Why “De unione ecclesiarum”?

September 8, 2007

De unione ecclesiarum, meaning “On the Union of the Churches,” is the title of one of John Bekkos’s theological writings. It is actually an abbreviated Latin translation of a full title which, in the original Greek, goes like this: Περι της ενωσεως και ειρηνης των της παλαιας και νεας Ρωμης εκκλησιων, “On the Union and Peace of the Churches of Old and New Rome.” John Bekkos wrote this work, in all likelihood, shortly after the beginning of his patriarchate, i.e., sometime during the years 1275 or 1276 (though internal evidence leads me to think that he added some sections to it after this). This was during the time of the “Union of Lyons”: Bekkos wrote this work in defense of an ecclesiastical union between the Greek and Latin Churches which had just taken place, which he hoped would bring an end to the schism of the Churches which had already lasted some two hundred years, a schism which, in Bekkos’s view, lacked genuine theological grounds and had been the occasion of the ruin of his people.

As it happens, the Union of Lyons did not last for more than eight years. Bekkos was condemned by local synods at Constantinople in the years 1283 and 1285, defrocked, excommunicated, and died in prison in the year 1297 (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarch_John_XI_of_Constantinople). Another attempt to heal the schism of the Churches, at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39), also failed: although some Eastern Christians accepted that union, the majority rejected it, and continue to do so. The division of the Churches, which in Bekkos’s day had lasted already two hundred years, is now closing in upon a millennium. And, although with God all things are possible, anyone who thinks that this division of the Churches is near to a commonly acceptable solution must be accounted exceedingly naive.

So why a blog titled “De unione ecclesiarum”? If it is not the view of the author of this blog that a union between the Churches is imminent, what good does it do?

Like many things to be found on the blogosphere, this blog arises out of somewhat self-serving purposes. It is, in part, an attempt by its author to get some writing done on a book he is struggling to finish; it is also an attempt by the same author to address issues which have been troubling him for many years. The question of the division of the Churches is, obviously, not only an historical question, but a question of discerning Jesus’ presence and will here and now. The weight of a thousand years of hatred, violence, and misunderstanding can easily deform the soul, making it cynical and slothful, preventing it from seeking truth, from acknowledging truth where it sees it, and from acting upon the truth that it knows. The author of this blog recognizes these deformations in himself. He is not always certain of the solution to historical and theological questions; he is quite certain that cynicism and the breeding of contempt are a bad response. This blog has been begun in the hope that it might make cynicism and contempt a little less prevalent, in himself and others.

Bekkos is not widely known. But Bekkos was the first person in the Greek-speaking world to give a concerted theological response to the problem of the schism, and his analysis of the theological problems, and the rejection of that analysis by men like Gregory of Cyprus, still largely sets the terms in which theological dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics takes place. To put it in other terms: Bekkos is the first and most important Greek critic of the doctrine of the ninth-century Patriarch Photius, who was himself, in turn, the first and most important Greek critic of Latin trinitarian doctrine. Photius thinks that the Latin filioque, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is positively heretical; Bekkos thinks that Photius has misread the Greek fathers, and promoted his criticisms of Latin doctrine for his own personal reasons. It was Photius’s criticisms of the filioque that provided the arsenal for virtually all later Orthodox polemics against Latin trinitarian doctrine, and still does. It was Bekkos’s counterarguments that persuaded at least some people, at the Council of Florence, that the Latin doctrine was orthodox, i.e., compatible with what the Greek fathers themselves taught about the Holy Trinity. Thus, Bekkos is indirectly a major cause why today there exist Eastern-rite Catholics, i.e., Christians who worship with essentially the same liturgical forms as the Orthodox but are in communion with the see of Rome.

It is not the purpose of this blog to try to unravel all the tangled historical problems that enter into what the Orthodox call the “problem of Uniatism,” a formulation which Eastern Catholics object to vigorously since it implies the illegitimacy of their own ecclesial being. As is often the case with religious antagonisms, questions of theological truth, in the matter of the schism, become translated into practical questions of this or that people’s right to exist. In America, we have arrived at a happy solution to religious antagonism: everyone has the right to exist, no one has the right to take religious questions seriously. In other places and times, this happy solution has not prevailed, and disputes over this or that people’s right to exist very frequently have ended in this or that people being liquidated. The history of Orthodox-Catholic relations has been marked by this unhappy dynamic. The Orthodox see Eastern Catholics (rather as a bull sees a waving red flag) as a visible sign of Rome’s denial of their own ecclesial being; Eastern Catholics, as mentioned, see Orthodox rantings about “Uniatism” in quite the same way. Each side has a long historical catalogue of atrocities to which it can point, some from not so very long ago. On both sides, the cultivation of these resentments is widely employed as a tried-and-true method for ensuring social cohesion.

There was already a catalogue of atrocities at the time John Bekkos was writing, and he was vividly aware of them. Nevertheless, he tried to look beyond them, and see what was the theological core of the problem. This blog is being written upon the premise that John Bekkos’s theological investigations into the causes of the schism are still worth examining today. And, while it is certainly true that we have learned some things in the past 700 years, it may well be that we have also forgotten some things of real importance, and that Bekkos can help remind us of some of them.

2 Responses to “Why “De unione ecclesiarum”?”

  1. […] John IX (Bekkos) of Constantinople (+1297), an early advocate of Orthodox-Catholic reunion. He explains the purpose of his blog: De unione ecclesiarum, meaning “On the Union of the Churches,” is the title of one of John […]

  2. […] looking through old notes. It resembles in some ways a posting from September of this year, titled “Why ‘De unione ecclesiarum’?” Both essays begin with similar questions, trying to justify the idea of taking John Bekkos […]

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