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Issue Date:  September 2, 2005

Bridging the East-West divide

Benedict set to carry on John Paul II's dream of Christian unity


Even as the French and Dutch electorate voted down the European Union constitution, putting on hold the process of European integration, Pope Benedict XVI was calling for the reunification of Eastern and Western Christendom. In his first papal trip, to the Italian seaport of Bari, Benedict reinforced the theme of his sermon at his inauguration Mass, in which he called for Christian unity, pledging to make the cause of reunification a “fundamental” commitment of his papacy. In the end, Christian unity may prove to be more enduring than any treaty negotiated by the parliamentarians in Brussels, providing spiritual direction for a continent adrift in both political and theological terms.

The reunion of the Eastern and Western churches was the dream of Pope Benedict’s predecessor. Pope John Paul II’s failure to heal the schism may well be driving the new pope’s agenda. There was much speculation upon Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election in April that he would use his papacy to revive religion in an increasingly secularized Europe. But if we take him at his word, which he speaks as Christ’s earthly vicar, he may have his eye on an even bigger prize -- bridging the divide that dates from the anathemas exchanged between papal legates and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople in 1054.

In fact, even before 1054 the two sides of the Holy Roman Empire had been growing apart for centuries as a result of the physical distance between Rome and Constantinople, cultural and linguistic differences, and the separate economic and political challenges facing them. Theological disagreements masked the main dispute: papal claims. The Greeks, following apostolic practice and the tradition of the first seven ecumenical councils, advocated a consensual approach to solving problems, while the Latin West remembered that Jesus had anointed Peter as the rock upon which to build his church. Thus if the pope is viewed in the East as first among equals, among the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome, he holds an incomparably higher place in the West. This has been especially true in the wake of the first Vatican Council (1869-70), when papal infallibility was proclaimed -- a decision the East does not recognize.

It was, in short, an issue of governance, not unlike what former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and his committee tried to resolve by writing a constitution for the growing European Union. And just as French and Dutch voters have cast the future of the European Union into doubt, so did Eastern Christians disdain the councils that attempted to reunite the church, at Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1438-39.

The first council involved Emperor Michael VIII of Constantinople, who in 1261 captured the city back from the Latins who had taken it over in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Michael’s conquest of Constantinople stirred up hostility among his Latin neighbors, and at Lyons, he was seeking papal support to ward off attacks from the Italian Charles of Anjou. Accordingly, the Orthodox delegates at Lyons accepted papal primacy and the doctrine of the filioque (literally, “of the Son”), a sixth-century Spanish addition to the Nicene Creed stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from a single fount of divinity -- “from the Father through the Son” -- but from the Father and the Son.

The delegates’ acceptance of this doctrine led to widespread resistance and counter-resistance in the larger Orthodox world. Orthodox divines argued that since the filioque clause had not been sanctioned by an ecumenical council, a union based on faulty doctrine was doomed. In northern Greece, for example, on the Holy Mountain of Athos, more than two dozen monks locked themselves in the tower of the Bulgarian monastery and castigated the imperial envoys seeking their support for reunification. The envoys burned the tower down. The martyred monks became saints in the Orthodox world. Emperor Michael was deemed an apostate. And his sister declared, “Better that my brother’s empire should perish, than the purity of the Orthodox faith.”

The political situation in Byzantium had worsened considerably by the time of the Council of Florence, with the Ottoman Turks advancing on Constantinople. Though the delegates made a sincere attempt to bridge their differences at Florence, the union proclaimed there was no more enduring than at Lyons. Within 15 years the Ottomans had succeeded in taking Constantinople, and Byzantium was no more.

The divisions between the two sides have deepened in the centuries since. While the Eastern church struggled to survive under the yokes of the Ottoman and Soviet empires, the Western church saw its authority whittled away by the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. The Russian Orthodox prelates who complain about the influx of Protestant missionaries since the end of Communism are echoing the sentiments of Roman Catholic clergy who for hundreds of years have had to navigate a changing religious terrain. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the emerging democracies of the former Warsaw pact belonged to a New Europe, he was unwittingly pointing to some of the fault lines in Christendom, which must be taken into account in any discussion of union, economic, political and religious. The recent setback to European unification is but the latest chapter in a millennial-old story.

Likewise Pope Benedict’s efforts at rapprochement. In the 20th century, Anglican-Orthodox conferences were held in London, Bucharest and Moscow, leading to a statement of agreement in which high-ranking ecclesiastics concluded that the differences between the churches are not insoluble. And in his last years Pope John Paul II intimated that even the issue of papal infallibility -- a first condition for any dialogue with Orthodoxy -- was open for discussion. This is no guarantee, of course, that change is in the offing. There is enough distrust on either side to make European Union squabbles look minor. But it is a starting point for further dialogue. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth suggested, “The union of the churches is not made, but we discover it.”

The wild card may be in London. Prince Charles, a frequent visitor to Mount Athos and an attendee at Pope John Paul’s funeral, is in line to be the supreme governor of the Church of England. It is true that this is largely a ceremonial position: The monarch appoints archbishops, bishops and the deans of the cathedrals on the advice of the prime minister. But it is also a position of some influence. And if Charles, whose love life has furnished tabloids with material for the better part of two decades, chooses to follow his conscience in religious matters and uses his influence with the archbishop, then it may be possible to imagine the visible union of Canterbury, Constantinople and Rome -- the prize that, for all of his travels, eluded Pope John Paul II. No doubt the new pontiff, who at 78 is not likely to serve long, will work fast to discover that union.

Christopher Merrill is the author of Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain.

National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005

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