In 2010 Ignatius Press published the second (and much improved) edition of Fr. Aidan Nichols’ book Rome and the Eastern Churches. The book remains one of the most perceptive and sympathetic—but not uncritical—treatments of East-West relations by a major Roman Catholic theologian today, deserving a second look on the eve of the historic meeting in Cuba of Pope Francis of Rome and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
The hopes for such a summit have been around for more than thirty years. Why did it take so long for it to happen? In explaining why no pope and patriarch have been able to meet in over thirty years, the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev claimed, in a lengthy passage worth quoting in full, the following:
All these years, the principal problem in the relations between the two Churches and the principal obstacle for holding a meeting between the two Primates has lied in [sic] Unia. The fact that the Uniates devastated three dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate in western Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s, that they moved the headquarters of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church from Lvov to Kiev, that the UGCC’ mission extended to the traditionally Orthodox lands in eastern and southern Ukraine, that they supported the schismatics – all these factors only aggravated the problem. The situation aggravated further as a result of the recent events in Ukraine, in which the UGCC representatives took a direct part, coming out with anti-Russian and russophobic slogans. So, regrettably, the problem of Unia is still there, with Unia, remaining a never-healing blooding [sic] wound that prevents the full normalization of relations between the two Churches.
Reliable scholars have regularly and repeatedly disputed these claims, but not one iota of that scholarship has ever mitigated Moscow’s propaganda. As I explained last year, it has become clear to me on certain issues and with certain Orthodox Christians that we are not dealing in the realms of logic, fact, evidence, or reason. There is, therefore, no point in responding in kind.
Let me, instead, simply accept all these claims of the Russians, including even the pejorative terminology (“uniates”) that many today reprobate as offensive. Following Aidan Nichols’ advice and example, consider what follows as an apologia pro unia.
I am a uniate, and I am not ashamed of being a uniate. The imperative of union—however problematic its execution—is from the Lord. Precisely and only to that extent, then, uniates have nothing to apologize for.
I am of course aware that in 1993 in the so-called Balamand declaration the Catholic Church officially agreed with the Orthodox that there would be no more uniate churches created. I am even more keenly aware that uniates have not always achieved everything they legitimately sought or had a right to. Above all, I am aware more than anything and anyone that uniates are failures and sinners, for I fail regularly, daily, hourly in my Christian duty to love every person (including Russian metropolitans) as God does, and I constantly grieve the Holy Spirit and hinder His efforts to reconcile all people in Christ. (This is not pious guff on my part, as my wife will hasten to tell you.) On the eve of Great Lent (according to the Gregorian calendar), I follow the Byzantine practice of asking forgiveness of everyone for all these failures.
And yet, with full knowledge of all these failures, I make bold to claim that uniates have nothing to apologize for only insofar as our vocation is from the Lord, who wants all His followers to be one. Our task remains as it always has: to show that it is possible to be fully Orthodox and fully Catholic, fully in communion with both East and West without diminution of any part of our patrimony and without sacrificing any legitimate diversity in the cause of unity.
This is a task that has always remained unfulfilled, as it does today. Relations between Eastern Catholics and the wider Latin Church are not perfect (see my January 2014 article “Roman Rights and Wrongs” for more on this), and never have been. But you can say that about any aspect of Christian life! None of us are perfect; none of us are where we should be; we are all still in via.
All of us—to use Alfeyev’s graphic if ungrammatical expression—suffer “never-healing blooding wounds” which await final healing in the resurrection. And yet our lack of healing now in no way excuses us from attempting to bind up the wounds we have caused to the Body of Christ. As Mother Teresa so wisely put it, God asks us not to be successful but only faithful.
To that extent, then, uniates must continue unapologetically to be faithful to the vision and mandate of being fully Eastern while in communion (“united but not absorbed” as Pope Paul VI put it with reference to his hopes for Anglican-Catholic unity) with the Western Church. That vision remains a desideratum. It remains, as Fr. Nichols put it, an eschatological hope and vocation. But it is no less imperative or legitimate for that, just as the elimination of hunger, war, and suffering remain imperative-but-eschatological achievements also.
For these reasons, then, I refuse to apologize for being a uniate, and I should like Pope Francis to likewise refuse any demands of Patriarch Kirill for such an apology, now or ever. Indeed, to return to Fr. Nichols, millions of Eastern Catholics should be thrilled to hear from Francis not an apology but instead as robust a defense as Nichols himself offered: “Rightly understood, it [‘uniate’] is a beautiful word” (p 19) because it is an answer to the prayer of the Byzantine great ektenia: “for the welfare of the holy Churches of God, and the union of them all.”