Once Upon a Thousand Years

Jan 21st, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Towards the end of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece, Anna Karenina, we find Konstantin Levin, the book’s male protagonist, grasping his way towards an explicit faith in God. Along the way, Levin considers the faith of the Church, but finds himself unable to fully accept her testimony to divine truth:

His brother Sergey Ivanovitch advised him to read the theological works of Homiakov. Levin read the second volume of Homiakov’s works, and in spite of the elegant, epigrammatic, argumentative style which at first repelled him, he was impressed by the doctrine of the church he found in them. He was struck at first by the idea that the apprehension of divine truths had not been vouchsafed to man, but to a corporation of men bound together by love–to the church. What delighted him was the thought how much easier it was to believe in a still existing living church, embracing all the beliefs of men, and having God at its head, and therefore holy and infallible, and from it to accept the faith in God, in the creation, the fall, the redemption, than to begin with God, a mysterious, far-away God, the creation, etc. But afterwards, on reading a Catholic writer’s history of the church, and then a Greek orthodox writer’s history of the church, and seeing that the two churches, in their very conception infallible, each deny the authority of the other, Homiakov’s doctrine of the church lost all its charm for him, and this edifice crumbled into dust like the philosophers’ edifices. (Anna Karenina, trans. Constance Garrance [online edition].)

This passage is remarkable both for its winsome description of ecclesial faith and for its abrupt dismissal of that faith on the basis of the mutually exclusive claims of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

The greatest scandal in the world is the separation of Catholics and the Orthodox. If the various schisms intruded upon the Western Church were suddenly healed, the most fundamental division in Christendom, and the most imposing obstacle to ecclesial faith, would remain. Those who would be united to Christ in a community of faith that stands in visible, sacramental continuity with Our Lord and his Apostles must make a difficult choice: Catholic or Orthodox? The choice is so difficult for many seekers, that they, like Levin, simply revert to the primacy of personal opinion.

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, a genuine ecumenical movement cannot be a fundamentally progressive enterprise. Rather, we must find our way towards future unity by reaching back to that unity we once enjoyed:

The structures of the Church in the East and in the West evolved in reference to that Apostolic heritage. Her unity during the first millennium was maintained within those same structures through the Bishops, Successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If today at the end of the second millennium we are seeking to restore full communion, it is to that unity, thus structured, which we must look. (Pope John Paul II, Ut Unam Sint, II, 55.)

Any Christian who claims to look to the “undivided Church of the first millennium” is bound to be deeply affected by a reunion of the Roman Church and the Eastern Churches. Even individuals who find (or claim to find) their deepest connection to Jesus Christ apart from historical considerations and sacramental practice would be faced with one less obstacle to the historical Church, should they ever seek its communion.

When I was a Protestant in search of the ancient Church, I had to somehow “deal with” the division between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. My own best efforts at making sense of the available data had led me to conclude that the Church that Christ founded was both visible and indivisible, therefore indestructible, being his mystical Body. This conviction compelled me to seek for a Church both ancient and alive, abiding throughout the past two thousand years.

Sadly, it is at this exact point that one is confronted by the great scandal, a deep wound half as old as the Church herself. Catholic or Orthodox? For some converts to one communion or the other, the choice might have seemed obvious. For me, the thing was a conundrum. Now, having made my choice, I can testify that the division still remains an unwelcome test of ecclesial faith. I sympathize with Levin, though I believe the Church.

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  1. Hey Andrew, I wish I would have gotten as far as you in Anna Karenina. I got sick of all the agricultural talk and refused to read any more of it. I am surprised to hear you describe the division between Catholic and Orthodox as “the most fundamental in Christendom” when there is so much more agreement then either Church has with Protestantism. I think you might be right though in the sense that some of the Reformers seemed to use the east/west divide to justify their own right to leave the Catholic Church. Do you think the Reformation would have been as extensive as it was without had it not been preceeded by the split between east and west?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  2. Hey Andrew,

    You said: “Now, having made my choice, I can testify that the division still remains an unwelcome test of ecclesial faith. I sympathize with Levin, though I believe the Church.”

