A sky-high wall - or something lower?
by Mirko Ðordevic
The issue - Orthodoxy and Catholicism - has been discussed for almost a thousand years, in a manner hardly changed since the day in July 1054 when the schism became formalized. Historians have recorded the whole story, including the personalities and deeds of the power-hungry Kerularios, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the agile Cardinal Silva, papal legate. The acts of mutual excommunication are dominated by words full of hatred and extreme intolerance. Even the most scholarly of works fail to capture the essential point: whence this emotional charge? What was it that so divided the people and worlds that had accepted the first universal, global religion, the message of Christ? We know everything, but not that.
Rome remained more or less in Rome, while the ‘new Rome’ does not exist - it is now the Orthodox East. Pope Pius XI used to say it was a problem without a solution, that could be overcome only through a miracle. The Pope used an even stranger expression: it could only be flown over. Which means we have to wait for someone on either side who will rise above history and stretch out his arms. No one has yet flown that high.
‘It is not a wall’, one Russian scholar says, ‘but even if it were, it does not reach the sky.’ That depends on circumstances, but the wall lives on in a contemporary Europe that has seen the collapse of the one in Berlin. Another Russian, V. Ivanov, has solved the problem: Europe will live spiritually only if it breaths ‘with both lungs’. In other words: unity in diversity. This is indeed the right way, but there is no agreement on what is primary and what is not regarding the differences, or what is simply the burden of history. The present-day Pope, 263rd in the line of Popes in Rome, says one other thing: there will be no advance in reconciliation between the Orthodox and the Catholic without the ‘purification of historical memories’. He has in mind a historical catharsis, or rather the Christian equivalent of the concept: common repentance. So far, however, all we have is a list of good wishes.
Those in the churches - but also outside them - have chosen the wrong approach: they counterpose an ideal Orthodoxy to an historical Catholicism. The other side does the same. In this way matters are returned to the starting-point, as if history has stopped - and who knows, maybe it indeed has, in the mind. The occasional step forward is followed by seven steps back. Every so often someone begins to list the Orthodox sins, while others concentrate on the ‘Latin’ ones. Long forgotten issues come to the fore and, often quite inexplicably, become a stumbling- block. Thus the Catholics are misguided since they shave, eat meat on the first Sunday of Lent and on Saturday eggs and milk products too, do not marry or respect icons - which means that they are heretics. Those who know church history will recognize here the list of ‘Latin errors’ drawn up by Kerularios long ago in 1054.
Much has been forgotten since then, and rightly so. From the dogmatic point of view there remains the famous difference called Filioque - that the Holy Spirit derives ‘also from the son’ - which is what Catholic believe, whereas the Orthodox teach that the Holy Spirit is celebrated ‘through’ the son. This difference should not be stronger than love. On the other hand, Catholics confront the Orthodox with their own list of ‘schismatic errors’.
Shadow of the past
To be sure, the differences have been narrowing; but in recent times the language of 1054 is being used more and more. Literally the same language. This is true especially in the Balkans, where histories last long and all appear burdened by a glorious past. The Balkan historical clock ticks more slowly. Bad memories last longer, especially those that divide the Christians. As soon as it seems that something has been achieved, the shadow of the past becomes denser and more ominous. The thinking of Catholics and Orthodox reverts to an old form, long forgotten in the rest of Europe.
Justin Popović, greatly respected within the Orthodox Church and especially the Serbian one, wrote in his book published in 1974 that both the Catholics and the Protestants are apostates, members of an heretical and schismatic band who can be saved only ‘by repenting and joining the Orthodox church’. There are many who agree with him. It is self-evident that this approach does not lead to dialogue or an advance in the direction of Christian unity. It could be said that it is out of date. But Justin is treated as a father and teacher of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and few dare to challenge him. Those who try to do so are quickly denounced as apostates and schismatics. In other words, time has stopped. It is not popular to say here in the Balkans that the Orthodox and the Catholics are of the same faith, and belong to the same confessional-civilizational sphere. No one here dares to fly up, to reach to the Christ and his message. Not even people of good will can step out of the familiar historical rut.
Father Sava from Kosovo also thinks of the difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in this way. ‘Attempts to overcome essential differences through political ecumenism, piety or disregard of the past will never bring about the true adhesion of the Roman Catholics to the One Holy Apostolic and Catholic Orthodox Church.’ Mistrust of political ecumenism is not unusual - in itself it has no great value - but it is strange that one’s own church should be seen as the only true one. The starting-point is: no unity without surrender. This, however, will not work. It has not worked for centuries, nor will it work in the twenty-first century. The energetic bishop Artemije from Kosovo, number two in the Serbian Orthodox hierarchy, thinks in the same way. There is no united Europe, he says, for the following reason: for things to change, Europe must ‘give up the errors promoted by Rome during the past nine hundred and fifty years’. Bishop Artemije can think only of ‘adhesion’ to the Orthodox Church. Unity on this basis stands no chance.
Message of unity
It is fortunate that this view is not universally held within Orthodoxy - neither in the broader ecumenical movement, nor even always in Serbia. There is even the occasional ‘positive scandal’, as for example when Irinej, the controversial bishop of Bačka, spoke out recently about Christian unity in Europe, about Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The bishop believes in unity, does not insist on differences, and sees the future world in another way. He bravely touched also upon the problem of the Pope and his primacy, which is a ‘hot potato’. When the world unites and the Orthodox and the Catholics make peace, says Bishop Irinej, then ‘in accordance with the ancient canonical order, the bishop of the city of Rome will be the first bishop of Christendom.’
These are admirable wishes and beliefs, but, as the apostle said long ago, ‘faith is dead without deeds’. It is also true, of course, that deeds are of little use if there is no faith. But the first steps are being made. The Pope has asked the Orthodox to forgive the Catholics for all the harm the latter have done them in the past. He has even invited the Serbian patriarch to visit Rome, which used to be unthinkable. We do not know whether the Orthodox side too will ask for forgiveness. Prominent theologians and bishops say nothing about it, as if Vukovar, Srebrenica and Dubrovnik had never happened.
Many fear Rome’s outstretched hand. On the other hand, it may well be an opportunity that should not be missed. Differences will inevitably remain, but what matters is that they are not a stumbling-block. The one who finds enough strength to ‘fly over’ history, to leap over the wall - which in fact is not sky-high - will be in the best position to judge that.
Translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 12. March 2004. Mirko Đorđević writes regularly on religious issues for Republika (Belgrade).