A brief preface to the following post is in order. First, by now the news of Metropolitan Nicolae of Banat’s reception of communion at a Catholic liturgy in Timisoara this past weekend (first reported in English by Catholic World News) has become widely known. Secondly, some months ago I suggested to an English Catholic priest, now serving in Greece, who goes by the internet name of “Fr. Paul,” and who is also now working on John Bekkos, that he become a second author on this blog. In response to the controversy surrounding the incident in Timisoara, he has finally taken up that offer.

I would only add that, when Fr. Paul compares Metropolitan Nicolae’s actions, and the probable reasons behind them, with those of John Bekkos seven hundred years ago, I am fully in agreement with him. Bekkos saw the division between the Churches to be based on a reading of patristic tradition that, in the end, did not stand up to scrutiny; he did not see union as calling for a repudiation of his own Church or of its theological inheritance. He saw a continuation of the status quo as, first and foremost, an offense against God, and, secondly, disastrous to his own community. Doubtless Metropolitan Nicolae of Banat has come to some similar conclusions.

bekkos


Some reflexions on the “Timisoara incident”

In choosing this title for this post I am reminded of an incident which shook the Anglican Communion in 1913. The “Kikuyu” incident, which led to the defection of very many Anglican clergymen of the High Church party for the Roman Catholic Church, involved the practice of “intercommunion” between Anglicans and non-conformists at a large gathering in what was then British East Africa. The High Church party saw this as a betrayal of the Anglican claim to catholicity and apostolicity in faith and Church order. A commission set up by the Archbishops of the Church of England to rule on the matter came to a conclusion which Ronald Knox, yet an Anglican, famously summarized in this satirical manner: “What happened at Kikuyu was eminently pleasing to Almighty God and must on no account be repeated”.

On 25th May, it appears that the Romanian Orthodox Bishop of Banat received Communion at a Greek Catholic Liturgy in Timisoara. Reading some internet reactions, one is led to think that both the confusion and the anger aroused by the Kikuyu incident are being repeated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches today. On a much-read RC blog one can read that it is a “scandal” that “our” sacrament is being given to “heretics and schismatics”. I have not yet read some of the more extreme Orthodox internet zealots on the question, but even so fair-minded and irenical a commentator as the respected Fr Gregory Jensen says he finds the Metropolitan’s actions inappropriate. Perhaps it is appropriate, in this blog dedicated to the “union of the Churches”, to reflect on the meaning and implication of such a gesture for the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and for the ecumenical dialogue between them.

First of all, it must be acknowledged that the event is of a great deal of significance, at least as far as it concerns the ecclesiological position of Metropolitan Nicolae himself. Those who have reacted in whatever manner to the incident have recognized at least the very grave (in the sense of “weighty” or “significant”) import of such an act. As they and the Anglicans who reacted to the Kikuyu incident realize, and as many – maybe most – of the practitioners and advocates of the more casual “intercommunion” we witness in much of Western Europe and North America, for example, fail to realize, it is not just a matter of being “nice”, or “tolerant” or “non-judgemental”, or of corresponding to any of the other fuzzy, touchy-feely catch phrases which muddy the ecumenical waters today.

It is not even a matter of “charity”, at least not in the vaguely sentimental acceptation of that word which has made it so suspect in the minds of many who today present themselves as champions of the truth. The latter will not fail to remind us that charity cannot be served at the expense of truth. Let us not forget however that – as the latter day zealots so often forget – abusus non tollit usum. The fact that charity is a much abused concept does not entitle us to presume that we may set aside all appearance of respect, courtesy and fairness to those with whom we disagree, on the pretext of combating indifferentism and the intellectual sloth and sleight-of-hand which are so often the latter’s companions in arms. We may – we must – suppose that the metropolitan of Banat is neither a knave nor a fool, and that he is aware of the ecclesiological implications of his gesture. We should suppose too, I think, that he is aware of its implications for himself personally, and that he is not only willing to face the controversy, dismay and indeed opprobrium which it will certainly bring upon him, but that he considers that these things are lesser evils in comparison with a greater evil which he believes that he may be helping to overcome.

