For Christians who follow the new calendar, I wish you a Merry Christmas this upcoming weekend. Enjoy the feast.
Last week, I came across a sixteen year old short article by Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols on the mutual need of the other by Rome and the Orthodox: “A Catholic View of Orthodoxy.” Having already read some of his works, I knew of and respected Fr. Aidan. He is my kind of papist, meaning that he has a firm grounding in Eastern patristic theology and appears to conceive of religion in ways that make sense to me. He is not the secularized, horizontal, politically focused Latin whom Ivan Fyodorovich’s Grand Inquisitor represents. Rather, the brilliant Dominican is a traditional Christian, though one with intellectual commitments to Rome’s unfortunate ways.
In the article, written shortly after the liberation of Orthodox Europe, Fr. Aidan lists various benefits that engagement and communion with the Orthodox would bring to Rome. He ends by mentioning how submission to the Roman papacy is necessary for the Orthodox. In this, he criticizes the cultural and national connections in Orthodox Christendom. I agree that Roman administrative order might be useful in some ways for the Orthodox. The lack of central direction has obvious disadvantages for resolving certain canonical issues. The decentralized episcopal authority of Orthodoxy, however, has concomitant advantages that can be seen in confederal secular arrangements. Local infections of disorder or confusion might take longer to heal, but they are less likely to spread in the current Orthodox model. In the absence of a supervening external power, provincial problems might linger, but their resolution is more likely to come about organically and slowly in the least disruptive way. Time and concession to facts, not meddlesome prelates from afar, arbitrate where curial bureaucrats are not to be found. Most importantly, convention, which in an ecclesial context is chiefly the apostolic and patristic tradition, rules when men have little authority over other men. The Athenian Stranger in the Laws argues that ancient law once governed the Athenians, but then those Greeks lusted after unbridled freedom and devolved into a society wherein the mob rules. Human will, often a beast of caprice, thus trumped the settled principles of the forefathers. Liberals discount such convention because they notice some aspects to be false or inadequate. What they fail to realize is that the fleeting whims of contemporary powers are much less stable and wise. With respect to the Church, convention is not simply the accumulated wisdom of past ages; rather it is the teaching of Christ, passed down through his apostles and the fathers. It is shameful hubris to trade such direction for the faddish yearnings of an immature and foolish generation that has drowned in the confusion of so many apostate teachers. The Latin response is that their magisterium is like the true philosopher who can see the really real; their pope is the philosopher king who stands above tradition with its necessarily inflexible limitations. I agree that it would be better to live in the Golden Age of the Republic, when men were ruled by gods, but such is not an option. The bishops might be vicars of Christ, but they are not infallible representatives. The Latins are simply wrong. Episcopal synods may err, and it is better to have a Christian people that is aware of such a possibility. It is also preferable that their errors and the subsequent madness that follows are limited in scope. A global episcopal monarchy, as has developed in the Roman Church, multiplies those dangers. We Orthodox are wise to reject the papal deal; the cost is too great for the benefits gained.
Furthermore, I disagree with Fr. Aidan’s criticism of the Orthodox tendency to identify culture and religion. Indeed, I do not understand the frequent complaints of Orthodox phyletism. Where are these heretical phyletists? The examples offered all seem proper to me. Fr. Aidan criticizes the Serbs for a movement that believes that Serbs have suffered collectively for providential reasons. Why may that not be so? Once, before modernism infected the Latins and fragmented their souls, the English believed that their land was a dowry for the Virgin Mother and the French believed that they were the Eldest Daughter of the Church. The Irish held that the Lord used them as a faithful remnant during the dark heathen times. Why are these claims wrong? A cursory reading of scripture or casual review of history shows that God employs men individually and collectively to advance the salvation of men. It is the modern Western soul, fraught with secularism, dualism, and individualism, that no longer understands the whole man and his place in a healthy community. Contemporary Latins often pay lip service to “inculturation,” “engaging the culture,” and “social solidarity,” and yet they criticize the Orthodox when we manifest those traits in unmodern ways that offend their perhaps unconscious “Enlightenment” liberal principles. Then, such Westerners turn from being open engagers of culture to latter day Tertullians who dismiss worldly wisdom and stress that Christians are to be a special people apart from the world.