Does ecumenism with the Orthodox actually foster the true unity of the Catholic Church?
From DICI we present this piece that traces the false ecumenism that has been practiced by the post-conciliar popes towards the schismatic Orthodox up until the recent Holy Land visit of Pope Francis.
On the ecumenical meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew
The pope’s journey to the Holy Land from May 24 to 26, 2014, took place on the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, on January 5 and 6, 1964.
At the time, this meeting had a great impact, since it had been 525 years—since 1439—since a pope, Eugenius IV, had received the patriarch of Constantinople, after four centuries of schism. It was in Ferrare, and the Eastern Church seemed ready to return to the Catholic communion. But is that the case today?
50 years ago
On Sunday, January 5, 1964, Athenagoras visited Paul VI in the buildings of the apostolic delegation in Jerusalem. After their historic embrace, exchanged on a level of strict equality as dictated by the protocol, a 20-minute private conversation was held between the two men. The patriarch declared to the pope “that it was time to put an end to the division. Why remain separated when there is nothing fundamental to divide us?”. He then addressed to the representative of the “most Holy Church of ancient Rome” a speech in which he expressed the wish that this meeting might be “the dawn of a luminous and blessed day” that would end “the night of separation” in which “the Christian world has been living for centuries.”
The next day, on the morning of January 6, Pope Paul VI visited the Patriarch Athenagoras in his residence on the Mount of Olives. He evoked the figure of John XXIII as the man who had begun bringing the Catholic Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople closer together “after centuries of silence and waiting”. Above all, he laid out the path that ecumenism ought to follow with regards to the eastern schismatics. He declared: “The paths that lead to union may be long and strewn with difficulties. But the two paths converge and end up at the sources of the Gospel.” In other words, since Rome and Constantinople both claim to come from Christ and His Gospel, their destination—the unity of the Church willed by Christ—must also be the same. Which clearly comes down to considering that since 1054, the Church founded by Christ is no longer one.
“The doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary divergences will have to be examined at the right time and place,” continued Paul VI. But fraternal charity between Christians should begin to progress now, especially by forgiving the offenses of the past. A common statement was published, in which a prayer was voiced “that the truth of the one Church of Christ and of His Gospel might shine forth ever more, in the eyes of all Christians.”
Since this first meeting, others have followed. Paul VI met with the Patriarch Athenagoras on October 25, 1967, after the mutual revocation of the excommunication decrees of 1054, on December 7, 1965. His successor, John Paul II, met with the patriarch of Constantinople in 1979, and kept up this dialogue with several meetings.
In parallel, a mixed international Commission was created to meet regularly and study pending questions (apostolic succession, authority in the Church, Uniatism, the primacy of the bishop of Rome…).
In 1981, the Metropolitan Archbishop Damaskinos, while still in a state of schism, was invited to preach to Catholics in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A few years later, on December 6, 1987, the Patriarch Dimitrios I co-presided at a “liturgy of the Word” with John Paul II. The next day, a common declaration rejected “any form of proselytism”. This position led to the agreements of Balamand, after a monastery in Lebanon, whose common declaration on June 23, 1993, in its article 22, saw the Catholic Church renounce “any will to expand that would be detrimental to the Orthodox Church.” Which meant forbidding any return to the communion of the Church in Eastern Europe…
In this declaration of Balamand, it is written that “the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church recognize each other as sister churches, responsible together for keeping the Church of God faithful to the divine plan, especially as far as unity is concerned.” This expression was repeated in the common declaration signed by John Paul II and Bartholomew I on June 29, 1995, in Rome. But it was included neither in the declaration signed on November 30, 2006, by Benedict XVI and the same patriarch of Constantinople, nor in that of Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew on May 25, 2014.