First, as a Catholic, and before I venture on the less safe ground of speculating what this event might mean in the context of Orthodox involvement in ecumenical outreach with the Catholic Church, let me say some words on what it means from the Catholic point of view. Metrpolitan Nicolae was admitted to communion at a Liturgy celebrated by a bishop in communion with Rome, and indeed, by all accounts, in the presence of the Papal Nuncio to Romania. The Catholic Church has in recent years modified its discipline on “intercommunion”; under the 1917 code of Canon Law it was specified (Canon 731 §2) that no-one not in communion with the see of Rome could receive the Eucharist from a Catholic minister without first making a formal adhesion to the Catholic Church. The 1983 code (Canon 844 §3) admits to Communion (and to Penance and Anointing of the Sick) any Christian who is a member of an Eastern Church not in Communion with Rome, who spontaneously asks for it and is “properly disposed”. In the case of Christians belonging to ecclesial bodies which the Catholic Church considers not to have valid sacraments (apart from Baptism of course), they may be given Communion if they fulfil the afore-mentioned conditions, if there is “danger of death or some other, pressing need” and if they adhere to the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist (ibid. §4). It is forbidden to local hierarchies to draw up their own norms on this (as would be normal whenever universal norms require adaptation to local circumstances) without consulting the hierarchies of the separated Church or Churches concerned, at least at local level.

It is easy to see that the reception of Communion by Metropolitan Nicolae is within these norms. The Catholics who disagree with his having been given Communion cannot deny that. The good Metropolitan is a member of an Eastern Church, he spontaneously asked, and we must suppose that as an Orthodox bishop he was properly disposed to receive the sacrament, since he celebrates it for his own flock regularly. Since it was an isolated act, there is no necessity according to the letter of the law for the local Orthodox hierarchy to be consulted; but since he is the legitimate local Orthodox hierarch, we may even opine that the spirit of the law was perfectly observed. It is certainly within the rights of those Catholics who object to believe that Canon 844 is a bad law, but they cannot deny that it is the law of the Catholic Church, and that here it was applied.

They might, however, wish that the position of the 1917 Code had been maintained. That position is – in point of fact – also more or less the position of the Orthodox Church, whose Canons, as I understand it (but on this I am woefully ignorant and thus cannot quote them precisely – will readers please correct or complete my information here?), forbid not only an Orthodox receiving a sacrament from a non-Orthodox minister, but also any participation in non-Orthodox worship (forbidden also, mutatis mutandis, by the RC 1917 Code as communicatio in sacris).

All three of these canonical disciplines, of course, reflect an ecclesiology. The ecclesiology of the 1917 Code has it that there is on earth one visible Church of Christ, and you are either in or out of it, and that Church is formally identical with the Catholic Church – that it to say, with the Churches in communion with the bishop of Rome. There is only black and white. There are no shades of grey. This is the ecclesiology of the bull Unam Sanctam. It is the ecclesiology of Vatican I, and therefore quite logically of the Code of Canon Law promulgated almost fifty years after that Council.

The new Code was promulgated in the wake of another Council; and it is therefore quite logical that it should reflect the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Now, I am not at all an advocate of what Benedict XVI has called termed the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”. I do not believe that Vatican II was a “new Pentecost”, at least not if that means it was a new start which overthrows and obliterated all that went before. I am a Catholic priest, and I believe that I am intellectually honest, and so I will remain in the Catholic Church only as long as I believe it to be the Church of Christ. Since that Church is indeed one, and since it has to be visible on earth if Christ’s will is to have been efficacious, then you are either in it or you are not. The question, however, is how you are in it, and what makes you outside it.

I am convinced that the ecclesiology of Vatican II is in substantial continuity with the previous teaching, but that it is not identical with it. I believe that it preserves everything in it which is divinely revealed, while it renews it by bringing out better than was done for centuries its deeper and more authentic context in the wider Tradition. It does this notably by enriching an understanding of the Church which is incomplete, because excessively, indeed almost exclusively juridical. I believe that Christ wished there to be in His Church an authority of binding and losing, that that authority resides in the apostles and the college of bishops who are their successors, and that He wished the bishop of Rome to be the universal primate, exercising within that college a true authority as an indispensable reference point of unity and truth. I believe that this is what was implied by the practice of appeal to Rome as practiced in the first millennium, and that the language of universal jurisdiction and infallibility has been the historical expression of this truth in the second millennium – although not always an expression couched in the most felicitous terms. Lastly, I believe that if one did not believe at least this much, it would be dishonest to remain in the communion of the Roman Church.

What Vatican II does is to remind us that the juridical determination of ecclesiastical communion is logically and ontologically posterior to sacramental communion, and that this in turn presupposes a communion in Faith. If our Faith is substantially the same in Jesus Christ as God incarnate and in our salvation in Him, then we have already a certain communion, and if we are baptised then that communion has a firm sacramental basis. I believe in ONE Baptism we say; since there is only one, anyone who has received this Baptism in Faith is already in some sense a member of the Church. Since the Church is One, then anyone who belongs to it is already in an ontological sense in some sort of communion with the other members. If that person belongs to a community which has Priesthood through Apostolic Succession, then that communion is made ontologically much stronger through participation in the Eucharist, which is likewise one, although its celebrations may be divided by time and place, and indeed by schism.

