Brothers and Sisters: Peace be with you!
The first similarity between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches I wish to explore is the commitment that both Churches have to receive, transmit, and revere Tradition as the all-encompassing vessel in which the Church hands down God’s Word, in writing and orally, to every generation of Christian believers.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had much to say about the relationship in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation - Dei Verbum. This is just one of the things they said:
10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.
Later, the Catechism of the Catholic Church enshrined the teaching of the Council Fathers regarding Tradition as follows:
76 In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
- orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit";
- in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing".
. . continued in apostolic succession
77 "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority."35 Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes."37 "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."
Similarly, Eastern Orthodox doctrinal sources emphasize the reality, character, and purpose of Holy Tradition:
Q. What is Holy Tradition, and is it absolutely essential to faith?
A. Holy Tradition consists of those things which Christ delivered to his Apostles and which they transmitted to their successors orally. It is absolutely essential to faith, because it is the source of the Holy Scripture and we cannot understand all of the Holy Scripture correctly without the help of Holy Tradition. Since the Protestant Churches reject Holy Tradition, they have no authoritative judge for the explanation of Holy Scripture. Each has his own opinion, and on this account they differ among themselves, although they have the same name, Protestant. And they will continue to be subdivided in the future as long as they do not restore Holy Tradition to its proper place in the Church. (CA)
There is also this handy definition:
Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction. Vladimir Lossky has famously described the Tradition as "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." It is dynamic in application, yet unchanging in dogma. It is growing in expression, yet ever the same in essence. (OW)
And this one from Russian Orthodox sources:
17. What is meant by the name holy tradition?
By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation. (PD)
Convergences and Contrasts
The similarities are striking: authorities from both Churches affirm the objective reality of Tradition as a “deposit of revelation” forming a unity, yet transmitted flowing through two channels which converge in the end. Authorities from both Churches also understand that Revelation is not exclusively contained in Scripture alone, and that the living transmission of God’s Word in action and liturgy, as well as the understanding of the Fathers (and Doctors) of the Church constitute a fundamental and necessary means for the understanding of the written Word and its application to different times and places.
Both Churches also receive an “interpretative” Tradition from the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church, as well as “the form” of the Liturgy, and with the exception of one (pesky, little, but oh so divisive!) word, the same Creed is proclaimed in the liturgies of both Communions.
Although the Churches have common views on the nature of Tradition, they hold different views about the identity of the custodians and authentic interpreters of Tradition/Revelation. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the normative Catholic view in the aforementioned Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation - Dei Verbum:
10b. But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.
Orthodox Church authorities wince on the intimate connection between Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church, preferring to see the entire Church, and not only the bishops, as the custodians of Tradition:
18. Is there any sure repository of holy tradition?
All true believers united by the holy tradition of the faith, collectively and successively, by the will of God, compose the Church; and she is the sure repository of holy tradition, or, as St. Paul expresses it, The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1 Tim. iii. 15. (PD)
Orthodox Christians believe that by making the entire Church the custodian of Tradition, a system of “checks and balances” – although they don’t use that phrase – exist to check any misuse by bishops of their teaching office that would go beyond that which the Church has received and the Fathers explained. As a consequence, the Orthodox Church is adverse at the Catholic notion of development of doctrine as described by Cardinal Newman in his classic essay of the same name:
Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession. (OW)
Incidentally, note how the author of the above quote from the Orthodox Wiki article on Tradition assigns a more active role to the hierarchy in the transmission of Revelation. Nevertheless, this other quote also expresses the Orthodox reluctance to consider dogmatic development:
Q. Which Church is right with regard to the sources of the Catechism?
A. The Orthodox and the Anglican, whereas others are in error, because no one has the right to change the dogmas which Christ gave to us, either to add to them or to subtract from them, or to pervert them; since, if we are sufficient of ourselves to find out what the dogmas are, and which are needed for our salvation, the Incarnation of Christ would have been superfluous. (CD)
Notice that when Father Demetry composed this catechism, the Orthodox Church and the Church of England where closer to each other than with the Catholic Church, something no longer true today.
Although, as we have seen, both Churches hold to an understanding of Tradition that is essentially the same and in generally agree as to the means of its transmission, the Churches differ on one significant point regarding how interpretative Tradition is preserved and handed down. Orthodox Christians would say that the formulation of interpretative Tradition occurred during the Age of the Fathers of the Church and that no further interpretative development binding upon the Church is possible after that age. The task of the bishops, those in holy orders, monastics, and lay people are to hand down this patrimony without deviation, and to hold other likely theological explanations of faith and morals not contained in Tradition as theologumena or non-binding theological hypotheses.
However, the Catholic Church teaches that authoritative doctrinal development is not only possible, but also necessary, as the Church faces new situations never before contemplated by the Apostles or the Fathers, and that this authority resides within the Successor of Peter in the Roman See, and in the bishops in communion with him. Both positions are susceptible to measured criticism.