50 years later
Pope Francis met with the successor of the Patriarch Athenagoras on the same site that saw the historic embrace of 1964. The pope and the Patriarch Bartholomew published a common declaration presenting “this brotherly meeting” as “a new and necessary step on the path towards the unity to which the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in a legitimate diversity.” After recalling the steps of this ecumenical dialogue, the declaration mentions different essential points:
The possibility of being able 'to profess our faith in the same Gospel of Christ, as it was received by the Apostles, expressed and transmitted to us by the Ecumenical Councils and by the Fathers of the Church. While we are aware that we have not obtained the goal of a full communion, today, we confirm our commitment to continue walking together towards the unity for which Christ Our Lord prayed to the Father ‘that they may all be one' (John 17:21).” (#2)
We must point out that the Councils in question are only the 7 first Ecumenical Councils, since the Orthodox Church refuses the 14 others.
2) The goal remains to one day share “together the Eucharistic banquet”, which supposes “the confession of the same faith, a persevering prayer, an interior conversion, a renewed life and a fraternal dialogue.” (#3)
3) The privileged means remains the theological dialogue undertaken by the mixed international commission. Here, it is interesting to point out that the declaration pays homage to this “exercise in truth and love that requires an ever deeper knowledge of the other’s traditions in order to understand them and learn from them”, all the while refusing to “seek the lowest common denominator on which to conclude a compromise,” for theological dialogue:
is rather destined to deepen the understanding of the whole truth that Christ gave His Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better when we follow the impulse of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, we declare together that our fidelity to the Lord demands a brotherly meeting and a true dialogue. Such a quest does not draw us away from the truth; on the contrary, through an exchange of gifts, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, it will lead us to the full truth." (See John 16:13). (#4)
It would seem therefore that neither of the two parties in question holds the whole truth, for it still must be found through meeting and dialogue. Can we be satisfied with such a position?
The declaration then mentions the grounds on which Catholics and Orthodox can
work together in the service of humanity, especially by defending the dignity of the human person in every step of life and the sanctity of the family based on marriage, by promoting peace and the common good, and by responding to the suffering that continues to afflict our world."
“Hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and unequal distribution of wealth” are then mentioned, along with exclusion and marginalization in society, saving the planet and the fight against waste. (#5-6)
Lastly the common declaration exhorts Christians to
safeguard everywhere the right to express [their] faith publicly and to be treated justly when promoting what Christianity continues to offer contemporary society and culture. On this point, we invite all Christians to promote an authentic dialogue with Judaism, Islam and other religious traditions. Mutual indifference and ignorance can only lead to mistrust, and even, unfortunately, to conflict." (#7)
After expressing their deep concern for the Christians in the Middle East, “especially for the Churches in Egypt, in Syria and in Iraq” (#8), the two signatories voiced a call to all Christians, and to all believers in all religious traditions and to all men of good will, to recognize the urgency of the times that obliges us to strive for the reconciliation and unity of the human family, while fully respecting legitimate differences, for the good of all humanity and of the generations to come” (#9).
A false vision of the unity of the Church
The ecumenical procedure with the Eastern Church over the last 50 years consists in a dialogue between two sister churches on an equal level, one founded by Peter in Rome, the other by Andrew in Constantinople. It presupposes that the Church is no longer one, but divided, and that the path towards the full truth, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, “requires an ever deeper knowledge of the other’s traditions, in order to understand and learn from them.” This ecumenical process hopes for a mutual enrichment that will allow all to reach the full truth and to reconstitute a unity that has been broken for almost a thousand years. This vision is doubly false. For one, it is unaware of the true nature of the Church of Christ, founded upon Peter and always one regardless of departures, schisms and heresies. And while it is legitimate to regret division and to work to put an end to schisms, bring back those who are lost and extinguish heresies, we must use the means that the one, holy Church has always used.
1) On the true nature of the Church
Before Vatican II, the popes did not fail to explain how God wished, in order to save the greatest possible number of souls, to found a society that would be not only interior and spiritual as to its goal and its causes that produce grace and sanctity, but also exterior and visible in its members and the means used to transmit the spiritual goods. To the great merit of Leo XIII, he defined this unity of the Church that is the first of her four marks. In his remarkable encyclical Satis cognitum, he explained that just as Christ is one by the union of His two divine and human natures, in the same way the Church is one by the union of her invisible Head with her visible members:
There is one God, one Christ, one Church of Christ, one faith, one people, established in the solid unity of one body by the bond of concord. The unity cannot be broken: a body that remains one cannot be divided by fractioning its organism" (St. Cyprian of Carthage).
