Vatican II and Eastern Orthodoxy’s Approaching Council

There are stylistic and substantial differences between the upcoming Great and Holy Council of Orthodoxy and the Second Vatican Council, but also three important similarities.

After much anticipation, the Great and Holy Council (GHC) of Orthodoxy is finally set to begin in mid-June on the island of Crete. After decades of discussion and preparation, including much recent commentary on the draft documents that were published—commentary to which I have myself contributed in official Orthodox venues—the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches from around the world will gather to deliberate on some issues unique to them, and on other issues that are very familiar to Catholics. 

How are Catholics to view this upcoming GHC? Naturally for most Catholics the analogue closest to hand is Vatican II. And in certain respects this GHC will be similar to Vatican II—a gathering of bishops, with theological advisors, trying to grapple with both old and new challenges to the Christian life today.

But in other crucial respects the GHC will be both different in itself, and very likely be very different in its aftermath also. (Let me go on record as hoping that its aftermath is indeed very different from what happened in the Catholic Church after 1965!) A great deal of the difference stems, of course, from the fact that there is no centralized papal authority in Orthodoxy, a fact that I discussed in detail in my 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy.

Stylistic Differences

Other differences are merely superficial, such as size (Orthodoxy’s GHC will be much smaller than Vatican II because Orthodoxy is much smaller—approximately 250 million faithful compared to well over 1 billion Catholics); or length: Vatican II met in four sessions, running to many weeks, over four years whereas the GHC is only meeting from June 16-27, 2016. Whether future meetings can be expected after this one remains to be seen, and will very likely depend on how acrimonious this first meeting is.

Preparation has also differed: Vatican II was a surprise council, announced in January 1959, and convened in October 1962. Orthodoxy’s GHC is no surprise at all, having been talked about in some form for nearly a century now since a partial, informal gathering was held in Constantinople in 1923. More proximate preparation began in 1961, but more serious and more immediate preparation was not begun until 1976, the first (of several) pre-conciliar pan-Orthodox consultations over the last forty years to work out an initial agenda.

Substantial Differences

The ten-point agenda from 1976 has continued to guide discussions to the present day. More than half the agenda items had no corresponding Catholic counterpart a decade earlier at Vatican II. Only the final three treat issues that Vatican II also addressed, and with similar difficulties and controversy as we now find in Orthodox discussions.

A Catholic looking at this Orthodox agenda (and doing so, I stress, without the slightest bit of triumphalism for the modern papacy is, as we have been learning recently, a double-edged sword) could easily see that the first four items are all questions of leadership that could not really arise in the Catholic Church under the modern centralized papacy: Thus the questions of the Orthodox diaspora, of autocephaly and its manner of proclamation, of autonomy and its manner of proclamation, and of the diptychs were never on the agenda of Vatican II.

Diaspora: Most Orthodox churches began, and maintain roots in, some “homeland” or other—Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, etc.—but have, thanks to modern immigration, existed in Western Europe, North America, and Australasia for over a century in some cases. How should a Greek parish in Manhattan, say, or a Russian parish in Palermo, or a Ukrainian one in Montreal relate to both its surrounding culture and to its homeland? What language should liturgy be in—Greek or English, Russian or Italian, Ukrainian or French? Should these “diasporic” parishes be more self-governing, or continue to report to bishops back home? Catholic ecclesiology, with a much stronger “universalist” and trans-national thrust, scarcely regards such questions as worth asking. A parish founded by, say, Irish Catholics in Boston reports to the archbishop of Boston, not to some bishop in Ireland.

Autocephaly and Autonomy: Following on from the above, when an entire diocesan, regional, and national structure gets set up in a new country, does it continue to report to the old country and be accountable to bishops and synods there, or can it be granted total independence (autocephaly) or partial independence (autonomy) in its new place? The dispute here is whether the “mother-church” grants such independence or whether doing so is a prerogative that belongs exclusively to the Ecumenical Patriarch. Again, Catholic ecclesiology and canon law don’t even consider these as live issues for Catholics because the pope himself (Sovereign Pontiff indeed!) is the only truly “independent” authority in the Church: “the first see is judged by nobody,” as canon 1404 of the Latin code bluntly puts it.

Diptychs: The diptychs are merely prayers in the liturgy which commemorate by name the bishop with whom one is in communion, and the bishops in communion with him. (Latin Catholics also do this during the eucharistic prayer, when the celebrant prays for “Francis our pope and Kevin our bishop.”) The usual practice is to name these bishops by the seniority of their see, starting with the ancient patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem), but there are several problems here for the Orthodox: does the lack of full communion with Rome justify moving Constantinople into the first place, and perhaps granting additional authority to it? And what about patriarchates created in the second millennium—Moscow, Bucharest, Sofia, and others? Finally, if one church’s autocephaly is not recognized by others, how, if at all, should one pray for them?

