25 June 2010

Are Roman Catholics and Orthodox about to unite?

There has been quite a lot of talk in the blogosphere about an imminent reunion between Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Father Milovan writes about it in “The Arrogant Papal Brow” | Again and Again. The Roman Pope has visited several Orthodox countries recently, and there has also been a proliferation of Byzantine-style ikons in Roman Catholic churches, as this Orthodox writer notes OCA - Q & A - Orthodox Influences on Roman Catholicism:
Of course, it is difficult to objectively detail influences Orthodoxy has had on Roman Catholicism. Very often an individual or a small group of individuals may have contact with Orthodoxy, digest certain things which they discovered, and incorporated them into the life and thought of their communion, generally without the knowledge of the Orthodox. Last May I encountered a Roman Catholic priest from France who operates a school for young adults interested in missionary and evangelistic outreach. He gave me a copy of the school's magazine, which sported photographs of the school's chapel, the interior of which was completely frescoed in Byzantine iconography. Other pictures revealed another small chapel filled with icons, as well as the priest himself in Orthodox vestments celebrating the Eucharist. Odd as all of this might be -- imagine how one would react to find an Orthodox church in which the Sacred Heart statue was prominently displayed! -- it does show that, in many ways great and small, Orthodoxy has had some influence, even if it is only external.

The last point, about the Sacred Heart, indicates, however, that there is still a very long way to go. Why is it that, as an Orthodox Christian, I find this Byzantinised image of the Sacred Heart (found at Clerical Whispers: Prayer To The Sacred Heart) quite shocking, and almost a desecration?

I don't mind if Roman Catholics use Byzantine ikons, but this image strikes me as abuse rather than use. It indicates that the gulf is much wider than we think.

Unity is a lot more than Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops visiting and being polite to each other. I'm all in favour of them doing that, and even doing the same thing with Anglican and Zionist bishops, but it doesn't mean that reunion is imminent.

Some think that it is only a few minor theological issues that can be sorted out quickly. But it’s not just papal primacy and the Filioque that keep us apart, but a millennium of history. We differ in soteriology (Anselm’s theory of the atonement, which swept the west, never got much traction in Orthodoxy), ecclesiology (the Orthodox temple versus the Roman monolith and the Protestant heap of stones) and missiology (Roman missiologists believe that Orthodox missiology is derived from Origen).

All these have led to a different culture and ethos, and this is just as much theology as the kind of theology that is written in books. And so before there can be any reunion, these things must be faced and examined.

So if Roman Catholics want to have images of the Sacred Heart, I think it would be better if they stuck to ones like the one on the left.

Unlike some writers, I don't think a hasty marriage is imminent. We are far closer to the Oriental Churches, like the Copts and Armenians, than we are to the Roman Catholics, and I don't see reunion happening there very quickly. I'll believe it when I see an agreement that the next Pope of Alexandria to die will not be replaced, but that the other one will simply move in to succeed him and that thereafter there will just be one. But I see no sign of that happening yet.


Some other posts that point to differences that need to be examined and sorted out before we can say that the time is ripe for reunion:


Chris Hall said...

About to unite? Optimism can be a good thing but it needs to be rooted in reality!

Aside from the theological differences which need to be thrashed out by the theologians, the indifference and mistrust among the laity need to be addressed before any unity can come about.

The only orthodox I know in the west tend to have a 'colourful' view of roman catholics. I can't see their generation embracing ecumenicism, let alone unity.

Anonymous said...

I just happened to see Father Milovan's post, having not seen any of the other internet discussion you refer to, and got quite irritated. It is obviously ridiculous to think that union is going to happen anytime soon, much less that it will involve Orthodox submitting to Rome. The whole thing just seemed like scaremongering among anti-ecumenical Orthodox, and reminded me of Patriarch Bartholemew's comments on that in his encyclical during Great Lent.

But then I realised that such sentiments are in effect a mirror image of the type of attitudes I often find among Catholics. Whenever there is any contact with Orthodox they get all excited and think that union is about to take place, without having the foggiest idea of the issues at stake, and without realising that they will have to engage in considerable soul searching and change before that could ever be a possibility.

Your "icon" of the Sacred Heart is a good example and one could give many other examples of similar things. And I would certainly rather see Catholics venerating icons than using images of the Sacred Heart - but then I would hope that it was because they were seeking to return to the tradition, and that certainly cannot be assumed.