Criticism of the Eastern Orthodox Reception and Transmission of Tradition
The Orthodox fear that doctrinal development leads to a faith …eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians is legitimate, but their own adherence to this principle has been inconsistent from time to time. For example, the doctrine of the divine energies as taught by St. Gregory Palamas – in which he drew a difference between God’s essence and his energies – and as recognized by a number of synods in Constantinople between 1347 and 1351, to which many Orthodox ascribe ecumenical authority – at least for them.
Personally, I have nothing against St. Gregory’s teachings. The Catholic Church would hold them as theologumena because Catholic theologians have given scant attention to St. Gregory’s teachings, and although many Catholic theologians of the past have held these teachings in contempt, I don’t think this would be the case today.
My point is that if the test for doctrinal continuity in the Orthodox Church is that an emerging teaching must be also recognizable to early Christians, then St. Gregory’s doctrines regarding the distinction in God between his essence and energies would fail this test. For what I have been able to ascertain, early Jewish and Gentile Christians would not have recognized St. Gregory’s teachings as part of the Tradition handed down by the Apostles. In fact, I argue that the Apostles themselves did not know, nor did they either explicitly or implicitly proclaim St. Gregory’s teachings in any way.
St. Gregory’s doctrine is clearly a dogmatic development, necessitated by internal conditions and controversies within the Orthodox Churches in the 14th century. St. Gregory’s teachings received their seal of apostolic authenticity and continuity from what some Orthodox theologians call “the Ninth Ecumenical Council”. In my judgment, this is not far from the Catholic position, that a teaching might have been neither known nor knowable to the primitive Church, but that the bishops’ judgment in a later age that a given theological “proposal” represents in fact a logical doctrinal development in continuity with Apostolic and Patristic teaching, is enough to proclaim the proposal a dogma of the entire Church. The Orthodox Church has done what the Catholic Church has done. Therefore, the synodal sanction of St. Gregory’s teachings set a unique precedent in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church after the Great Schism regarding doctrinal development.
Furthermore, I think that the joint guardianship that Orthodox monastic and non-monastic clergy and lay people exercise in their Church has elevated to the status of “Tradition” many things not belonging to it, with dire consequences not only for Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, but for intra-Orthodox conflicts as well.
For example, the monks of Mt. Athos hold a de facto veto to any ecumenical initiative led by Orthodox hierarchs that may lead to recognize the Catholic Church as something more than a “sister church” – in the words of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, no doubt influenced by the stance of the monks of Mount Athos, this designation granted to the Catholic Church must be understood that the Catholic Church is a separate, independent, different “ontological” reality from “the real Church”, that is, the Orthodox Church. Both churches are two different species of bird, so-to-speak.
The Athonite monks discourage a priori any dialogue tending to mutual recognition that does not include total capitulation by the Catholic Church to Orthodox ecclesiology, and exalt along the those Orthodox saints who expressed this viewpoint, like St. Mark of Ephesus. The unofficial, but highly-regarded parallel magisterium of the Athonite monks represents, in my view, the principal obstacle facing Orthodox-Catholic reconciliation today.
Moreover, the Orthodox view of Tradition has had unintended consequences in intra-Orthodox conflicts as well, many of which have led to ruptures of communion within the Orthodox Church.
First, consider the schism of the Old Believers in Russia. At its root, the schism of the Old Believers from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy is a failure to distinguish between adiaphora – inconsequential teachings or practices of a devotional character – and Apostolic Tradition. Historians like to illustrate the schism with “two fingers”: the Old Believers taught that the Sign of the Cross must be done with two fingers; reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikhon of Moscow in the 17th century, made the Greek manner, with three fingers, as normative in the Russian Church. How much persecution, deaths, and suffering this little difference caused in the history of the Russian Church by one finger, the difference between two and three! In fact, the schism resembles in all of its milestones the political and internecine conflicts in the Latin Church of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. We are more alike than what we are willing to admit.
Of more relevance today is the schism of the Old Calendarists. The central issue here is which calendar will govern the liturgical feasts of the Orthodox Church: will it be the Julian calendar, the modified Julian calendar, or the Gregorian calendar – the one the rest of the world uses. The Old Calendarists do not exist in a vacuum, for they appeal to three Patriarchal and Pan-Orthodox Synods in Constantinople in the 16th century that condemned the Gregorian calendar, and Pope Gregory who issued it. We might ask how is this attachment to a tool to measure the position of the sun in the sky related to the Apostolic Tradition. Why is the calendar a reason for breaking communion and launching anathemas between people who otherwise believe the same things? Again, this is due to confusion about the contents and character of Tradition in the absence of strong episcopal authority, critical study of the Christian sources, and the empowerment of ill-defined teaching authorities found in Mt. Athos and in popular anti-Catholic sentiments across the traditionally Orthodox lands. Hatred or distrust aimed the Catholic Church is now part and parcel of the Eastern Orthodox Church understanding of Tradition.
