A Commentary on the Orthodox Church’s Council

July 07, 2016
Source: District of the USA

A review of certain decisions made during the Eastern Orthodox Church's "Holy and Great Council" held last month in Crete 

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s “Holy and Great Council” concluded on June 26 in Crete with the promulgation of an encyclical and a series of official documents covering such topics as fasting, marriage, and the relationship between the Orthodox and other Christian confessions, including the Catholic Church. While the gathering was intended to be a sign of conciliar unity, four members of Orthodoxy’s worldwide ecclesiastical confederacy opted to skip the event: Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia. What this means is that approximately two-thirds of all Orthodox Christians were not represented at the Council and questions now loom over the bindingness of the conciliar documents. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox do not have a central authority that can magisterially determine the scope and authority of a council or its works. Although some Orthodox theologians have declared the Cretan Council to be “ecumenical” and therefore authoritative for world Orthodoxy, many remain skeptical that such an under-represented gathering can possibly amount to anything more than a local synod.

While it is not possible to review all of the Cretan Council’s documents here (some of which deal with matters of intra-Orthodox governance which likely hold little interest for Catholics), a few points are worth highlighting. With respect to the document entitled “The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments,” Catholics should rejoice that the text makes clear that “the [Orthodox] Church does not allow for her members to contract same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation apart from marriage” (paragraph 10) and that “[a] civil marriage between a man and a woman registered in accordance with the law lacks sacramental character since it is a simple legalized cohabitation recognized by the State, different from a marriage blessed by God and the Church” (paragraph 9).

However, there is a noticeable tension in the document between its affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage (paragraph 2) and the fact that Orthodoxy allows spouses to divorce and sacramentally remarry under certain circumstances (e.g., abandonment, adultery, and apostasy). This practice, which has no authentic roots in Christian tradition, came about largely due to the conflation of Roman civil law and ecclesiastical law during the time of the Byzantine Empire. Also regrettable is the fact the document fails to address the serious moral problem of contraception, a practice historically forbidden by the Orthodox but which has come to be tolerated by an increasing number of Orthodox priests and bishops over the past century. (For more on these topics, see Gabriel S. Sanchez, “No Light from the Orthodox East on Christian Marriage,” The Angelus, July/August 2014.)

On the matter of ecumenism, the document entitled “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” is rather modest, particularly compared to the confusing statements emanating out of Rome over the past 50 years. Without surrendering Orthodoxy’s belief to be “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” as maintained in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (paragraph 1), the document calls for “theological dialogues between the Orthodox Church and the rest of the Christian world” albeit in conformity with “canonical principles of Orthodox ecclesiology and the canonical criteria of the already established Church Tradition” (paragraph 20). While this statement is slightly ambiguous on its face, it is no doubt intended to appease those Orthodox bishops, priests, and theologians who, in the lead-up to the Council, worried publicly that the gathering’s participants were at risk of adopting an Anglican-style “branch theory” whereby the various Christian confessions of the world represent “limbs” of the “one Church.”

More alarming for Catholics is the document’s condemnation of “proselytism, uniatism, or other provocative act of inter-confessional completion” (paragraph 23). For those unaware, “uniatism” (now seen by many as a pejorative expression) is the means whereby various Eastern Christian churches returned to full communion with the See of Rome after a period of separation. By Orthodox lights, the most controversial reunion was consummated at the 1596 Union of Brest-Litovsk (and expanded 50 years later at the Union of Uzhhorod), which gave rise to the Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Ruthenian Greek Catholic churches. It has long been the opinion of many Orthodox that these—and other—Eastern Catholic bodies are illicit and have no right to exist in traditional Eastern Orthodox lands (particularly Ukraine and Russia). The dark irony of the Council’s anti-uniatism statement is that the document fails to repent of relatively recent attempts by the Orthodox, in concert with secular powers, to forcibly fold Greek Catholicism into Orthodoxy.

For instance, following the Allied victory during World War II, the Soviet Union, with the full backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, imprisoned, tortured, and executed Ukrainian Catholic priests, bishops, and faithful before staging a pseudo-synod in Lviv, Ukraine in 1946 which ostensibly abolished the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Similar persecutions of Greek Catholics occurred within Russia and Romania as well. While some work has been undertaken to heal these painful memories, the Orthodox Church’s insistence that Greek Catholics have no right to spread the Gospel in “their lands” or to win converts for Christ’s Holy Church is unsettling, particularly when the Orthodox diaspora in the West have had no compunction about actively proselytizing to and converting Latin Catholics to their confession.

As noted at the outset of this commentary, it is unclear how binding any of the Council’s documents will be for the worldwide Orthodox communion. The Patriarch of Antioch—who did not participate in the Council—has already issued a statement which “[r]efuse[s] assigning a conciliar character to any Orthodox meeting that does not involve all of the Orthodox Autocephalous [i.e., self-governing] Churches” and “[a]ffirm[s] that whatever was issued in the meeting in Crete, of decisions and other things, is non-binding, by any means, to the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East.” No doubt the other Orthodox churches which refused to participate in the Council feel the same way.

What the future holds for intra-Orthodox conciliar relations remains to be seen. Many appear hopeful that the meeting in Crete, even if not accepted as a “true council” by the majority of Orthodox Christians, will lead to further gatherings aimed at overcoming Orthodoxy’s numerous ecclesiastical differences. While some Catholics (and a few Orthodox) held out the dubious hope that the Cretan Council would represent Orthodoxy’s “Vatican II” moment, thankfully that did not come to pass. With respect to ecclesiology, theology, and liturgy, the Orthodox opted to hold fast to their tradition and did not allow the proceedings to be coopted by renovationists. However, as highlighted above, the Orthodox still have considerable work to do, both with respect to clarifying various matters concerning faith and morals and, more importantly, orienting themselves back toward communion with the Roman Catholic Church.