Vatican II speaks of separated Christians as being in imperfect Communion, and teaches that they are not altogether cut off from the Body of Christ, even though this Body is perfectly realised only in the Catholic Church. It says that in the case of the Eastern churches, the reality of apostolic succession means that this communion is almost perfect. I do not think, by the way, that this teaching is in any way repudiated or rescinded by Dominus Jesus or even by the recent Roman clarification which says that the famous subsistit in of Lumen Gentium is not to be interpreted as denying that the RC Church is the Body of Christ. I regret that some opportunities were missed in these documents and some one-sided language used, there is nothing in it to which I cannot subscribe even as I write the above: the RC Church, for the Catholic who believes in His Church, is that Body in its fullness. This does not prevent other Churches from belonging to that Body in truth, even though they may lack all that is required for their belonging to be perfect.

I apologise for the length of the above. It may seem like a digression but it is necessary to understanding my point. Admitting Metropolitan Nicolae, or any other Orthodox Christian who asks for it, to the Holy Eucharist is the practical and sacramental expression of the ecclesiological convictions outlined above. As a Catholic who believes in ecumenism, and in the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which makes ecumenism a Christian imperative, I can only approve and applaud the fact that he was allowed to receive the Body of Christ from our altar. That Body does not belong to us, we belong to it; and so do our Orthodox brethren in Christ.

What then of those Orthodox who demure, who are shocked, maybe even scandalised. Are they wrong? Is their protestation of scandal even pharisaical? I have absolutely no right to chide them or to decry their adherence to the Canonical discipline of their own Church, venerable as it is. The Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church will doubtless be the right forum for discussion of the matter, and indeed for a ruling, at least in the first instance. What I can do is to speculate a little – it can only be that – on what the Metropolitan may have been trying to accomplish, and to express some hopes. I hope my Orthodox brothers will allow me to do so, and that they will afford me the kindness of giving these reflexions a thoughtful consideration.

I wrote above that a Church’s discipline on intercommunion reflects its ecclesiology. The discipline of the Orthodox Church reflects its self-understanding. It believes that it IS the Church of Christ, quite simply. There can be, in the context of this belief, no doubt that there exists no such thing as “intercommunion”. There is only communion. You are in the Church or you are outside it. But are we sure that the Orthodox Church has ever committed itself irrevocably as a Church to any opinion about who is in and who is out?

I will admit to have been a little irritated by some Orthodox reactions to the Roman documents mentioned above. I thought that they were indulging in a certain ad hominem type of argument, playing as it were to the gallery of the ambient relativism, by protesting outrage about the RC Church’s claim to be the one true Church, while failing to come clean about the fact that, mutatis mutandis, they make the same claim for their own Church. There is nothing outrageous about making this claim in fact. There must, as we have said, be a true Church, and it must be One. But the Orthodox Church, as far as I am aware, has never defined in an Ecumenical Council that we Latins are heretics. There exists schism between us, that much is an observable fact. The Latin doctrines of Filioque, Papal supremacy, et cetera are not accepted by the Orthodox Church. There is no doubt that the majority of her theologians, clergy and faithful have, throughout the second millennium, considered them as heresy. Does that suffice, however, to render them such?

This blog is dedicated in the first place to making known the thought of Patriarch John Bekkos. He believed that the schism between the Churches was not justified. He was not some sort of proto-uniate, even less a convert to Roman Catholicism. He did not believe he was leaving the Church of his baptism to join another Church. Quite simply, he became convinced that the arguments purporting to demonstrate that the Latin Church was heretical, for all that they had attained by his day the status of a truism for the immense majority of his countrymen, were unfounded. He was convinced that this conviction in turn implied that the broken communion should be restored, that it should be expressed liturgically through commemoration of the bishop of Rome, and juridically by recognition of the right of appeal to Rome as it had been practiced by his Church in the first Christian millennium. He was unable to convince his contemporaries of his case, and he died in prison rather than renounce his conviction.

Might it be that the gesture of the Romanian Metropolitan expresses a similar conviction? It goes doubtless against the Canons of his Church, but might it be meant to provoke discussion within Orthodoxy and raise the question, in a way which expresses more vividly than mere words could ever do, the same question as Bekkos raised? It does not imply that the Metropolitan has accepted the disputed Latin doctrines. In the present state of the case to do so would be tantamount to conversion to Roman Catholicism. Might it mean that he wishes to imply that one can remain Orthodox while considering that the Latin dogmas, while they might be considered eccentric, indeed erroneous opinions of the Western patriarchate, are not in se heretical? Would not such recognition imply the urgent necessity of restoring communion between us? (Catholic readers who may be incredulous about the feasibility of restored communion without Orthodox acceptance of Latin dogmas should be reminded that the present Pope suggested just such a path in a famous statement when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.)