    I think I see what you’re feeling. But I also think we can be comforted in knowing that God reaches out to everyone, that He doesn’t judge harshly those who are invincibly ignorant, that He has kept the magisteriums of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches as faithful witnesses on many issues, and that so many people have received valid sacraments from both churches. These are all things to be happy about. It’s not like He’s abandoned his people.

    Another thing to be happy about is that many of the divisions between Catholic and Orthodox Christians have to do quite obviously with sin applied to our current relations and ignorance applied to the data of the past. It’s not like one Church has accepted a new prophet (e.g. Smith) and the other hasn’t — that’s an ugly issue that can be impossible to avoid without a complete conversion. But the direct results of current sin and ignorance applied to the data of the past can be overcome without the same kind of _complete_ conversion. Maybe they never will be overcome, but it’s possible.

    One interesting thing to learn about would be why the Orthodox feel theologically incapable of revising the Eastern opinions formed (or at least most clearly stated) post the seventh ecumenical council. Do they have a theology of infallibility that would be _directly_ overthrown by such a revision, or would they just feel disloyal to their cultural past for engaging in such a revision? Also, it would be good for Catholics to learn more about their theory of Eucharistic communion as preferable to the more complete organic unity of Eucharist and hierarchy as in the Catholic Church. What makes them prefer Eucharistic communion, and how might that communion develop over time to make ecumenical efforts more possible? Do the orthodox have a theology of doctrinal development? Finally, are there any groups within Eastern Orthodoxy that are willing to consider doctrinal development for the sake of reunification, as there are — in a prominent way — within the Catholic Church? I’ve visited a few sites run by Orthodox, but the gamut seems to run between people who are angry and bitter and ignorant and unfair and proud and refuse to budge doctrinally all the way to people who are kind and sweet and knowledgeable and fairly fair and quite modest — but refuse to budge doctrinally! Thus, there must be a theology of infallibility in there somewhere, and (I would guess) a more limited theology of doctrinal development.


    K. Doran

  3. Jeremy,

    Give the “agricultural talk” another try. Tolstoy was deeply concerned about the Russian peasantry, and their relation to the land, in light of growing support for socialism among the intelligentsia. Less than a generation after his death, the Russian and Ukrainian peasantry were eradicated from the land, through government induced famine, redeployment to labor-camps and forced reconstruction of their relationship to the land (socialization of agriculture). This extermination of our Christian brothers and sisters (Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, and Ukrainian Catholic), the peasants, was genocide on a scale more massive than any other instance of such in the twentieth century. It is impossible to rightly estimate this loss of human life, of Christian peoples, and their way of life, without some sense of how they lived before the advent of the anti-Christs, who had their own ideas about agriculture. Tolstoy was in search of a sane, indeed a Christ-inspired, understanding of the people and the land. Suffice to say, the Revolutionaries were not. In some ways, I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as the sequel to Anna Karenina.

    Ah, but division where there is so much in common makes the split itself even more poignant. And the Catholic / Orthodox divide is most fundamental in the sense of being long prior to 16th century schisms, and involving the two largest Christian communions in the world, who, yes, share so much in common (e.g., seven councils, seven sacraments, monasticism, apostolic foundation).

    Many schisms were fomented in the first millennium, so I suppose that an undivided Church in the second millennium would have seen its share of the same. We know that some of the Reformers reached out the Orthodox. My understanding is that the East was interested at first, but then put off by the non-patristic, innovating spirit of the new religion.

  4. K. Doran,

    One interesting thing to learn about would be why the Orthodox feel theologically incapable of revising the Eastern opinions formed (or at least most clearly stated) post the seventh ecumenical council.

    Because these developments (most notably, Palamite spirituality/theology) are understood to be good and necessary consequence of the teachings of the Fathers. In fact, they are sometimes not understood to be developments at all, but just expositions of the Fathers. (One doesn’t construe a homily as a “development” of doctrine.)

    As for Orthodox websites, I suppose that your characterizations are based on experience, but they are not flattering, nor do they cover the field. Try instead Eirenikon and De unione ecclesiarum. The author of the latter site has a paper (scheduled for publication in Communio) which does exactly the kind of thing necessary to move forward, not so much “development” as careful consideration of the data from the first millennium, when we were one communion. I highly recommend this piece (link). One can also scroll down to the “pages” sidebar for several helpful posts of the filioque controversy, Palamism, and other matters upon which East (Orthodox and often Eastern Catholic) and West (Roman Catholic and to some extent Protestant) commonly (though recently with more light and less heat) differ.