The Church is one, “even though heresies try to tear her apart into different sects” (St. Clement of Alexandria). Her members form but one society, one kingdom, one body, according to the will of the Lord (See John 17). The basis of this union is the unity of faith, indispensable for concord between men, since understanding and union of intelligences is necessary if they wish to work together. But God could not have willed this unity of the faith without providing the means for preserving it; that is why Jesus Christ established an exterior principle of unity in the faith, by giving His Apostle a divine summons and trusting them with a public mission to save souls: “As the Father sent Me, so I also send you” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Christ thus established the Church as the guardian of the faith, to conserve its integrity and purity. To do this—continues Pope Leo XIII—He instituted “a living, authentic and perpetual magisterium,” that He invested with His own authority, giving it the spirit of truth and ordering “its doctrinal teachings to be received as His own”: “He who hears you, hears Me; He who despises you, despises Me.” (Luke 10:16)
And Christ built His Church as a perfect society, in which all nations are to be united. Both divine and human, she is governed by a sovereign power that requires by divine right a unity of government and of communion. It is the authority of Peter, to whom the care of the whole flock was confided (Matt. 16:18; John 21:15-17): “The Lord spoke to Peter: to one only, in order to found the unity on one only” (St. Pacien of Barcelona).
Peter alone received the power of the keys that ensures the permanence and solidity of the whole edifice. True pastor of the one flock, the Roman Pontiff is the only one who has the authority to govern the whole Church—what we call universal jurisdiction, which is a proper and true power, and not only an honorary primacy as the eastern schismatics claim. As the support of the faith of his brethren that he must strengthen (Luke 22:32), he enjoys the privilege of infallibility in order to ensure the transmission of the immutable divine faith. His sovereign, universal and independent authority is exercised over all the pastors and sheep of the flock.
The Fathers of the Church, the councils and the unchanging Magisterium of the Church have not ceased to affirm the primacy of the Roman pontiff and his authority over the other bishops and over councils, by divine right: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16, 18). “The Roman Church, through the disposition of the Lord, holds dominion and ordinary powers over all other Churches, in its capacity of mother and mistress over all the faithful of Christ” (4th Lateran Council). “Root and mother of the Catholic Church” (St. Cyprian), “one cannot keep the Catholic faith without teaching that one must keep the Roman faith” (St. Augustine).
It is indeed through the mouths of his successors that Peter continues to speak (Council of Chalcedon and Council of Constantinople III, profession of faith of Pope Hormisdas). The principle and center of the unity of faith, of government and of communion, he holds from his proper Chair the place of Christ of whom he is the vicar on earth. To him is confided in particular the care of leading the one flock, and of recalling to it those who may have had the misfortune of leaving it.
The teaching of the Church, the one Bride of Christ, on the nature of its unity, is at the root of a proper understanding of Catholic ecumenism. It is explained by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium animos on the unity of the true Church, and by Pius XII in Mystici corporis on the Mystical Body of Christ. In the name of dialogue and of fraternal encounters, this doctrine has been set aside since Vatican II, because it is refused by non-Catholics. It is nonetheless an article of faith. How can we “dialogue in truth” if we deliberately ignore it?
