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May 13, 2021

Why should the laypeople care whether the Church is run by a pope or patriarch?

The Catholics and the Orthodox don’t celebrate Easter – the central moment of the liturgical year – on the same date – The Orthodox themselves celebrate Christmas – the other definitive landmark for Christian conscience – on different dates, too. This is the actual image of the effects of the great Christian schism, which officially dates back to nearly one millennium ago, a period of time which was not one of confrontation. The Fourth Crusade, including the conquest – and plundering of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, which left the Greeks still resentful to this day, was a fact, and so was the Catholic missions in the Orient taking advantage of the dismantling and vanishing of the Byzantine Empire, or political conflicts acquiring a more emphatic religious dimension at the “border” between the two European Christianities (Poland, Ukraine, Romanian Countries). And the emergence of the Greek-Catholic Churches has poisoned to this day confessional relationships in those regions. The Russian Orthodoxy (and its secular arm, the Czarist Empire), was in its turn not once intolerant to the Catholics.  Communism, too, speculated the animosities and cultivated haughty clerical nationalism. Yet, a closer look at to this historic picture shows that the connections have not been adverse only.  The cultural permeability between the two Christian branches carried on for better or for worse. And it’s surprising to see how the modern Orthodox revival in Greece – on (non- acknowledged) Catholicizing grounds – as was the case with  Nicodim Aghioritul, one of the spiritual peaks at Athos. Not to mention Petru Movila, metropolitan bishop of Kiev, whose ‘Orthodox confession’ owes a great deal to the Counter- Reform. Some contemporary Orthodox theologians saw such influence so significant that they even spoke of a `pseudomorphosis’ of Orthodoxy.

But Catholicism has not remained opaque to eastern influences either. We should only call Italian Renaissance to mind (a religious phenomenon originally, wrongly perceived today as anti-Christian), marked by the Byzantine diaspora and the theological trends (influenced by the Greek Patristics) which prepared the spiritual ground for the second Vatican Council. ‘Political’ attempts have also been made at reuniting the two Churches, at a time when the Orthodox World was still fairly united, and the Byzantium inclined to make compromises for some fast anti-Ottoman help. Looked upon as mere shameful cave-ins later on,  the treaties concerned were not just some perfidious diplomatic negotiations, but well-meant attempts – theological first and foremost – to regain lost identity. What is the situation today? Half a century ago, Pope Paul VI and ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras not just embraced each other, but also lifted reciprocal anathemas – a first step towards reconciliation. John Paul II promoted the image of the two lungs of the Church’, and his first-time ever trips to predominantly Orthodox countries (Romania, Ukraine, Greece and Georgia) launched an even more direct challenge. Meanwhile, the `theological` dialogue, which began in 1979, got stalled on mainly Greek-Catholic issues (the Churches concerned resumed legal activity in mainly Orthodox countries after communist regimes collapsed). Yet, ‘fundamental dogmatic divergence’ rhetoric aside, the way the Church is run the main issue at stake. Catholicism adopted the `monarchic` system. Orthodoxy is not more ‘democratic’, only more fragmented. Modern Orthodox Churches  molded themselves upon the structure (and culture) of the new national states, maintaining not once conflicts which they should have brokered in principle. The Orthodox reject the Papal Primacy, and the Catholics in their turn wonder how to make conciliarism (the collective leadership by the bishopric college) efficient without primacy.

Actually, aren’t the Orthodox patriarchs similar to the pope, each in their Churches? Sometimes they could get even more tyrannical than the `bishop of Rome`. Thus, re-launching the discussion about the role played by the bishopric college is not a Catholic priority alone. The Orthodox, too, sweep a serious issue under the rug: Churches becoming ethnical, at the expense of the territorial principle. In an interwar polemic, the most famous Romanian Orthodox theologian asserted that ‘thy neighbor’ is not so much the Jewish neighbor, for example, but our kin from the village we hailed from. In the face of such vision, Catholics, with their more generous universalism, are better positioned, both theologically and morally.

Yet, the dispute should not be confined to: pope/patriarch versus bishops. The core issue is the clergized accents in both Churches. We should not forget that the main innovation brought by Patriarch Daniel after he was elected was to return to the practice of the hierarchs being chosen by the other hierarchs exclusively. The issue of ‘conciliarism’ should be approached starting from cooperation with the laypeople – who are the body of the Church, which should not be forgotten. Obviously, a balance struck between the monarchic, aristocratic and democratic principles is the only viable prospect, although significant adjustments are needed. The solution is neither going back to first millennium Christianity, as the Orthodox call for, nor focusing on the developments of the second  (in the spirit of the Council of Trent –16th century – or that of the Second Vatican Council) as Catholics often want, but rethinking  laypeople’s authority, which should no longer be second-rate (or 10th rate) in a supposed communion of love. The prime issue at stake is not a new role in managing the Church, but giving a fresh voice to the ‘silent mass’ of faithful, often reduced to the role of beneficiaries of clergy’s ‘performances’. Before hoping for a reunion, the Catholics and the Orthodox should first clarify their vision on ‘authority’, beginning with the spiritual one. Otherwise, it would all boil down to a purely clerical dispute, of dividing leadership positions namely.

And it would be odd to say the least for the future of Christianity to rely on it to such extent, as if the access to God’s Kingdom were a ‘political’ matter in the first place.

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