It is plainly not realistic to hope that such an understanding of the nature of the schism admission be adopted as the official attitude of the Orthodox Church in any presently foreseeable future. Might it be nonetheless an acceptable opinion within Orthodoxy, one capable of being accepted by a significant and influential number of Orthodox thinkers?

To my fellow Catholics, especially those who are shocked or angered by the event at Timisoara, or by my own apologia for it, I will say the following. It is a significant fact, and indeed quite a curious one in its way, that the Catholic Church has never termed the Orthodox Church as heretical. In spite of the Filioque and Papal infallibility having been proclaimed by Councils deemed ecumenical, Rome has never accused our Eastern brethren of anything other than dissidence and schism. Is this mere ecclesiastical diplomacy, a reluctance to pour oil instead of water on the flames of conflict? Rome before Vatican II was not given to diplomacy, yet the “dissident” Eastern bishops were summoned to attend at Trent and Vatican I – recognition if ever there was one of their status as Churches. (Ironically, they were not summoned to Vatican II – because they made it clear beforehand that they would only send the observers which Rome solicited if she refrained from so peremptory an affirmation of her claim to primacy.) Are we sure we have appreciated fully the dogmatic implications of this fact?

Another question which “the Timisoara incident” brings to the fore, this time on the Orthodox side is that of their recognition of Catholic sacraments. In receiving a Catholic sacrament, Metropolitan Nicolae has unambiguously signalled that he, as an Orthodox bishop, recognises it as just that: a sacrament.

Ecumenically minded Orthodox and Catholics on internet are used to ironising about loaded protestations of the graceless character of the Latin Church. Orthodox in the diaspora are wont to see these as almost a prerogative of converts; residence in Greece has taught me that it is by no means considered an eccentric position by the mainstream clergy in Orthodox countries. Not only are converts wishing to join the Athonite communities obligatorily baptised, it is an almost routine practice in the Church of Greece. A senior university professor of theology in Greece a few years ago told a nationwide television audience that he had re-baptised his own Catholic mother. Recently in Giannitsa a young Greco-Catholic layman was re-baptised in view of his coming marriage to an Orthodox girl. Such incidents are not part of a marginal phenomenon. John Paul II was received in Greece only on condition he refrained from wearing any liturgical, priestly insignia in public.

I am aware that the theology of sacramental validity is not the same among Orthodox as among Catholics, and that it is in fact indissoluble from the question already posed about who is in the Church and who is outside. Is it too much to hope, however, that the practice of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and others in receiving convert Catholics without rebaptism might one day become the officially sanctioned practice of all the Orthodox Churches? I am not unaware of the difficulties currently surrounding the possibility of a pan-Orthodox position being defined on any issue at all; but it is difficult to imagine any real progress towards unity without there being recognition by all the mainstream Orthodox Churches that the Latin Church is a Church with true sacraments.

When the Pope was at the Phanar last year (where he was commemorated in a Litany as “bishop of Old Rome”, and received with honours which plainly showed he was viewed there as bishop of a true canonical Church with valid sacraments, as the Athonite community did not fail to notice and to protest at) Patriarch Bartholomew mentioned — almost furtively I thought — an unspecified, concrete initiative in favour of progress towards unity which he would shortly be putting forward. Might it be that the initiative in question is in some sense foreshadowed by the personal initiative of Metropolitan Nicolae? Is it too much to hope that, in spite of the difficulties posed by the internal tensions within Orthodoxy, there might be some progress towards a reciprocal agreement on some limited sacramental expression of our fundamental union in professing the Faith of the (first) Seven Ecumenical Councils, and mutual recognition of ministries?

This little essay is already too long on matters of its author’s opinions, as it has been too short on precise references. I have speculated on the intentions which may have led the Orthodox Metropolitan of Banat to do what he did at Timisoara. It has been my intention to suggest some ways in which his action has raised questions which need to be faced up to by both Catholic and Orthodox. I do not pretend to know if it was really the intention of bishop Nicolae to raise precisely these questions. Doubtless the Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church will want to hear his explanation; and perhaps if he is allowed to deliver it publicly it might become clear which questions he did intend to raise. There can, however, be no reasonable doubt that he did intend to raise questions.

It is not my place to say whether it was in the event helpful to the cause of ecumenism for the Metropolitan to choose this course of action. It is even less my place to say whether it was right from an Orthodox point of view to infringe the discipline of his Church in view of what, as I said at the beginning, we must presume he believed to be a greater good. I have said why, as a Catholic, I believe that it was right for his request to receive communion from a Catholic altar to be granted. Some will see his gesture as a prophetical sign destined one day to bear fruit by the very reason of its provocative nature. Others will say it is well-intentioned but in reality premature and counter-productive. Others still will think it scandalous and sacrilegious. It is not given to me to know which judgement is correct. Only let those who cry “scandal” remember that scandal in its theological meaning is not, as in common parlance, the shock which an action causes to our sensibilities and our comfortable presuppositions, but that which causes us to sin. And let them ask themselves whether complacency in the face of a divided Christendom is not a sin, however much it hides behind rhetoric about not sacrificing truth to gain unity. In the end, truth and unity are the same thing; sin against unity damages our ability to see the fullness of truth.

