Thursday, June 15, 2017

Don't taint Orthodox Christian ecumenicism with lies of omission

A June 1 article in the National Catholic Reporter demonstrates how to mislead (and therefore manipulate) an unwitting reader by either downplaying important facts, or in this case omitting them altogether.

In Orthodox not interested in reunion with Rome, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese tries to make the case that Orthodox bishops in Eastern Europe, as well as rank-and-file Orthodox Christians, are not interested in reuniting with the Church of Rome, and are therefore less ecumenical than their Roman Catholic counterparts.

One of the fundamental problems with Fr. Thomas' article is that it does not establish a frame of reference for what reunification would look like, aside from the Vatican being "open to a less intrusive role for the pope in the Eastern churches than in the West." (Does "less intrusive" mean that the Eastern churches would be exempt from papal primacy, or does it mean the pope would simply take a softer approach to how he rules over the East while allowing Orthodox bishops to refer to him as a mere patriarch?)

Fr. Thomas also neglects to mention if Orthodox Christians would be expected to budge from their own theological positions (where they differ from those of Rome), or if East and West would simply agree to disagree on such matters.

On that topic, Fr. Thomas writes that "the touchy issue has always been the role of the papacy", thus disregarding altogether one of the primary theological divisions, namely the filoque in the Nicene Creed. While to some it may seem like a matter of splitting hairs, whether one believes the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only (as the Orthodox believe) or from the Father and the Son (as Roman Catholics believe) nevertheless points to a stark difference in how one views the Holy Trinity. Neither side should be expected to "reunite" with the other at the expense of such a core belief.

It is very telling that the author employs a Reality Distortion Field worthy of Steve Jobs by writing that the two sides "accept the same Nicene Creed", and leaving it at that. Intentional or not, this amounts to a lie of omission in the service of over-simplifying (and thus distorting) the true reasons behind the appearance of Orthodox resistance to reunion with Rome. Such a lie (that being the impression Fr. Thomas creates that there is no dispute over the Nicene Creed) also makes it easier to paint Orthodox Christianity as being less ecumenical than Roman Catholicism, with the unwritten implication that the Orthodox are somehow more close-minded because of it.

One dimension left unexplored by Fr. Thomas is the possibility that perhaps Orthodox Christians, along with their bishops, feel some sort of trepidation at being a smaller fish potentially being eaten by a much larger one. Looking at it through the other end of the telescope, I suspect that to Roman Catholics, reunion with Orthodox Christianity may feel like an opportunity for expansion of their own interests. (I have a hard time believing that Roman Catholics would view their post-reunion pope as "just one of the guys" among the other patriarchs.) Likewise, for Orthodox Christians that same reunion may feel like the beginning of a typically Western incursion, albeit in priestly garb, and under the pretense of ecumenicism.

Whether this last point is a factor in the results of the Pew Research Center study quoted by Fr. Thomas is merely speculation by Yours Truly. Nevertheless, it points to an issue that is far too complicated to allow for accusations that Orthodox Christians are less ecumenical than Roman Catholics, and whatever such a generalization would seem to imply about them.

As for me, ecumenicism and Christian unity between East and West shouldn't mean the same thing as "sameness", nor should it require outright reunion between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. There are enough ideals and issues around which members of both sides can passionately lock arms in solidarity without the need to merge their respective organizational structures, and thus risk losing that which makes each unique and beautiful.