What Can Orthodox and Catholics Teach Each Other?

By Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck

Both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are facing difficult new challenges. Christianity has become an open market where competition from upstart denominations is extremely fierce. The temptation to bury one’s head in the sand (Eastern Orthodoxy) or to mimic successful Evangelical methods and worship styles (Roman Catholicism) is as great as it is destructive. In North America, converts from Protestantism have provided their respective ‘teams’ with solid theological responses, but the struggle remains very difficult. In the rest of the world, the tide of sectarian Christianity (notably Adventism, Mormonism and Pentecostalism) continues its damage to the ancient apostolic Churches.

While Rome has effectively embraced a liturgical modernism as a remedy that has proven even worse than the disease, Orthodoxy is often in denial that anything needs to be fixed liturgically or organizationally. In fact, both sides can learn and benefit from the other’s strengths and experiences, as we shall see.

1. Catholics must become Orthodox

The rift between East and West was already extreme by the ninth century and reached its apex with Vatican I. But this apex was also marked by a growing sense that the theological and liturgical path of Roman Catholicism had reached some kind of a dead-end. Vatican II was an attempt to engineer a conciliar return to the sources that would reinterpret the Roman Catholic legacy of the past thousand years for the next millennium. Jean Danielou and Yves Congar – both Early Church scholars – were very influential at the council, but their vision was only partially achieved. As we have seen, the new mass of Pope Paul VI was an overreaction to the possible excesses of the Tridentine rite of Pius V. What was obscured or even lost in modern Roman Catholic worship is not just reverence and a few prayers; it is the eschatological experience of the Eucharist as an ascent to heaven, a manifestation on earth of the eternal liturgy of the angels and saints. Everything comes together to make the modern mass an expedited Eucharistic gathering of the community – or at least part of it since there are now various kinds of masses served at different times. Vestments and architectural styles are a manifestation of today’s trends and attitudes: universal ecclesiology becomes incarnate in its liturgical consequence. As a result of this anchoring in the present and disconnection from the apostolic past and eschatological future, the Roman Catholic priesthood is often disoriented. Liberal theology is rampant in seminaries and universities where many have rejected both patristic and scholastic theology in order to look for new ways to ‘rescue Christianity from the New Testament.’ I would like to suggest that if Roman Catholicism rediscovers and embraces the liturgical spirit of Eastern Christianity, the crisis of post-Vatican II liturgics will end. But this cannot be achieved without a concurrent embracing of eschatological-Eucharistic ecclesiology and pre-Nicene theology. Time is running short for a Vatican III council that would prepare the Roman Catholic world for the third millennium with an era of convergence and reconciliation with Eastern Orthodoxy.

2. Orthodox must become Catholic

The message of the Eastern Orthodox world to Roman Catholicism (and all other Christians) is often reduced to ‘leave us alone, we’d like to pretend you don’t exist.’ This fortress mentality is also a subconscious admission that ‘the God-protected city’ is in fact a weak and easy prey. The temptation to curl away from the world leads to nationalism and a failure to embrace the catholic-universal vocation of the Church. As a result, Orthodox Christians see themselves as Russian, Serbian or Greek Orthodox members of a national Church whose head is located in a political capital.

The contrast with Roman Catholicism is striking: the ability of the Church of Rome to coordinate worldwide missions, social work and a consistent doctrinal message should make the Orthodox think. The need for a universal center of unity and arbitration is obvious, and it does not have to mean absolute supremacy or infallibility. Two admonitions of our Lord come to mind:

“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:40-41)

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

The real tragedy about the Schism is the lack of concern about its tragic consequences. The voice that should still cry out from heaven is that of Patriarch Peter of Antioch who had written in 1054:

“I tremble lest, while you [Photius] endeavor to sew up the wound, it may turn to something worse, to schism; lest while you try to raise up what has been smitten down, a worse fall may be in store. Consider the obvious result of all of this, I mean the yawning gulf that must ultimately separate from our holy Church [Orthodox Antioch and Constantinople] that magnanimous and apostolic see [Rome]… Life henceforth will be filled with wickedness, and the whole world will be overturned…”

We should not have to think in terms of ‘mutual interest’ to discuss cooperation and reconciliation, but it may be that a common threat will do more for the cause of unity than our concern for the unity of the body of Christ.

3. Loving the Saints

If we confess Cyprian, Basil, Leo and Martin as saints and members of the same Body, what we also confess is that in spite of our earthly differences, heaven is filled with both ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Eastern Orthodox’ saints. In order to achieve visible and authentic unity, there must first be a desire to embrace what is best on the other side, and to find room for legitimate differences of expression. I am convinced that if Orthodox Christians can discover and love such lights as St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Solanus Casey, and if Catholics can embrace as their own St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Elizabeth Fyodorovna, a new form of dialogue can take place: one motivated by love and respect. In general, Roman Catholicism has been more generous with its beatification and canonization process, with the result that a great variety of remarkable souls are presented as inspiring models for us today. By contrast, recent Eastern Orthodox saints tend to be martyrs and monastics: to my knowledge, not a single woman has been glorified for North American Orthodoxy, which means that if we can embrace Sts. Leo and Martin, we can certainly be inspired by Sts. Mary Cabrini or Katharine Drexel.

