Except for leading vespers one evening, I was pretty much a passive participant at the conference, quietly attempting to absorb the rather substantial amount of material with which we were presented. In so doing, I came away with three distinct impressions.
First, there was the constant underlying sense that Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiologies differ more than the major participants in the conference, especially the Roman Catholics, appeared to realize. The two sides, I am persuaded, mean something quite different when they say that they believe “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
In Cardinal Cassidy’s presentation, for example, it was clear that the word “Church” primarily meant a juridical, canonical institution, and this impression became very explicit in the somewhat animated exchange between the cardinal and Bishop Kallistos in the general discussion that closed the event.
Bishop Kallistos insisted that the Church derives her identity from the celebration of the Eucharist and that canonical jurisdiction necessarily resides solely in the Eucharistic president, the bishop, by reason of his consecration to this sacramental presidency. The universal office of the pope, on the other hand, has no such sacramental foundation. In the Orthodox view, jurisdictional authority must derive from episcopal ordination, by which a man is consecrated for the normative presidency of the Eucharist, but the pope’s episcopal consecration is identical with that of any other bishop. That is to say, the pope’s office has no special foundation in the sacraments of the Church. In consequence, whatever authority the pope may have, it cannot include jurisdiction over the whole Church, because it is not related sacramentally to the whole Church.
In all of this, Bishop Kallistos was enunciating what has been the standard Orthodox position for centuries; in the Orthodox view, any jurisdictional authority within the Church derives essentially from, and is directed towards, her sacramental structure and identity. Yet, after many decades of serious and scholarly ecumenical dialogue, even so generous, enthusiastic and dedicated an ecumenist as Cardinal Cassidy seemed unable to come to grips with this most elementary doctrine of the Orthodox Church.
In short, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox theories of canonical jurisdiction diverge at root; they do not begin in the same place nor grow in the same direction. Thus, when Bishop Kallistos, in the most blunt exchange of the whole conference, suggested that Cardinal Cassidy’s separation of canonicity from sacramentology ran the danger of “ecclesiastical Nestorianism,” the cardinal appeared not to grasp what he meant, nor did the Roman Catholics among whom I was sitting. It seemed to them an impertinent remark at best.
While I found this particular exchange most discouraging, it probably was an inevitable consequence of the Orientale Lumen format. The discussions at each of these two conferences have been conducted by shared commentary on papal documents, and the lines of elaboration within these documents have understandably presupposed a Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Consequently the discussions themselves have tended to be no more than exercises of “fine tuning” of Roman Catholic thought, and the Orthodox have been expected to make their own contribution to the refinement.
For everybody concerned, this is frustrating. It is as though the Orthodox were summoned to play in a baseball game, whereas they themselves do not particularly like baseball and would prefer football. When the kind and gentle Roman Catholic hosts cordially invite the Orthodox to make suggestions relative to such matters as the height of the pitcher’s mound, the ground rule double, the distance of the center field wall and the infield fly rule, they are understandably distressed when their guests, the “disappointing” Orthodox, then insist on throwing screen passes, using the halfback option and punting on fourth down. In short, the ecclesiastical differences are far deeper than the dialogue has yet become.
A Delicate Balance
Second, if the ecumenical discussion did begin to follow Orthodox lines of thought, and if the Roman Catholic Church were to adopt that more conciliar approach to ecclesiology characteristic of the Orthodox, it could mean utter disaster for Roman Catholics in many places. From outside that institution, one has a strong impression that the single entity holding the Roman Catholic Church together right now is the centralized office of the pope. An adoption of a more Orthodox ecclesiological perspective, in which authority is vastly more diffuse, would almost certainly weaken that papal office, whereas it is by no means obvious that the many Roman Catholics around the world have much else in common besides the papacy. For example, were it not for the authority of Rome, what would the bishops (to say nothing of the nuns) of the Roman Catholic Church in this country (to say nothing of Holland) have in common with their counterparts in Bavaria, Spain, or Poland? The Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years has moved toward ever greater centralized authority, and it is no longer clear that she would thrive, or even survive intact, without that authority maintained at full strength.
Her present historical situation may be likened to that of a plant conditioned over a long time by a special environment. Our domestic wheat, for example, would probably not last very long if we human beings did not cultivate it; human protection of wheat has become so necessary that, were it suddenly removed, the many natural adversaries of wheat would simply destroy the thing. Similarly, the centralized Vatican authority, which has systematically weakened every other local authority in the Roman Catholic Church since the time of Hildebrand, has now become her only viable option. Given the doctrinal chaos in evidence in Roman Catholic theological faculties around the world, for instance, what would happen if there were no equivalent to Cardinal Ratzinger and his staff of trained theologians at the Vatican? Does anyone seriously fancy that local Roman Catholic bishops would be able to detect a heresy or be able to do anything about it? In sum, if the Orthodox truly desire the well-being of their Roman Catholic brethren, I believe that they should not seek to weaken the authority of the pope and his entourage right now.