If the foregoing four issues were not on the agenda of Vatican II, thanks largely to a different Catholic ecclesiology and the role of the modern centralized papacy in dealing (often unilaterally) with many structural issues, then the next three items on the GHC agenda were not discussed at Vatican II either, though for different reasons.

First, the matter of a common calendar has almost never been a serious issue in Catholic circles since the sixteenth century. The only treatment of this issue at Vatican II comes in its ecumenical debates, when it briefly called for Christians to work towards one common celebration of Easter (Orientalium Ecclesiarum no. 20). But Orthodox attempts to adopt a common calendar since 1923 have led to schisms in places such as Greece and Romania, which remain unhealed today. (As I argued last summer, calendar questions are absurdly vexed because they have nothing to do with science, logic, or reason. They are, rather, emotionally fraught issues of identity.)

Second, the question of adaptation of church regulations on fasting was not on the agenda of Vatican II because, once more, the papacy unilaterally imposed changes on the entire Latin Church, beginning with Pope Pius XII’s relaxation of the ante-eucharistic fast from midnight to three hours, and then down to one hour under Pope Paul VI. Lenten fasting regulations were similarly changed by papal fiat.

Finally, marriage questions (including contraception) were largely thought too delicate for debate at Vatican II, and so were debated later, and are debated still as we have recently seen with the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Catholic debates have been enormously messy and controverted, and there is little reason to think it will not be similarly messy at the GHC and for some time afterwards. Here the Franciscan papacy has proven to be of no advantage at all, denying Catholics any excuse for smugly assuming they can come up with a more coherent or consistent answer than one finds in Orthodoxy’s more decentralized approach.


Only when we get to the last three items on the GHC’s agenda do we find startlingly similar issues following a remarkably similar trajectory as at Vatican II. The final three issues on the agenda of the GHC were, in fact, on Vatican II’s agenda also:

One should expect no controversy with the last item on the GHC’s agenda—who isn’t in favor of peace and justice?—but the first two have long engendered a furious reaction from some Orthodox, very much like the reaction of some Catholics at and since Vatican II. For the fundamental problem that VII and the GHC have to grapple with is the same: “soteriological exclusivism” (as the Polish theologian Waclaw Hryniewicz called it), that is, both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church believe themselves quite simply to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church proclaimed in the Nicene Creed.

The problem here is that if I think my church the only true church, to the exclusion of all others, then what do I make of those others who claim to follow Christ outside my church—German Lutherans, say, or Brazilian Pentecostals? Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have answered this question in one of three ways. The first, more “traditional” answer in both Catholicism until Vatican II and parts of Orthodoxy still today is the same: such “Christians” are not really Christians at all and their rites and sacraments are utterly null and void. (In this view the pope isn’t a bishop for he isn’t even a Christian, having never been baptized!) The only solution is for these wayward, unbaptized pagans to “return” to “holy mother Church” and become Christians for the first time. This remains a minority view in Orthodoxy, but a vocal one.

An even smaller minority within Orthodoxy (as within Catholicism) takes a relativist approach: anybody who feels himself a Christian and tries to follow Christ is fine. The solution to division is either to just accept it, even perhaps to rejoice in it (“let a thousand flowers bloom!”); or at best to think that we can find unity by setting aside whatever divides us and just focusing on what we have in common. This position has virtually no traction (and certainly no official sanction) within Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but it has proven, for the latter, a useful straw dog to denounce any and all discussions with Catholics and Protestants as being guilty of the “pan-heresy of ecumenism.”

The final approach to this, which may well be the one adopted by Orthodoxy, was the ingenious (inspired?) solution adopted by Vatican II in what I would regard as the most important passage of the entire council:

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.” This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity (Lumen Gentium no.8).

At one stroke, the fathers of Vatican II cut the knot and freed Catholics to maintain their self-understanding while expanding it to see how God was working in the lives of non-Catholics, compelling them and us towards the fullness of catholic unity.

Will Orthodoxy’s GHC take a similar approach? It is hard to tell just now, given how controversial such notions remain. The more likely course seems to be the cautious one: they will avoid taking a stand on this, perhaps waiting for a more opportune time. After all, not having had a pan-Orthodox council of this sort since 787, what’s the sudden rush now?

My hope, for what it’s worth, is that this first meeting will soon give rise to further sessions of the GHC where these and other issues can be slowly worked through. Given Orthodoxy’s fissiparous nature, any haste now will be fatal, leading to fresh schisms. Let us as Catholics pray fervently that the Spirit of truth will serenely guide the fathers on Crete, allowing them in God’s good time to say “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us….”

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).