Some time ago, my (online) friend Bryce Laliberte, now of Anarcho-Papist, wrote an interesting piece on his old blog, Amtheomusings, about the possibility of reunion between the Roman Catholic Church (to which he belongs) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (to which I belong.) Laliberte is, as is typical of Catholics, far more optimistic for such a reunion than am I (or most traditionalist Orthodox.)
I have linked to Laliberte’s post above; if you haven’t read it, please go do so now, as the rest of this response will assume that you have read it and are familiar with it or can at least refer back to it as necessary.
Laliberte’s summary of the problems between his communion and my own is not a bad one, overall and as traditionalist/conservative Roman Catholic interpretations go; he neither dismisses the differences as inconsequential nor resorts to invective against the ‘Greek schismatics’. But he fundamentally misunderstands the Orthodox conception of doctrine and authority, and in doing so he underplays the amount of difference that exists between our churches, by dramatically understating how many doctrines the Eastern Orthodox Church actually has.
Take a look at this sampling of quotes from Laliberte’s article:
‘All doctrines in Orthodoxy Catholicism accepts.’
‘So, all ecumenical councils before the Great Schism the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are agreed on; the difference is that the Orthodox Church doesn’t believe that any ecumenical councils have been held.’
‘The difference then lies in that Catholicism has developed its doctrines for the last 1000 years, whereas the Orthodox has effectively not. The Catholic Church has more doctrines than the Orthodox Church, such as the filioque, papal infallibility, and even counter-intuitively, the canon of Scripture.’
The problem here is that Laliberte identifies Orthodox ‘doctrine’ as existing only in the proclamations of the Ecumenical Councils (we’ll leave aside for now the murky issue of the eighth and ninth Ecumenical Councils, and also the significantly less murky matter of the Quinisext Council or ‘Council in Trullo’, both of which would be problematic for Laliberte’s claim of agreement up to the point of seven ecumenical councils and then no further development on the Orthodox side). This is not really an accurate understanding of where Orthodox doctrine comes from. To claim, for instance, that the Orthodox ‘have no doctrine’ when it comes to the issue of the canon of Scripture, because said canon has not been dogmatised by an Ecumenical Council, is dubious at best.
The Orthodox Church finds Her doctrine in Holy Tradition. However, Holy Tradition is found in the entire life of the Church, in the entire consensus fidelium. We cannot accept the Roman idea that the Tradition ‘grows’ or that doctrine ‘develops’; we do not have any ‘new doctrines’ unknown to the Apostles. The Councils do not establish new doctrines but merely defend against attack the same doctrines we have always held.
His Excellency, Metropolitan +KALLISTOS (Ware) of Diokleia, writes the following on the subject of Holy Tradition:
To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons, etc. In essence, it means the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.
Thus, we can see that Laliberte makes an error by limiting Orthodox doctrine to only the proclamations of the Ecumenical Councils, and in so doing dramatically understates the amount of doctrine that we in fact have.
For example: It is simply not correct to say that the Catholic Church has developed the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope while the Orthodox Church has remained silent, as if the Orthodox Church could tomorrow simply ‘catch up’, ‘develop’ this novel doctrine, and move on without abandoning any doctrines we now hold. This is not the case. Rather, we have advanced, counter to papal supremacist claims, a competing, incompatible ecclesiology that stresses the headship of Christ over the Church and the fundamental equality of all bishops, with what hierarchy exists among them a mutable, human, oikonomic institution. This is an Orthodox doctrine, albeit not one laid out with the force and clarity of an Ecumenical Council.
Similarly, our different understanding of Original Sin, our position in the hesychast controversy, and our understanding of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone are all doctrines, not merely the lack of some doctrine propounded by Rome.
Ultimately, no reunion can take place without one Church or the other simply admitting it was wrong and being more or less subsumed into the other. I do not believe there can be any way around the claim that exactly one Church is wrong and has been since the schism, except to argue that both Churches are wrong. If a reunion were to take place on these terms, we could not have the Orthodox Church reenter communion with the Catholic Church while the one remained Orthodox and the other Catholic. One or the other Church must surrender Her identity as she has come to understand it. An Orthodox Church that accepted the Papacy simply would not be Orthodox, in the way we use that term now, and a Catholic Church that renounced the filioque would be in much the same position.