catholics, Schmemann-derived Orthodox, and various stripes of protestants is the narrative that Constantine corrupted Christianity by bringing about its legality and the official juridical preference given to it by his successors. Malachi Martin promoted this telling in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Church as did Alexander Schmemann in his Church, World, Mission. A complimentary narrative purports that the schism between Rome and Constantinople occurred in 1054, was solidified in 1204, and was the consequence of papal ambition. There is some truth to the last part of the second story, but it wholly misses the point. The un-caused cause of the schism is Constantine, who created "Byzantine" Christianity.

He is called "St. Constantine, equal to the Apostles" in the Greek liturgy—"equal" in his influence in spreading Christianity and in no other way whatsoever. Emperor Constantine was accorded by Russell Kirk the same appellation Edmund Burke gave Oliver Cromwell: "a great bad man." After the miraculous apparition prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine found himself the ruler of a war torn empire stirred by the upstart Catholic faith. Constantine presided at the Council of Nicaea, partially to resolve a theological dispute which caused angst within the large Christian community and partially to baptize Christianity into the reformed and Hellenized Roman Empire. 

In the years following Nicaea the bishop of Constantinople, formerly a minor bishopric of little prestige (antipodal to Jerusalem, a prestigious bishopric of no political importance) exercised greater and greater authority within the Eastern Roman Empire. The fourth ecumenical council, held at Chalcedon, effectively pushed out of the Church Coptic Christians who were duped by the heresiarch Eutyches. The same council promoted the bishop of Constantinople to Patriarch, second only to the Apostolic See of Rome. This promotion bypassed the eminence of the Petrine see of Antioch and the newly-alienated see of Alexandria in favor of political expediency. Slowly the Christianity at Constantinople became separated from Roman Christianity. By the time of the iconoclast controversy, we could say that there was such a thing as Byzantine Christianity, supported by the state and defined both by its Platonic language, its liturgy, and its prominence in conciliar decisions.

All this time the popes sat in Rome doing exactly what they should have done, absolutely nothing. Fr. Hunwicke once said it best: the strongest point of the popes during the period of Byzantine domination of theology is that they themselves contributed next to nothing. The popes of the first millennium, in stark contrast to the 20th century popes, were distinctly allergic to any kind of renovation, innovation, or evolution of the faith whatsoever. The papal reaction to the iconoclast dispute exemplifies this. While the Byzantines fought in the streets over proactive veneration of icons against the imperials who want them erased from the churches altogether, Pope Gregory III condemned iconoclasm and at the same time suggested a pastoral resolution, to put icons on the walls and ceilings of churches where veneration would not become an issue. After Greek control of the papacy detumesced and the Western Roman Empire fell apart, the Bishops of Rome and their Greek counterparts found themselves presiding over two increasingly distant parts of the universal Church.

The schism, contrary to popular opinion, did not happen in 1054. It did not happen in 1204 either. 1054 was not a breech between Rome and the rest of Christianity, which had long ago itself been separated from the former-Byzantine Empire. 1054 marked the culmination of a bickering match between Rome and Constantinople that began with the creation of a uniquely Byzantine Church, which was nurtured by the Photian affair and the triumph over the iconoclasts, and which was brought to a head by the re-assertion of Papal power. Over the two previous centuries, the popes had been a remarkably bad bunch (philanderers, simonists, murders, and the occasional heretic). Meanwhile the various patriarchates became accustomed to operating without the popes and their judgments. One could say Papal power was stronger in the 5th century than in the 10th. The all-time nadir of the Papacy came during the reign of Benedict IX, who bought and sold the papacy to marry a woman, held the Petrine chair thrice, and raised an army to dispute his uncle for the Roman see. After such a soap opera, the re-assertion of papal primacy under Leo IX, Gregory VII, and Urban II seemed absurd to the Byzantine patriarchs, who now presided over a tradition separate from that of Rome. A rift that had been taking root for centuries flowered with the dispute between Cardinal Humbert and Archbishop Michael Cerularius. The Emperor rightly ignored the separation when his kingdom was put at risk. The Crusades created a cultural animosity between the Greeks and Latins that spilled over into religion and in the years after the fall of Constantinople Greek Christians, understandably, looked to blame the Latin Church for its sins in meddling with Byzantine affairs. The Pope became the absolute head of all matters in the Latin West and the Greek Patriarch became Vice President of non-Islamic Religions in the Ottoman Empire; many patriarchs, even given their animosity towards the Roman Church, should be admired for their sufferings under the Turks. Individual cases of reunion, like that of the Melkite Church, were often disrupted or brought to naught by Turkish and Constantinopolitan intervention. Moreover, the roles of the Pope as Patriarch of Rome and "head bishop," as Armenian king Vartan II called the Roman bishop, became blurred.

