Let's Keep Our Distance

For Orthodox leaders to engage in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church is both futile and dangerous

BY: Frank Schaeffer

 

Until the Orthodox get good answers to two questions we have no reason to even consider reunion with Rome. These questions are: What authority will the pope have within a newly "unified" church? And what would our worship be like after reunion?

Our Orthodox day-to-day relationship with the Roman Catholic community should be the same as it is with all other people of goodwill, one of love and shared common human aspirations. But this love and these shared goals must be rooted in an honest recognition of the very real differences we have. I do not believe Christian love needs to be expressed by formal declarations of reunion. We have the right to ask, reunion with what?

Roman Catholic identity is bound up with papal authority. Talk of the church having "two lungs" (East and West) aside, the truth is that at no time in the foreseeable future is Rome about to relinquish its claim to headship of the Universal Church. (For a complete study see

"Two Paths: Papal Monarchy-Collegial Tradition"

by Michael Whelton.)

Speaking of union without addressing the issue of papal authority is like two governments trying to negotiate union when one is a democracy and the other a dictatorship. Rome is not about to renounce the bishop of Rome's authority to pronounce "infallibly" on matters of faith and life, a dogma not adopted till 1870. Indeed, as the pope uses his authority to call for unity between Catholics and Orthodox, he handily illustrates our biggest difference: papal-monarchy vs. collegial tradition. What Orthodox bishop could presume to speak for all the bishops, or be in a position to impose "unity" on the whole Orthodox community? We make decisions as a collegial body, in council; no single leader holds exclusive power.

"Reunion" is a misleading word to use anyway, because it implies we Orthodox would be "coming back" to something we left. But the Roman church today is not the one that separated from us in 1054, over this very issue of papal monarchism, as well as the pope's authority to add a new doctrine to the Nicene Creed. Even Western Christians of 1054 would not recognize their church today. Ironically, they would feel more at home in the Orthodox Church than their own, particularly when it comes to worship. This is because Orthodoxy, despite its diverse jurisdictions, has done a far better job of maintaining liturgical integrity and historic practice than have the Roman Catholics within their centralized papal monarchy.

Worship is the one area that should matter most to us. If the Orthodox were drawn into the liturgical chaos of the modernized Roman Church, it would be tragic.

The Roman liturgical tradition has disintegrated aesthetically, and as the beauty of worship disappears, so does awe. Prayer is a teacher, and minimized, modernized prayer fails to teach very much. It is our rich, historic, and theologically packed liturgical tradition that is the treasure of Orthodoxy. How might that change if we blended with a church that has rejected so many ancient traditions of Christian worship--fasts, rites, mystery, and poetry?

Eastern-Rite Catholics may be secure behind the doors of their buildings, but how does it impact them when their sister Roman Rite church down the street has jettisoned ancient tradition? What kind of theological or spiritual "bleed through" occurs? Could we Orthodox retain our fasts, vigils, and liturgies in communion with a body that for decades now has been thoroughly Protestantized and that has replaced a sense of the sacred with trivial entertainment values? Will we Orthodox be merely tolerated in an "I'm OK, you're OK" climate of liturgical relativism? Is there no right way to worship? If there is not, then why do we bother now to fast and pray as did our forefathers?

Drop in on your local Roman Rite parish and witness hand-waving "praise" masses, cookies for children during the Eucharist, interpretive dancers fluttering down the aisles, lame "Peter, Paul and Mary"-style folk music, and all similar trappings of post-Vatican II worship. It's not something we Orthodox want to go near. Nor do some Catholic churches' New Age-flavored classes in Zen meditation and enneagram spirituality have much appeal to people who call themselves "Orthodox" for a reason.

Disneyland exists, but do we all want to move there? Unity with what? That's what we need to ask.

The Orthodox liturgical tradition is too precious to be squandered to satisfy the ecumenist ambitions of any pope, Orthodox bishop, or committee of theologians. Years of fruitless "dialogue" won't be redeemed by a disastrous reunion. As traditional Roman Catholics openly say, modern innovation has destroyed the sense of the sacred in contemporary Roman worship. Traditional Catholics often drive many miles to find one of the few remaining Roman churches that worship in a way that they think can even be called Catholic.

Let us Orthodox count our blessings! Why squander our great treasure of liturgical worship and betray our collegial tradition? Why join ourselves to Rome, when Rome herself can hardly tell us what her worship is or should be, and when it will clearly not renounce the authority it wrongly claimed at the beginning of the second millennium? Orthodoxy has preserved crucial elements of worship without a papal monarchy. And if church is not about worship, what is it about?

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