    Doctrinal development is a fact, and, I believe, a genuine Note of the Church (carefully qualified and rightly understood), but it is subject to misunderstanding and abuse, a not uncommon form of which is positivist papalism, wherein Holy Tradition is thought of as residing, first and foremost, at the fingertips, or quill-tips, of the current Bishop of Rome.

  5. As to my personal encounter with this division, and the choice that I had to make in order to enter fully into the communion of the ancient and abiding Church, here is something that I recently wrote elsewhere:

    Sometimes, in a bit of a jest, I say that I split the difference by entering the Church in the Byzantine Rite (Ukrainian, who are very keen on following papal directives to maintain their historic Eastern patrimony in its ritual, spiritual and theological purity–almost too keen for this thomist). If I ever had ultramontane tendencies, they were cured before they took hold by my growing devotion to Cardinal Newman. I instinctively took his side against Archbishop (eventually Cardinal) Manning, and am deeply indebted to him for his perspective on the papacy and tradition (among many other things).

    Newman’s careful and historically conscious affirmation of papal infallibility (which he held, as an opinion, before Vatican I [and, of course, as de fide after the Council]), together with considerations from, e.g., Soloviev, and the stock biblical, historical and theological arguments for a robust (irreducible) Petrine headship of the Church militant were enough to tilt me towards Rome. Eventually, I came to the point were it was impossible to imagine myself as being fully part of the ancient and catholic Church while not being in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

  6. Andrew,

    Thanks for the recommendations for orthodox websites! I’ve visited Eirenikon a couple times before and read the articles and comments with interest — I think they guy who runs it is a true Christian, and so are many of the commentators, Catholic and Orthodox (especially when clergy comment). In addition, I can say that I’ve always found Eastern clergy to be deeply holy in their interactions with Catholics on the internet (I’ve never tried to interact with them myself, but I’ve read their interactions with other Catholics with interest). But I think that the friendly and happy Orthodox at Eirenikon likely feel just as much as I do that the Orthodox web needs a few more Eirenikons — that is not meant to be an insult to friendly orthodox or to the overall tradition, and it applies to the Catholic web as well.

    Your points about papal authority are well-said. I do think that more Catholics then you might guess completely agree with you, however. It’s just one reason why I feel that the way that the Catholic Church views itself has grown more amenable to big-O Orthodoxy over the last 60 years, even while a new wave of Orthodox apologists are sometimes standing their ground more than they need too, with accusations of heresy in the Western Church all the way back to before Augustine, etc.. But this is a meta meta issue, and it runs the risk of sounding insulting to a tradition and a people whom I admire quite a bit (which you were right to gently warn me of), so I will say no more.


    K. Doran

  7. K Doran,

    A point of tension for all ecumenically-minded Catholics and Orthodox is the need (intellectual and otherwise) to embrace both the Church’s self-understanding as the visible and indivisible Body of Christ and to recognize whatever (recognizable) ways separated communities of Christians actually participate in the integral existence of the one Church. In my opinion, Catholics generally do a better job of this than do the Orthodox. This applies not only to the Catholic Church’s recognition of the Orthodox Church’s apostolicity and sacramental life, but also to her recognition of the fruits of the Spirit among various Protestant communions. During my process of conversion, it did not hurt that that these things already seemed to me all but undeniable.

    It is true that some folks (converts especially, which is understandable) are more keen to defend the integrity of their own self-identity than to recognize Christ in others. The latest Council has shown us, however, that this is a case of both / and. From a Catholic perspective (especially an Eastern Catholic perspective), the ecclesial integrity of the Orthodox is overwhelmingly obvious and attractive, in many ways (from the outside looking in, at least) comparing favorably to our own situation.