2) Legitimate means of encouraging a return to the unity of the Church
After World War II, the ecumenical movement took the shape of the foundation of the Ecumenical Council of Churches (ECC). The Holy See forbade Catholics to take part in it. Pius XII instructed the Holy Office to regulate the eventual participation of members of the Church in discussions with non-Catholics. In response the Holy Office sent an Instruction to the bishops throughout the whole world, which were published in L'Osservatore Romano on March 1, 1950. The Vatican newspaper summarized the spirit that must guide the hierarchy of the Church “in these delicate matters”:
It is out of the question that, in hopes of a result desired by all, the requirements of the Faith—the first step towards unity—be in any way diminished or concealed. (…) True Christian unity can only take place in the Faith of the Catholic Church which has been entrusted to the care of its hierarchy…"
The Instruction of the Holy Office sets forth the prudential measures that must be respected in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See. The chief concern is that any approach must be devoid of ambiguity, and that care be taken
so that, under the false pretext that we must consider what unites us much more than what separates us, we do not nourish a dangerous indifferentism…
This must be absolutely avoided: that in a spirit known today as irenic, Catholic doctrine, whether dogma or related truths, be through comparative study and a vain desire to progressively assimilate different professions of faith assimilated with the doctrines of dissidents or accommodated to suit them, to the point that the integrity of Catholic doctrine should suffer or that its true and certain meaning be obscured."
To be avoided with even more care is
this dangerous fashion of expressing oneself that gives rise to erroneous opinions and fallacious hopes that can never be realized, by saying for instance that the teachings of the Sovereign Pontiffs in the encyclicals on the return of dissidents to the Church, should not be taken into much consideration since not all of it is of faith, or worse yet, that in matters of dogma, not even the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of Christ, and that it can be perfected by other Churches."
So that vain hopes and doomed illusions are not encouraged, the Instruction insists on the essential:
Catholic doctrine must therefore be proposed and explained in its whole entirety; that which Catholic truth teaches on the reality of nature and the steps required for justification, on the constitution of the Church, on the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff, and on the one true unity to be obtained through the return of separated Christians to the one true Church of Christ, must not be passed over in silence or obscured with ambiguous terms. It can certainly be said that in returning to the Church they will lose nothing of the good that the grace of God has accomplished in them until the present, but by their return this good will be completed and led to its perfection. We must avoid speaking on this point in such a way that those returning to the Church believe themselves to be bringing it an essential element that it previously lacked. These things must be said clearly and without ambiguity, first of all because they seek the truth, and then because no true unity can exist outside of the truth."
The great prudence of the Holy See is motivated by the “grave danger of indifferentism” presented by such meetings, because of the risk of confusion. It is incidentally for this reason that “any mutual participation in sacred functions” is to be absolutely avoided.
To summarize in brief the Church’s circumspect attitude in matters of dialogue and ecumenical relations, it keeps ever in mind the idea that “unity can take place only in the Catholic Church and through the Catholic Church; it can only take place in the truth."
Forgetting the principles of Catholic unity
In light of the traditional teaching of the Church, the new step taken in Jerusalem by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew on May 25th cannot be accepted without question by Catholic consciences, such is its apparent disregard for the true nature of the unity of the Church and the deviance from the prudential rules established by apostolic authority.
This new dialogue was inaugurated by the Vatican Council II in its decree Unitatis redintegratio (November 21, 1964), in which the Church adopted a benevolent attitude toward non-Catholic Christians, whether heretic or schismatic. Its latest manifestation follows in the wake of actions taken by the predecessors of Pope Francis, in particular John Paul II who did not hesitate to state:
If in the course of centuries the dolorous break between the Eastern and Western Churches took place, a wound from which the Church still suffers today, the duty to rebuild unity imposes itself on us with a special urgency, that the beauty of the Spouse of Christ may appear in all its splendor. For from the very fact that they are complementary, these two traditions are to a certain extent imperfect if they are considered separately. It is in their reunion, their harmonization that they complete each other and present a less inadequate interpretation of the 'mystery which hath been hidden from ages and generations, but now is manifested to his saints.'" (Colossians 1,26).
Such an understanding totally undermines the constant teachings of the Roman pontiffs.
