True and False Unity

June 2, 2014 Length: 19:49

Fr. John addresses the differences between true and false unity as it relates to the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism.





In the Gospel reading which we’ve just heard, Christ prayed, “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.” (John 17:11) What does it mean for Christians to be “one”, and what, exactly, was Christ praying for?

The Fathers tell us that this refers to the one-ness of mind and the union of purpose, and the bond of mutual love that we, as believers, are to have, and that includes a unity in communion. In other words, we share the same sacrament, we share the same faith, we share the same goals. Now, to the extent that we are truly part of the Church, we share in that reality, and to the extent that we are not, we don’t. Now, you might wonder, what do you mean by that? Well, let me tell you.

We’re all members of the Church if we’ve been baptized into the Church—and if we’ve been received by Chrismation in the case of the converts—so whether we come to church every Sunday or whether we never come to church at all, as long as we’ve not formally renounced the faith and been excommunicated by the Church, we are members of the Church in one sense. But we separate ourselves from the Church in another sense when we sin, when we fail to live up to what it means to be a Christian, and we fail to repent. And this is the reason why, when you go to confession and the Priest says the Prayer of Absolution, he prays that God would reconcile and unite you unto thy Holy Church through Jesus Christ our Lord. When you sin you need to be reconciled with the Church. Now when we repent before we confess to the Priest, we are already reconciled to Christ in one sense, but we still need to do as the scripture is saying, show ourselves to the Priest so that he can examine our spiritual wounds and pronounce us healed.

So, we can be formally members of the Church, but whether we are really reunited to the Church or not is another question, whether we are reunited to that Church in the fullest sense. The Church is the body of Christ, and Christ is the head of the Church, and so it’s actually impossible that the Church can be anything but One. The only question is whether we are participating in that one-ness or not, and that’s what Christ is praying for, that we will all be participants in that unity.

Now, I’m going to say a few things that some people might find offensive, and I want to preface my comments by simply saying that I hope that you won’t be offended, and that you’ll listen to everything that I have to say. But as a Priest, like Saint Paul said in the reading that we’ve just heard in the Book of Acts, I want to be able to say on the Day of Judgment that I’m innocent of the blood of all men, for I’ve not failed out of fear to declare unto you the whole council of God.

This past week there is a good bit made in the secular media, and even more made in the Orthodox media that you probably have seen on the internet, about the meeting between Patriarch Bartholomeos and Pope Francis. This meeting was called to celebrate the fact that, over fifty years ago Patriarch Athenagoras met with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, and not long after that, they both pronounced the lifting of the anathemas. Now when they said that, they were actually referring to the anathemas that were exchanged in 1054 between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople of that time. However, the way most people who weren’t paying a lot of attention understood this, that this was a lifting of the anathemas in which the Orthodox Church had declared Roman Catholicism to be an heresy on a number of points, and be separate from the Church.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into Roman Catholics who were confused on this point, and when I would explain to them that the Orthodox Church is actually not in communion with Rome, they were quite convinced that I was simply misinformed and mistaken because they thought this lifting of the anathemas fifty years ago had united the two churches. As a matter of fact, they’re told by their church that they can commune in the Orthodox Church. We don’t say that they can, but that’s what their own bishops tell them that they can do.

And so I can’t join in the celebration of this fifty-year anniversary of what was truly a shameful chapter in Orthodox Church history, and which many bishops objected to at the time including our own First Heirarch of the Russian Church Abroad. It did not bring about unity, it rather brought confusion among our own people, confusion among other people, and it brought division. The kind of unity that Christ spoke about is not some external unity that we can simply impose by saying we’re One. We might all join a soccer club, or we might all go to the baseball game and be rooting for the same team, but we don’t have the kind of one-ness of mind that Christ is talking about. And we can simply ignore the fact that we don’t believe the same thing as the Roman Catholic Church and say that we’re united, but that doesn’t make it so, because before we can be united in communion, before we can be united in prayer, we have to be united in one-ness of mind.

I could spend a great deal of time talking about the heirs of the Roman Catholic Church which have accumulated over the nearly thousand years since our two churches parted company, but I’ll just briefly mention two.