At this point the "Hull thesis" takes over. The Latin Church been self-reflective and encumbered in her own legal system, her own theology, and her own devotions with no external oversight from the other patriarchates as existed centuries earlier. The Roman objectified theology and turned it into a variation of Greek logic. Conversely, the Greeks began to hold in suspicion things that were not Greek: the Roman Canon, the primacy of the Pope, St. Augustine, and the like. One epigraph in Banished Heart referred to the Pope as the "ghost of Caesar." Similarly, historian John Romer called the Orthodox churches the last "relic" of the lost Byzantine Empire. Both statements are exaggerations, but do procure strong elements of truth for modern consideration.

Now the Roman Church is in administrative and bureaucratic shambles; Mass attendance is in the gutter. The Byzantine Orthodox world is de facto run by Russian primacy, and Russia is among the most secular countries in the world; Orthodox churches are often strong centers of faith, but just as often seem to function as cultural hubs (Eastern Catholic churches are just as guilty here). The Greeks triumphantly uphold the religion of a defunct world power while the Romans have dismantled their once ubiquitous, virile praxis. And the Oriental Catholic and Orthodox Churches are forgotten.

Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Church
The cultural divide begun by Constantine continues to this day, separating Byzantine Christianity from both Rome and the far East. Coptic Catholics and Orthodox have inter-Communion in Egypt and have for years. The Melkites and their Antiochian Orthodox brethren also have inter-Communion, shared Sacraments, and even shared parishes; they use the Greek liturgy, but have carefully spurned any excessive embrace of non-Arabic culture. The non-Byzantine Eastern Catholics have displayed very little trouble adapting to the teachings of the last millennium without vitiating their own perspectives. Why must the Byzantines be different? Perhaps it is post "Uniate" guilt wrought by de-Latinization, pro-Orthodox ecumenism, and cultural pull. One Slavic Byzantine Catholic said to me "Well, we should all really be Orthodox and would be if not for the Union of Brest." Ignoring the fact that the Union of Brest influenced the Slavic churches and not the north African or far Eastern churches, my mind nearly prompted me to ask "Are you Catholic by birth or by faith?" I held my tongue.

The healthiest Byzantine Catholic parishes I have seen in the United States have embraced Byzantine spirituality as their future and reeled in the ethnocentrism that once dominated those churches. The Melkites and Ruthenians are doing well enough in the United States while the Ukrainian Catholic Church is struggling (but doing well in missionary areas). Was this not what Alexander Schmemann wanted his own Russian Orthodox Church to do decades ago? God became Man neither as a Greek, nor Slav, nor Roman, but as  Palestinian Jew. Constantine did not intend to drive a wedge between the various parts of Christendom, only to use part of it to strengthen his declining Empire. In that he succeeded. He was not the immediate cause of the East-West Schism, but he is the most necessary one.

This short reflection carefully advocates nothing. The purpose of this post is to summarize why the author believes the seeds of division of Byzantine Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic) from the rest of Apostolic Christendom were planted long before most think. Such a long division brings about many questions. Answers will not be found with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Congregation for Oriental Churches, or weekend conferences in Ravenna. They will only be found at the ground level.

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