Maybe the upshot of it all will not be all that far from the wry summary which Ronny Knox gave of the Anglican archbishops’ verdict on Kikuyu. Perhaps the Metropolitan’s motives will be judged eminently pleasing to God, but his action on no account to be repeated, at least for the foreseeable future. If, in spite of this, it manages to make more of us ask ourselves whether our assumptions about the other need to be challenged, just as John Bekkos’ reading and reflection made him ask himself the same question more than seven hundred years ago, then it will not have been entirely fruitless. Similarly, if this reflexion of mine can help provoke a serene and gentlemanly conversation with some Orthodox friends and brethren, then it will have achieved its aim.

Fr Paul

Holy Resurrection Monastery of Newberry Springs, California, a Byzantine Catholic monastery led by Archimandrite Nicholas Zachariadis and including, among its fellowship, Hieromonk Maximos, the author of the Anastasis Dialogue blog, has announced that it plans to sell its property in the Mojave Desert to a nearby Coptic monastery and is seeking to acquire monastic property in the town of Belvidere in western New Jersey, near the Delaware River. The reasons for the move are described here. Essentially, after trying for some years to support themselves by running a bakery, which required them driving two hours each direction, the monks have come to the conclusion that some other means of economic support, more in keeping with their monastic calling, is necessary to the monastery’s survival and well-being. Their goal is to operate a conference center and retreat house, which would be also a center for Christian dialogue and for the “spiritual ecumenism” the monastery endeavors to promote and embody. The monks hope that the property in western New Jersey, with its proximity to both New York City and Philadelphia and to many Eastern Christian parishes, both Catholic and Orthodox, may allow them to fulfill such a vocation.

I have met the monks a number of times; they are good people and have a strong liturgical life, and I am glad to hear that they may soon be my neighbors. I urge readers of this blog to support them financially and with your prayers.

While waiting for a file to download at the library where I can get a fast internet connection, I will write down a few thoughts this evening. Today is my birthday; I was born 49 years ago. I spent most of this day trying to get a Linux distro installed on an aging computer, and finding out, by the end of the day, that the distro is a bit too flashy and sophisticated for my old hardware, and that, if I’m not careful, the whole thing is likely to turn into a useless pile of junk. When last I tried it out, the boot loader was terminally confused, and wouldn’t start. I sympathize with the old machine; sometimes I feel terminally confused and superannuated myself.

An old friend of mine, Brian Keena, telephoned this morning to wish me a happy birthday. Brian these days has his own radio show; he is the “Jazz Messenger” of Charlottesville, VA (WTJU, 10:30 a.m. to noon Eastern time, streaming live on the internet at http://www.wtju.net). If you enjoy jazz, you will undoubtedly enjoy his show. Brian is another New Jersey expatriate whom I have known for something more than 40 years.

I also received e-mails today from my goddaughter, who is expecting her first baby, and from Alan Gordon, who read my last post and suspects that I am the first person ever to have used the word “Brooklyniensis.”

I had intended to celebrate my birthday today by going into the city; instead, having wasted most of the day in computer repair, I went out late in the afternoon, had a cup of tea, and spent an hour or so in a used bookshop (the Chatham Bookseller — see the sidebar). After sorting through possible purchases, in the end I bought three books:

  • Seamus Heaney, tr., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (New York 2000).
  • Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston 1996).
  • John A. Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York: An Essay in Graphic History (New York 1972).

Total cost: $14.98.

* * *

Having finished my download, I left the library and returned home. On my way out, a librarian was standing by the exit, and various people were standing outside, looking at the sky. The librarian told me to stop and look at the rainbow; I obliged her. It seemed to me that God has his own way of sending e-mails. And I thanked him.

Novum Eboracum amo

May 16, 2008

In urbem heri introii amicum videndus veterem Gordium qui (sicut dixi) nuper librum edidit, ex quo exempla esset legiturus in bibliopolio quodam non multum distante ab Aula Civitatis. Adventus ante horam praesignificatam, perambulavi aliquantisper super pontem Brooklyniensis, de quo majesticum urbis poteram aspectum contemplari, aedificia eius procera quam plurima, et, infra, fluvium magnum navibus onustum in mare effluentem. Bibliopolio invento vidi amicum, audivi lectionem, librum emi, quem Gordius amiciter inscripsit; cum illo eiusque familia in taberna coenavi; postea via ferrea electronica Novam in Caesaream et in domum reditus hanc narrationem scripsi.