The most famous one, of course, is that addition to the Creed, the filioque which in Latin means and the son.  And because most of us don’t pay that much attention to Orthodox theology like people did in previous times, most of us when we hear about that, think, well that’s not that big of a deal. Well, for one thing, Christ said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. He says that in the Gospel of John. And so when the Fathers of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils composed the Creed they stuck as closely as they could to the very words of scripture, and so the Creed says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Roman Catholic Church (it started in Spain and gradually spread) added the word in Latin, filioque which means and the son so that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Now, historians say that this is probably with good intentions. They were fighting Aryans that were denying who Christ was, and so they wanted to emphasize that he was truly God equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But the fact that they distorted the words of the Creed, they also had the effect of distorting the understanding of who the Holy Spirit was, and making him something less than the Father and the Son because the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both, whereas in traditional Orthodox understanding, we say that the Father is without beginning and that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. And we don’t go beyond those words into great detail because those are the words of scripture. Exactly what it means to proceed eternally or to be begotten eternally we can’t say in precise detail, but we know that there was never a time when the Son was not, and there was never a time when the Holy Spirit was not. But when you change the fact that God the Father is the source of the godhead, and the Father and the Son are now the source of just the Holy Spirit, it has the effect of diminishing the Holy Spirit.

Now of course, Roman Catholics would deny that this is the case, but the problem is that this understanding of the Holy Spirit is what actually led to papism which is the more practical problem that we have with the Roman Catholic Church, which is the idea that the Pope is the universal head of the Church. It’s because they failed to understand, really, who the Holy Spirit is, that they feel a need to have a human being on earth who is the vicar of Christ and the head of the visible church. This is why, in the service for receiving converts, including converts from Roman Catholicism, one of the things that we ask them to affirm after we ask them to renounce a number of heresies, we say, “Dost thou renounce (believe) and confess (that) the Foundation, Head and Great High Priest and Chief Shepherd of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church is our Lord Jesus Christ, and that Bishops, Pastors and Teachers are appointed by Him to rule the Church, and that the Guide and Pilot of this Church is the Holy Spirit?” And the person is to affirm that statement.

Saint Gregory the Great who was a pope of Rome, and one of our Fathers among the Saints had a very interesting series of exchanges with different bishops including the Patriarch of Constantinople because Constantinople was the head, or the capital city, of the empire. And so the Eastern Roman Empire understood itself to be the ecumene or the Universal Empire. And so, because he was the Bishop of the capital city he was given the title Ecumenical Patriarch. But when this was translated into Latin it was translated as Universal Patriarch, and what Saint Gregory thought was being claimed by this title was that he somehow was the head of the entire Church, that he had authority or some sort of durestriction over everyone. And if you read his letters and his statements it’s very hard to understand how anyone could claim that he believed in anything approaching the current understanding of the papacy because, among other things, he said, Anyone who would call themselves a universal bishop is the forerunner of the antichrist because he has been lifted up with pride.

Now, there’ve been a number of attempts on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to try to bring the Orthodox Church back under, what they would consider to be, their fold, and there were two epistles that our patriarchs wrote in the nineteenth century. One was written in 1895 and was in reply to Pope Leo XIII, and after acknowledging that all Orthodox Christians would really love to see the Roman Catholic Church united with the Orthodox Church, they said,

...our Orthodox Church of Christ is always ready to accept any proposal of union if only the Bishop of Rome would shake off once and for all this whole series of the many and diverse anti-evangelical novelties that have been ‘privily brought in’ to his Church, and have revoked the sad division of the churches of the East and the West, and would return to the basis of the Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils which had been assembled by the Holy Spirit, of representatives of all the holy churches of God for the determination of the right teaching of the faith against heretics, have a universal and perpetual supremacy in the Church of Christ. And this, both by her writings and encyclical letters, the Orthodox Church has never ceased to intimate to the Papal Church having clearly and explicitly set forth that, so long as the latter perseveres in her innovations and the Orthodox Church adheres to the divine and apostolic Traditions of Christianity, during which the Western churches were of the same mind and united with the churches of East and West, so long is it a vain and empty thing to talk of union.

Now, all this is not to suggest that we believe that all Roman Catholics are going to hell. Many of you maybe have Roman Catholic family members, or people that you’ve known who are very devout and pious people. And the Orthodox Church has no official teaching on the eternal destiny of those who are outside the Church, but many Saints have commented on this, and they basically say that God will judge everyone according to the life they’d been given, that God is merciful. And I can say, having been raised a Protestant, I’ve known many Protestants who don’t have a liturgical bone in their body and would be very far removed from anything close to what we would consider to be Traditional, but who are very pious and devout people.

As a matter of fact, when I was a child my mother used to read to me and my brothers about a family of missionaries that went to Swaziland, Africa. They were the first Christian missionaries to go to that country. And when I was studying to be a Nazarene minister I had the opportunity to meet the guy who wrote that book, who was the son of that first missionary, his name was Elmer Schmelzenbach. And I never in my life had met a man that was more humble or more sincerely devoted to Christ. When he talked about his faith, when he talked about his experiences with Christ, there was no doubt in my mind that he loved God.