Yet, it could be said, it is undeniable that today the Church continues to recognize the persistence of doctrinal, liturgical and disciplinary differences. Pope Francis himself, in the ecumenical prayer meeting over which he presided in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on May 25, 2014, admitted that “there is still a long way to go before we arrive at the fullness of communion that can be expressed in sharing the same Eucharistic Table.” But he does not hesitate to maintain the illusion of a common faith before his audience and in order to overcome the differences that exist, he renews the
vow already made by [his] predecessors, to maintain dialogue with all our brothers in Christ so that a manner of exercising the ministry proper to the Bishop of Rome, who, in keeping with his mission, is open to a new situation, can be found; may it be in the current context a service of love and of communion recognized by all" (see John Paul II, encyclical Ut unum sint, May 25 1995, no. 95).
This inversion is gravely damaging: the pope, the visible foundation of the unity of the Church instituted by Jesus Christ, whose responsibility is to lead His whole flock of shepherds and sheep, lowers himself to the level that those who deny his office are inclined to grant him.
Today the doctrinal differences of fifty years ago remain. They include the fourteen Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church held between the 9th and the 20th centuries, which the Eastern Church refuses to recognize, and with them the dogmas that were proclaimed or reaffirmed, and all the moral teachings that followed… They include the Filioque clause, the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and his infallibility when speaking ex cathedra, as well as Marian dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception.... These are not minor points, in spite of Athenagoras’ words in 1964: “Why remain separated when nothing fundamental divides us?”
The truth—to return to the proper terms of the Holy Office under the Angelic Pope—is that an irenic spirit is preferred to the immutable doctrine of Catholicism and that, through a vain desire for progressive assimilation, we should accommodate the spirit of error that led so many souls to distance themselves from the one Bride of Christ—to the point of attacking the purity of Catholic doctrine and clouding its true and certain meaning.
Pope St. Pius X worked for true unity, exhorting pastors to work tirelessly “that the sheep lost through dissension might be reunited in the profession of the one Catholic faith, under one supreme Shepherd.” He explained that indeed
any effort can only be vain if the Catholic faith is not maintained whole and faithful, as it was transmitted and consecrated in Holy Scripture, the tradition of the Fathers, the consent of the Church, and in the general councils and decrees of the Sovereign Pontiffs. Let those who defend the cause of unity take heart then; armed with the helmet of faith, holding firmly to the anchor of hope, burning with the fire of charity, may they work with all their zeal at this most divine task. And God, the Father and friend of peace, the master of times and of hours, will hasten the day where the peoples of the East will return triumphant to Catholic unity and, in union with the Apostolic See, purified from all error, will enter the port of eternal salvation."
(Source: SSPX/GH—DICI no.297, 6-6-2014)
1 La Documentation Catholique [hereafter DC], #1417, February 2, 1964, col. 187, note 1. L’Osservatore Romano, January 10, 1964.
2 The patriarch Athenagoras saluted Pope Paul VI under this title three times in a letter dated November 22, 1963. See DC#1417, col. 195-196.
3 DC, #1417, col. 194.
4 DC, #2077, 1-15 August, 1993, #22, p. 713.
5 DC, #2077, #14, p. 712.
6 DC no. 1064, March 12, 1950
7 DC no. 1912, Feb. 16 1986, p. 183. Also see Fr. Daniel le Roux, Peter, Lovest Thou Me? (Fideliter 1988), p. 106.
8 In the common declaration of 1964 as in that of 2014, requests for mutual forgiveness for faults committed in the past against unity. Pope St. Pius X did justice to the unworthy accusations made against the Apostolic See in his Letter Ex quo nono of December 26, 1910 “in which a text on the question of the return of the Churches to Catholic Unity is sanctioned.” [in relation see also Pope Benedict XIV's 1756 encyclical, Ex quo—On the Euchologion] Translated from Documents pontificaux de Sa Saintete Saint Pie X [Pontifical documents of His Holiness St. Pius X], Publications du Courrier de Rome, 1993, tome 2, p. 308-311.
9 St. Pius X, Letter to the clergy of the Eastern Church concerning the return of the Churches to Catholic unity, Dec. 26, 1910.