Today I plan to go into the city to attend a book-signing. For most of my life, i.e., from about the age of six, I have been friends with a certain Alan Gordon; we grew up in the same town in New Jersey, took most of the same classes in school, acted in the same plays and performed in the same band (he played the clarinet, I played the tuba), and his parents taught me piano. These days, when he is not defending the destitute and downtrodden as a lawyer working for the Legal Aid Society in the city of New York, Alan writes mystery novels, set in various places in Europe and the Middle East around the time of the Fourth Crusade; his latest is titled The Moneylender of Toulouse. The Fools’ Guild Mysteries series is based upon two general premises: first, that the court fools of medieval society belong to a common, professional guild, international in extent; second, that this guild is, in fact, a front for an undercover agency, or what one might almost call a religious brotherhood, that is largely devoted to solving crime and preserving international order. The order which is to be preserved is (on the whole) a secular one, a kind of medieval Pax Americana. The forces which seek to disrupt that order are multifarious; they include corrupt persons on every level of society, not surprisingly those in government, but also (perhaps also not surprisingly) those in the Church; indeed, a certain subtext of the novels seems to be the ever-present threat of religious intolerance. The religious beliefs of the protagonists of the novels, the jester Theophilos and his wife Claudia — who, at the end of the first novel, takes up jesterhood as a kind of ascetic vocation — are largely confined to the overwhelming necessity to do good and defeat evil; the existence of God is not a terribly consuming question for them, and, if I recall, it is not something Theophilos (whose name, of course, means “God’s friend”) thinks really worth his time worrying about when there are so many other important things to do. In any case, around this basic theoretical framework the stories are woven with great skill, a lot of action, interesting historical detail, and much humor.

Anyhow, Alan Gordon is an old friend of mine. Buy his books.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day (a secular holiday in America). It happened to coincide this year with the day on which the Orthodox Church remembers the myrrh-bearing women, those followers of Jesus who, after Christ’s crucifixion, came to his tomb early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath, intending to anoint his body with spices, but found the stone on the tomb rolled away and Jesus’ body gone; instead, they found an angel (or a man dressed in white robes) sitting inside the tomb, who informed them that the Lord had risen, and that they should go and tell his disciples and Peter about this; they ran away quite astonished and afraid. The account of these events is found in ch. 16 of the Gospel of St. Mark; the Greek text at Mark 16:8 is very odd (ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ), and gives the impression of someone stopping in mid-sentence.

After liturgy yesterday at the church I attend in New Jersey, I went downstairs for coffee hour, procured myself a cup of tea, ate a piece of a doughnut (most of the doughnuts were already gone by the time I got there), returned a book to the church library, borrowed a CD (Liturgical chants of the Syrian Orthodox Church), spoke briefly with various people, then sat down at a table where the choir had assembled. The choir then practiced a few songs; the rehearsal lasted hardly more than ten minutes. Afterwards, as people in the choir were going their separate ways, one of the members of the choir, a woman in, I would guess, her late 30’s, who has two young daughters, and whose husband also sings in the choir, in the course of chatting with the choir director about this and that, mentioned to her that, this week, she and her husband are filing for divorce.

I do not know this woman or her husband very well; I would assume that most of you, who are reading this blog, do not know them very well either. In any case, it is not for the sake of putting their personal miseries up to public exposure and critique that I bring up their case here. For myself, I publicly acknowledge that I have enough sins upon my own head to sink a large battleship or aircraft carrier; I am not in a position to stand in judgment of someone else. (Glory to Jesus Christ, who bore my sins, and the sins of the whole world, upon the cross, and who does not reject anyone who comes to him.) But I do know for a fact, that the Lord says he hates putting away (Malachi 2:14-16). He says this not once only, but many times, to such an extent that the disciples, in their astonishment, remark to the Lord that, if such be the case with a man and his wife, it is not good to marry (Matthew 19:10). In particular, he specifically, and repeatedly, states that whoever puts away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9; Mk 10:11-12). St. Paul says essentially the same thing, and specifically states that it is the Lord’s commandment, not his own (1 Cor 7:10-11).

And, lest anyone think that this was simply due to the cultural peculiarity of that time, when women were economically at a disadvantage to men and had little means, outside marriage, to support themselves, and that, social conditions now being different, Jesus’ words no longer apply (the usual evasions of cultural relativism) — in refutation of this line of reasoning, Jesus also forbids a woman to put away her husband (Mark 10:12). Marriage, Jesus says, is God’s act; it has been so from the beginning of the world, and, by implication, will remain so till the end of it. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9).

In view of these remarks, I would like briefly to consider the Orthodox Church’s policy with regard to divorce and remarriage.