If we fail to realize that we are only “witnesses to the Truth” of Jesus Christ and imagine that our witness – in life and theology – will always be perfect, we are chasing the same mirage that leads countless American Christians from denomination to denomination, until one imagines that ‘the perfect Church’ has been discovered. If we accept the fact that our priests, bishops and ecclesial structures can make mistakes, we can focus on the incarnate Truth and deal reasonably with the theological formulas that are as fingers pointing to the moon: they are only signs, imperfectly crafted in human language, to a reality that is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.” In a court of law, a human witness can be accurate without being perfect, but inaccuracies can also lead to a ‘falsification of the word of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:2) This is the mandate given to us by Scripture, both as individuals and as communities. Let us deal with our shortcomings without trepidation and strive to be conformed to Him who is the “faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5; John 18:37)

 Reproduced with permission from His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches by Laurent Cleenewerck. Google Books preview here. Blog readers may also enjoy Fr. Laurent’s website Orthodox Answers.

13 Responses to What Can Orthodox and Catholics Teach Each Other?

  1. […] strive to be conformed to Him who is the “faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5; John 18:37) via orthocath.wordpress.com Rate this:Share this:Share on TumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. Contra says:

    Great article! I pray often that the Church may become one as Jesus and the Father are one which was Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21

  3. TRACKBACK: What Can Orthodox and Catholics Teach Each Other?…

    Good thoughts on mutual learning and understanding……

  4. […] reading this blog regularly know that Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism is my other big interest. A good article on that topic by Father Laurent Cleenewerck, courtesy of Orthocath blog. Share this:FacebookLike […]

  5. Justin says:

    I’m a Latin Rite Catholic traditionalist (FSSP parish) but I agree that it is crucial in this new millenium for a reunion to occur between Rome and Orthodoxy. How this might happen is beyond me but I pray for it. A united East and West would indeed be a glorious thing. I just hope that should it happen I and others like me can keep the traditional Latin Mass, Gregorian chant etc.

    • Nathaniel McCallum says:

      I don’t know of any Orthodox who want to take away the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant. They are venerable in their antiquity and fit with the ethos of Orthodox worship.

  6. Of course, Justin. In the so much expected East-West Unity we all will keep our particular authentic liturgical Traditions. But, the so inappropriately named as “Ordinary” rite (N.O. of Paul VI), undoubtedly does not have place on it…

    • Garrison says:

      The NO doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to say it does not have a place. I certainly don’t see the EF being reimposed and especially not entirely in Latin. Regardless, it is perfectly orthodox (if banal). The NO will grow as all liturgies do and mature as Roman Catholics rediscover their heritage.

    • David Meyer says:

      Robert,
      I appreciate your comment. Good discussion here and very interesting!
      My 2 cents:
      The NO is one of the two forms of the same Latin mass. It can (and is in some places… more and more all the time nowadays) done in Latin, with Gregorian Chant, and in such a way that it is incredibly beautiful, fully traditional, and incredibly reverent.
      The banality comes from illicit, non-liturgical music, and various other abuses and liberties taken way too far by a broken and lost post-modern culture.
      My point is, that the NO is the mass. It does not need to be done away with, but it needs to be “firmed up” in its rubrics and the priests FORCED to celebrate it in its more reverent form. This will happen over time as the cultural revolution fades and the Church is purified of the hippies. Please God let it come quickly!

  7. Doron says:

    As a Greek Orthodox with an admiration for the Liturgy of St.James ( like most G.O.), i can’t help but agree with brother Garrison.
    Certainly,the NO clarity of rite exercises a strong pull on converts; while it’s evangelical purity is not lost on us Eastern Orthodox either.

  8. David Meyer says:

    This excerpt from the book is amazing. I want this book! A bit pricey though.
    Of course as a Catholic, I really loved the section 2. It is incredibly refreshing to hear an Orthodox pointing out room for improvement in Orthodoxy and even praising aspects of Catholicism.

    The opening sentence of that section bears repeating:
    “The message of the Eastern Orthodox world to Roman Catholicism (and all other Christians) is often reduced to ‘leave us alone, we’d like to pretend you don’t exist.’ ”

    This sort of diologue is helpful because it is crucial to understand how othrs percieve us, and the message we are percieved as giving. And I can’t imagine any Orthodox wanting to present the above impression on the world. Yet in my experience, this is often the message I get loud and clear.

    Likewise, I found the critiques of Catholicism quite fair overall. I would love to read this.

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