Criticism of the Catholic Reception and Transmission of Tradition
The teaching of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the transmission and guardianship of Tradition is also susceptible to some criticism and therefore, to improvement.
I think that concentrating the guardianship of Tradition in the Catholic Church on the hands of the Magisterium – the Pope and the bishops in communion with him – the role of the Christifidelis laici, – Christ’s lay people –devolved into a mostly passive role, one of passive reception and acquiescence. The consequence has been twofold: on one hand, the rise of theologians and even bishops who have had little understanding and love for Tradition. The other consequence has been the rise of schismatic groups who isolated a limited portion of the Latin Catholic Tradition, staking their claim to exclusive, self-contained orthodoxy within their tight dogmatic boundaries. From this stance, these so-called Catholic traditionalists stand in judgment of the rest of the Church, not unlike the Old Calendarists of the Eastern Orthodox judge their fellow churchmen for pretty much the same reasons.
This tenet should be axiomatic for all: those who misunderstand Holy Tradition will not love Holy Tradition. They will not see themselves as stakeholders in its reception and transmission.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council perceived this danger. The original purpose of the Council was ad sources, resourcement — meaning the return to the sources of our faith, to Scripture, liturgy, and the Fathers. Instead, we got the ascent of theological celebrities like Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Mary Daly, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and the whole coterie standing behind the so-called Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church and like-minded organizations (e.g. the Leadership Council of Women Religious).
Why did this happen? Again, it happened because those who do not know or misunderstand Tradition will not love Tradition; they will, in fact, hate it. They have no use for Tradition, claiming instead direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit to justify their quests for renewal, and the autonomy of their individual, subjective conscience over and against the teaching of the Church. For these dissenters, Tradition is no longer a vehicle of the Holy Spirit transmitting the mind of the Church throughout history, but an antiquated notion to be ejected in their particular quests for liberation and emancipation from an oppressive, patriarchal hierarchy.
Schismatic traditionalists – which I must distinguish from those who remain within the Church in mind and heart – represent the other side of the dissenting coin. Schismatic traditionalism is a reaction to the excesses of the above crowd: these Catholics blame Blessed John XXIII and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council for the failure to return to the sources of the faith and the confusion unleashed during the years after the Council. Their solution has been to isolate the Latin tradition reformulated in the Councils of Trent and First Vatican and proclaim it the standard of Catholic orthodoxy. For them, the Greek Fathers and the Greek Church before the schism were Roman Catholics who happened to think and speak Greek, not a diversity to be celebrated but to be Romanized, much as many Orthodox feel that reunion with the Catholic Church will be possible after the latter’s capitulation to the Orthodox ecclesiological self-understanding.
Furthermore, Latin traditionalists see themselves as loyal dissenters not unlike their liberal counterparts, who also stand in judgment of the Church, like the Old Calendarists of the East. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (FSSPX) is the principal representative of this trend in the Catholic Church, while other extremists within this movement also claim particular private revelations, as well as byzantine – pardon the pun – conspiracy theories to justify their often bizarre views.
Healing the Great Schism between East and West will heal Holy Tradition
I believe we can conclude that the confusion and exaggerations found both in the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches can be laid at the doors of the Great Schism. The rupture also ripped apart our common Tradition and disrupted its transmission in both our communions. I am convinced that healing the schism will also heal the confusion and discontinuities in the transmission of Tradition which in the end, is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We can conclude the following: Healing the schism will heal the Tradition; also, the mutual healing between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches will occur when what is best within one Church is applied to the other Church. The Great Schism left in each of our Churches a void in the shape of the other. As we look into the “shape” of the schism, we can tell its contour, much as we can tell that eastern South America and western Africa “fit together” like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.
For example, the Catholic Church can benefit from the Orthodox understanding of Tradition as something received, guarded, and transmitted by the whole Church, while the Eastern Orthodox can benefit from the more critical distinction that in the Catholic Church is made between Tradition and “little traditions” that, although beautiful in their diversity, are not intrinsic to Holy Tradition. Moreover, the Catholic Church will also benefit from the Orthodox concern for preserving a faith that would still be intelligible to the first Christians as note of Orthodoxy, while the Orthodox may indeed grow in their understanding of Holy Tradition if they were to acquire the Catholic understanding of dogmatic development, as one conducted in continuity with the Faith of the Apostles.
Finally, all concerned parties must agree that Christianity’s first dogma is Love: the love of God for us and of us for Him and of our neighbor as we do ourselves. The Master said that this is the summary of the Law and the Prophets. Love demands that we don’t only tell the truth to each other, but also attempt to understand what each other is saying. I trust this rather long essay will signify a step in that direction.
In the next post, I will discuss the equal love the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches feel for their apostolic origins.