“Two Families” of Orthodoxy
In our time there is much confusion about where the Church, to allude to a popular aphorism, is and is not, and in what sense, and this even within the communion of Holy Orthodoxy. Debate rages about, for example, whether Roman Catholic priests are real priests, whether Christ might, despite Cranmer’s best efforts, be present in an Anglican Eucharist, whether babies baptized by Methodist priestesses are in fact baptized, and so on. Can we say that some amount of ecclesiality subsists outside the canonical boundaries of the Churches in communion with the Ecumenical See? Some say yes, others no. That’s not a question I plan to address here.
No, the question I plan to address today strikes deeper at the heart of Orthodox ecclesiology than that. Because in the case of the Roman Catholics, everyone (everyone Orthodox, that is) agrees that they are outside the strictest boundaries of the Church. Whether some sacramental grace persists is open for debate (my own views on the matter are widely known) but no one claims that they are somehow just as legitimate a Church as we are. They are, at the very least, “schismatic,” a term which is often misused. A schismatic is a person who differs on no dogmatic point from the Holy Church and keeps her practices, but does so in union with an alternative and unlawful hierarchy, though one which has at least the outward form of valid Holy Orders. A heretic is a person who, though having the form at least of baptism, differs on dogmatic questions from the Church and is separated from Her for that reason. The term “schismatic” is often used incorrectly as sort of a kinder way to describe heretics, but it has a technical meaning which ought to be adhered to.
At any rate, while it would be a stretch to say that Roman Catholics are schismatic rather than heretical, it is a stretch no one in the Orthodox Church attempts to say that they are neither, and that their Church is just as valid as ours.
And yet, when it comes to the matter of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox,” (henceforth, for the sake of brevity, “the Copts,” though I am of course cognizant of the distinction between Coptic ethnicity and Monophysite religion), you hear the rhetoric that our two churches are “two [equally valid] families of Orthodoxy.”
This is branch theory; it’s not Orthodox. The defenders of the Copts argue that Coptic Christology is identical to Orthodox Christology. I would point out that neither our Fathers nor theirs believed that in 451. But even if that’s true, it can only mean one of the following things:
- Their Christology was heterodox in 451, but has since changed and become identical to ours. If this is the case, good for them, but then they need to submit to the Church’s canonical hierarchy, accept Chalcedon, and become Orthodox.
- Our Christology was heterodox in 451, and has since changed and become what theirs was all along. In this case, we are the schismatics and ought to submit to their hierarchy, since they are the ones who kept the faith all along.
- Our Christologies were never different and this was all a big misunderstanding. Again, if that’s the case, great. I’m glad they’re not Monophysites in the sense we long thought. But, if Chalcedon is an Orthodox council, then the canonical hierarchy is the one that emerged from it, and if it’s not, then the canonical hierarchy is the one that rejected it. Either way, one side is Orthodox, and the other is schismatic at best.
Thus, there can be no talk of “two families” of Orthodoxy. The “Oriental Orthodox” are less Orthodox than the Old Calendarists and even the Old Believers. They are arguably less Orthodox than the Roman Catholics. And yet I’ve never heard anyone say that these groups are another “family” of Orthodoxy.
Now, my view of Holy Orders, the defense of which is the topic for another post, is not such that I would claim that any of these groups are utterly without grace. The Church’s practice of receiving these schismatics and heretics without repeating their sacraments of initiation indicates that their juridical, canonical, and even doctrinal separation from the Church has not made their sacraments null and void. But equally, it is simply false, and it does a disservice both to the Church and to those who are inquiring about the Church to deny the schism and heresy that our Fathers clearly knew was there.