It is a subject on which I have made no particular study, and can claim no special knowledge. What I have generally heard is that, in concession to human weakness, and by applying the all-purpose principle of “economy” by which general rules are bent to particular circumstances, the Orthodox Church is willing to consecrate second marriages, and even, in rare cases, third ones, but beyond this it will not go, accounting fourth and subsequent marriages as tantamount to bestiality. This prohibition (or concession, depending on how you look at it) evidently became codified early in the tenth century as a result of something called the “Tetragamy” controversy. The emperor at the time, Leo VI (“the Wise”), was, like King Henry VIII six centuries later, desirous of a male heir. His third wife died in childbirth; the son she bore died with her. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mysticus, told the emperor that to take a fourth wife would be worse than fornication. So, instead of marrying, he chose fornication, taking as mistress one Zoe Carbonopsina (“Little Zoe Coal-eyes”). She, in due time, bore him a son, Constantine — the future Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (“Born-in-the-Purple”). To secure legal inheritance of the throne for his son, Leo needed to marry his mistress. Eventually, he did so, over the objections — and cloak-and-dagger palace conspiracies — of Patriarch Nicholas. Leo applied to Pope Sergius III for an indulgence — in the West, marriage customs differed; there was theoretically no limit to the number of times one could marry so long as, each time, one was widowed (cf. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Leo forced Patriarch Nicholas to step down; the new patriarch, Euthymius, agreed to accept Leo’s marriage to Zoe Carbonopsina, but only on condition that the emperor do penance and enact a law forbidding fourth marriages in the future. Presumably, that is the law still in force in the Orthodox Church when, by economy, it allows third marriages but prohibits fourth ones. (See Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society [Stanford, California, 1997], pp. 466 ff., from which I derive most of these details.)

This was certainly not the only Byzantine imperial controversy having to do with marriage laws; the ninth century, in particular, seems to have been full of them. About a century before the Tetragamy controversy, there occurred something called the Moechian (“Adulterous”) controversy. The abbot Plato of Saccudium and his nephew Theodore, later of the Studite monastery at Constantinople (see St. Theodore the Studite: Sermon on Peace), opposed the remarriage of the young Emperor Constantine VI, and broke communion with Patriarch Tarasius for allowing it to go through. (And while we all give thanks for our mothers, we ought also to give thanks not to have had a mother like Constantine VI had, the Empress Irene, who put out his eyes.) Again, in the middle of the ninth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius brought himself into imperial disfavor for opposing the cohabitation of the Emperor Michael III’s uncle and regent Bardas with the young widow of Bardas’ son; this affair was a chief factor in bringing to the patriarchal throne the noted scholar Photius, an event which was to have such profound consequences for Christian unity over the future centuries.

The evident conclusion to be drawn is that, on the issue of divorce and remarriage, the Orthodox Church — while it doubtless acknowledges the Lord’s unequivocal prohibition as a spiritual “ideal” to which the faithful should aspire — in practice recognizes Byzantine civil law as taking precedence over the Lord’s commandment.

That those who dwell in the large house a little to the West, which boasts of its excellent foundations, have the right to cast stones at its eastern neighbors on this issue is not immediately clear to me. There is, in the Catholic Church, a practice called “annulment.” I do not think I exaggerate if I say that, for most American Catholics, the possibility of annulment is viewed as roughly equivalent to the possibility of divorce. And I would guess that the rates of annulment and of broken marriages within the Catholic Church in the United States are not too dissimilar from the rates of divorce among the general population. When I was in college, I knew an Irish Catholic girl from Massachusetts. Her parents later separated; eventually they got an annulment, in spite of the fact that they had had five children together. My friend was quite visibly embittered by this, and, for some years afterward, it caused her to break with the Catholic Church. She said to me: “How do you think it makes me feel? It means that, in the eyes of the Church, I’m a bastard.” I have another friend, whose parents did not take this course, but actually divorced; the mother, who is Catholic, for years did not feel able, or was not allowed, to receive communion, and perhaps is not receiving communion still. The son, who is also Catholic, in due course followed the same unhappy path; he married and, within about a year, divorced. That this has colored his views on life and on his own future deeply, and that these colors are mostly shadowed, goes without saying.

What is the answer to this problem? I don’t know. Are there occasions when human beings so completely manipulate and abuse each other that their living together under the same roof is a detriment to their common sanity? Undoubtedly that occurs. Are there also cases where people who remarry find some sort of stability and happiness in one another? I believe I have seen cases of this, although I am not privy to people’s souls. In any case, on a human, empirical level, there is some evidence to suggest that the Orthodox Church’s policy of allowing second marriages is not a complete betrayal of the Lord’s will for human good: there are second marriages that seem to “work,” although there are also, without doubt, second marriages where the underlying reasons for the first marriage’s failure never really were attended to, and reappear in the second marriage in another form.

