Fr. Paul on the “Timisoara incident”
May 29, 2008
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.
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.