Unity is important, and dialogue is important. But that presupposes the ability to listen and to look at reality as it really is, otherwise people just end up speaking - or shouting - past each other.


An Anxious Anglican said...

I do not understand your outrage at the Sacred Heart icon. Perhaps you could elaborate on your reasons? Does the east "own" the form, or is there a theological reason for your objection?

Steve Hayes said...

Anxious Anglican, it's not "outrage". It's just that the image is totally alien to Orthodoxy, and shows that there is still a huge gulf between Orthodox and Roman Catholics, and no one should be under any illusions that it is going be sorted out by a few polite diplomatic visits by bishops.

Anonymous said...

Anxious Anglican,

As I understand it, in an Orthodox understanding, the form and the theology cannot be separated. That is the reason why there is a canon that expresses the delimitations of what an iconographer may or may not do. (Similar, in a way, I suppose, to the canon of Scripture).

This originated before the schism between East and West and the teaching on the icon of the seventh ecumenical council is something that the Roman Catholic Church formally assents to (although for various reasons it never properly penetrated her consciousness). Insofar as the Catholic Church claims to be in continuity with the pre-schism Church, then I suggest that one can legitimately object to her accepting developments that contradict the common tradition.

A Catholic iconographer friend of mine argues that "we owe it to the cause of unity" to abide by the canon. But I fear that he is a voice crying in the wilderness.


Steven P. Cornett said...

A question.

Why do you see Orthodoxy as being closer to non-Chalcedon churches rather than Catholicism? The later, unlike the Oriental Orthodox, accept Chalcedon as well as the second Nicean Council which was directed against the heresy of Iconoclasm.

Also, while the Christological argument of unit is of recent vintage (really only in the last decade or so), the essential christological unity of Catholic & Orthodox churches has been known for much longer. Eastern Uniate churches live side by side with the Latin Rite and have for some time; those eastern churches use the formulation of the Creed as the Orthodox use it (without the reference to "Filioque" as used in the West).

Steve Hayes said...

There have been some interesting points made in comments, which would be worth discussing further. Unfortunately blog comments are not the best medium for this. I would like to invite those who have commented to join the Thandanani Forum, which allows more interaction. You can also join it be sending e-mail to thandanani-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Ecgbert said...

Is union about to happen? Probably not.

The only real difference.

On the Sacred Heart:

The devotion to the Sacred Heart, which in its symbolical meaning and as representing the love and tenderness of the Saviour towards His children, had found its way into the hymns and prayers of almost every private form of devotion, and commends itself to the more enthusiastic of every communion, as the most touching of all those exercises of piety which cluster around the suffering life of Jesus ... The Heart of Christ, whether to Puritan devotee, to the member of the High Church in England, or to those who had outwardly separated themselves from the communion of both, was the temple of a common worship — the home of common love.

— From The Devotion of the Sacred Heart, the Religious Tract Society, London, probably printed around 1876, pp. 8-9

I wouldn't be surprised if you found it among the home devotions of Arab Orthodox like this family.

That said, I don't like bastardising Orthodox iconography either.

Rite controls what you do in church and that's good. So no devotions that started outside one's church or liturgically commemorating the other side's post-split saints. Only logical.

Prayer at home is freer.

Steve Hayes said...


I disagree about the "only real difference".

As far as Rite is concerned, my general view of Western Rite in Orthodox churches pretty much coincides with Thoughts on ‘Western Rite’ | Again and Again. The only Western rite that tempts me at all is Compline. And I'd not object too much to giving up the Paraklesis if the RCs would give up the devotions to to the Sacred Heart as a quid pro quo. I'm not sure where the Paraklesis came from anyway.

But I think that kind of horse trading lies a long way in the future. First we need to become aware of the differences in ethos that lie behind such things.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of why I wrote An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism.

The imitation-Orthodox "sacred heart" icon is a microcosm of Roman celebratory overtures to Orthodoxy.

Steve Hayes said...


Thanks for the link, and I'd forgotten about the dropping of the "Patriarch of the West" title to make the Orthodox happy, when it was the one title that the Orthodox were happiest with. Another example of the main problem being that they don't see what the problem is.


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