But as an Orthodox Christian I’m not going to try to say that, somehow, the Nazarene Church and the Orthodox Church are really part of the same church because that would be historical nonsense and contrary to the Traditions of the Church. And I can’t say that he was a member of the Church in this life because he clearly was not, but I personally believe that he is in Heaven right now, and if I’m right he’s a member of the Orthodox Church now and he’s been corrected on his mistakes, and he innocently didn’t know better because no-one had ever taught him the Orthodox faith.

And I think the same thing would hold true of anyone else, be they Roman Catholic or even a Jew or a Muslim. If they are truly following the life they’ve been given and they don’t know better but they’re doing everything that God has shown them to do and they’re sincere in their love for God, we leave that in God’s hands. I’m not making any official pronouncements but I believe that God is merciful, and it’s not for us to say that anyone is going to hell.

We only talk about those within the Church, and even then we’re very hesitant to talk about anyone’s eternal destiny, and only very rarely has the Church made any pronouncements about the most egregious heretics. Also, I would say that all this talk about union confuses people, and it also raises people’s hopes. It gives people false impressions, and I personally don’t believe that there’s very much chance that we will ever see the kind of union that they are talking about for a couple of reasons.

One is, if you look at the Roman Catholic Church, if we were talking about the Roman Catholic Church of seventy or eighty years ago, it would be a different picture. But since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church has fragmented in its thinking, and you have extremely liberal Roman Catholics and you have very traditionally-minded Roman Catholics, and you have everything in between. And there is only one thing that’s uniting all those people in that one church and that’s the Pope. And for there to be a true union between Rome and the Orthodox Church, on the most minimal level, the Pope would have to acknowledge that the whole idea of papal supremacy was a false doctrine, and renounce that authority.

And if he did that, it would be like what happened in Russia after the Tsar abdicated. Russia was held together by all these oaths of loyalty that all these different ethnic groups and different aristocrats had to the Tsar as a person. And when you took the Tsar out of the picture Russia fragmented into all these pieces because they didn’t have the one thing that was holding them all together. And when I say Russia I mean also the other parts of what broke off from Russia like the Baltic States, etc.

And so I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church could endure the kind of changes that they would need to make for union to be possible. And I would also say that union with Roman catholicism in its present form, what we’re seeing now, is not something that would be desirable for us by any stretch whatsoever, even if they assented theologically on paper to the things that we want them to assent to. Because when you look at the worship that goes on in the Roman Catholic Church, even in the very presence of the Pope himself, they have got so far away from their own tradition that it’s mind-boggling that this could have happened within a single person’s lifetime.

I’ve had Roman Catholics who’ve asked me the question, What do you think it would take for the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church to be reunited? And my answer to them is that the first thing they would have to do is to rediscover their own tradition because only then will we have something to even talk about. I think that we had something to talk to Roman Catholics about sixty/seventy years ago. I don’t think we have as much to talk about with them today.

Although, what we can talk to them about, and what the Russian Church does talk to them about, is things that we can agree on, for example, opposition to abortion and other kinds of ills of society that we are on the same page on. I can also tell you that some of the best Roman Catholics that I’ve ever met I met picketing in front of an abortion clinic, and those are the kinds of things I think that we can agree on. And when those kinds of people get together for a common purpose you might actually have some real exchanges about what it is that separates us, and you might have some people who come along.

But I think the most likely way that you’re going to see Roman Catholics uniting with the Orthodox Church is on an individual level and not on the level of the Church. Now, who knows, I mean God can work a wonder and I can’t say that it’s impossible that such a thing would happen. I just don’t believe that it’s likely, and I particularly don’t think, under the current context that we live in, that it’s helpful for us to have bishops and clergy and laity running around as if union was imminent when nothing could be further from the truth.

We need to be on guard, as one of the earlier epistles in response to a papal appeal to us for union back in 1848 said, The protector of piety is the very body of the Church, even the people themselves.

If more Orthodox Christians would take this responsibility seriously, and come fully to understand their faith by fully entering into the life of the Church, they would be in a better position to fulfill that responsibility and then the Church would be much stronger. And the true unity of the Church internally would so prevail throughout the Orthodox world that the kind of temptations that were seen with people saying all these things that are confusing to people, would be brought to an end.

And also, I think that if we had that kind of strength, perhaps seeing that strength and that one-ness of mind among us, the members of the Orthodox Church, we might see more Roman Catholics come to know that unity by entering into the Orthodox Church as well.