I cannot, however, get over the explicitness and urgency of the Lord’s statements. He seems to be saying that human beings, infinitely adept at deluding themselves and justifying themselves, will take every measure to get out of what seems to them a miserable situation except the one measure which is most vital and essential, which is to change their own hearts. “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:7-8). So many people, it seems to me, assume that love is what they already have when they go into a marriage; and when some initial romantic feelings dry up under the pressure of practical reality, and what they originally thought they saw in the other person proves, on closer inspection, not to be there, they conclude that the marriage has been a failure. It seems to me that Jesus is saying, rather, that love is what comes out of a marriage; just as, when he speaks of eating, he says that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of the man, i.e., out of his heart (Mt 15:10-20), so also, in the case of marriage, it is not the various emotions that draw two people into a marriage that constitute their love for one another, but the change that each allows the other to work upon their hearts through this divine necessity of their mutual, life-long commitment. In brief, marriage is a sacrament because, like all sacraments, it is a God-ordained means for the salvation of the human person. It is God’s school in which the selfish, self-centered human soul, in answer to the most basic desires of its nature, learns to care about and for another person, and perhaps many persons (i.e., children). The permanency of that school is essential to its communicating its salutary lessons. If Jesus is saying anything at all in the things he says about marriage, he is saying that this state of mutual self-giving of a man and a woman is holy, it is God’s sanctuary, given for the purposes of life and salvation, and woe to anyone who would break it.

After church yesterday, I visited my mother. That is to say, I drove to the place where she is buried, and sang there the Trisagion prayers for those who are departed. My father and mother were married for 52 years, and had three children, of whom I am the youngest. Like most children, I had very little sense of what I was given. The love of my parents for one another was like an atmosphere that one simply took for granted, even during its occasional storms. I really had no idea how fortunate I was.

St. Theodore the Studite, Sermo XI (Dominica prima): Doctrina de pace (from Sermons of the Small Catechesis). Translated from the Greek text in A. Mai and J. Cozza-Luzi, eds., Nova Patrum Bibliotheca, tomus IX (Rome 1888), pp. 26-28.

Brothers and fathers:

Sunday is the day of peace. For in it the Lord, having despoiled the mongerings of war, said to his disciples: “Peace be unto you” (Jn 20:19). And in saying this, he did not proclaim peace to them alone, and only on that day, but to all and always he announces this same peace — just as he does even to us, in our lowliness. Therefore let us have peace, and be, in ourselves, peacemakers — on the one hand, according to the outer man, having that peace which harbors no enmity towards any of the brethren, but is lovingly disposed towards everyone: for, he says, “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35); and, on the other hand, also with respect to the inner man, so that we may live in peace and quiet from destructive passions. For thus we may say with the Apostle, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we may boast in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2).

But since we are of a mutable nature, and since it happens that grievous storms and distempers take place in us — for, at such times, it comes about quite suddenly — let us hasten to return to our former state, having peace with God. For “he himself is our peace, who has made one thing out of both, and has broken down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his own flesh the enmity, the law of commandments in dogmas, so that he might, in himself, refashion the two into a single new man, creating peace, and might reconcile us both to God in a single body, having slain the enmity in himself through the cross” (Eph 2:14-16). These things the Apostle says. And this is the work which the Lord has finished, as he says to his own Father: “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (Jn 17:4) — that is to say, I have made peace between things on earth and things in heaven, while he has made us, by being in him, to be sons of peace and of love.

But if someone says: How is it possible for us not to be always at war, since the Apostle says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against authorities, against the global powers of the darkness of this era, against spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph 6:12)? To that we may say: Because this was in order to indicate of what kind and how great the war is; it was not to indicate that war should be our way of life. For he says elsewhere: “Casting down logismoi (ratiocinations) and every high thing lifted up against the knowledge of God, and leading away captive every concept into the obedience of Christ, and having a readiness to avenge every disobedience” (2 Cor 10:5-6). But, when someone is of such a disposition, it is clear that he has subdued warfare and practices peace.

And let me not somehow appear a burden to you, my brethren, when I say such things, and when I busy myself with things of this kind and scrutinize and investigate this and that; for this is not unprofitable, but altogether serviceable, in that speech paves a way towards action. And let other people, as many as are worldly, speak about things of the world, about agriculture, about commerce, about gain, about loss, about other vain preoccupations. But as for us, what else should we speak about (if we must say something), if not about the soul, about deliverance from passions, about being parted from the body, about the coming of Christ’s tribunal, about judgment, about retribution, about the very kingdom of heaven? Of that kingdom may we be the inheritors, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For to him is due glory and power, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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