  8. Andrew and those of you that are sincerely interested in Christian Unity,

    All the discussions and points of views are very interesting and no doubt there are even higher levels of discussions happening in the vatican. Sometimes we can become slaves of the mind and not see things with our spiritual eyes. It seems as long as the churches remain RIGID and do not act with HUMILITY and LOVE towards each other, there will be no progress. We are all part of the Body of Christ. OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN DOES NOT MAKE ANY DISTINCTIONS, WE ARE ONE IN HIS EYES.
    We the people want unity, we also have a voice and we can act. If we are sincere in wanting to be” one”, then there is an opportunity for us to act. Let us at least show the world that we can be united in having Easter on the same day every year, ( this year and next year the Catholic and Orthodox dates align). WHAT A POWERFUL WITNESS FOR UNITY ! At least we would be united in Christ’s death and resurrection.
    Someone has to bend, someone has to act with humility and put Christ’s desires before their own. With this act of humility and the prayers of the faithful, the Holy Spirit will come down on us with full force and show us the way to unity. It is through repentance that space can be made for the Holy Spirit to act and transfigure His Church .
    JOIN IN THE WORLD WIDE PETITION FOR ONE DATE FOR EASTER. We can show our sincerity for unity through ACTIONS. Once the 1 million mark is reached, the petition will be handed to the hierachy of the different churches.

    Mary J

  9. Mary,

    Thanks for the comment. It would be wonderful to see all of Christendom celebrate our greatest feast on the same day.

  10. Andrew,

    When I was blogging regularly, my most frequent theme was the development of doctrine. In passing, I sharply criticized two Orthodox authors, Frs. Andrew Louth and John Behr, who, unlike the late Jaroslav Pelikan or the very much living Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, deny that DD is a legitimate category for Orthodox theology. It seemed to me that even Louth and Behr affirmed in practice just what the Catholic Church, especially in Dei Verbum §8, affirms in theory regarding DD.

    Yet to a man, the Orthodox in my comboxes were less interested in discussing DD as a meta-issue than in debating two doctrines that the Catholic Church alleges are instances of legitimate DD: the papal claims and the filioque. In my view, nothing in the positive affirmations of Orthodoxy is logically incompatible with those or other definitive Catholic doctrines. Of course the Orthodox demurred. I wondered whether I was being arrogant by implying that I understood what they believed better than they did. Then I discovered Orthodox like the ones at Eirenikon and De Unione Ecclesiarum, commented occasionally there, and dug into the readings they recommended. I now think that the obstacles to reunion are more cultural and historical than conceptual. The Pope seems to agree. There is currently a will to disunion among many Orthodox that arises from an accumulation of old prejudices and grievances.

    Even so, I take Orthodoxy very seriously indeed. When Rome speaks of “true, particular churches” not in communion with Rome, she is referring to the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox. In fact, after several years of disgust with Catholicism in my youth–which had nothing to do with Catholic doctrine in itself, and everything to do with the apparent unwillingness of the priests I knew to either uphold it or live by it–I seriously investigated Orthodoxy in college. I read the Eastern Fathers and the usual 20th-century Orthodox works, attended Orthodox liturgies, repeated the Jesus Prayer a lot, and visited St. Vlad’s a few times for lectures and discussions. I even got to talk with Alexander Schmemann himself. But in the end, I found myself almost bound to re-affirm Catholicism. The Orthodox could give me no clear, consistent, non-circular account of how a council was to be identified as ecumenical and thus as binding on all believers. Imperial muscle just struck me as irrelevant. Catholics, on the other hand, could cite papal ratification. That was clear, consistent, and non-circular. End of story.

    But I don’t think reunion will come about by theologians hashing things out about the papacy or the filioque. That was tried at Lyons and Florence, and we know how that worked out in the end. Irenic statements today, such as the Balamand Agreement, have not aroused much enthusiasm among the Orthodox either. Reunion will come about only when the faithful of the Roman, EO, and OO communions are led by the Spirit, perhaps through the intervention of the Theotokos, to see the divisions as simply unacceptable and to demand that they be ended. It will be a bottom-up not a top-down thing.


  11. Mike,

    Awesome comment. Thanks. I once made a document cutting pasting the material on DD from your blog. It was more like a book. As for this bit:

    Reunion will come about only when the faithful of the Roman, EO, and OO communions are led by the Spirit, perhaps through the intervention of the Theotokos, to see the divisions as simply unacceptable and to demand that they be ended.


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