When I got involved officially in the ecumenical movement in Canada in 1988, I was something of a young Turk who thought we needed some strong leadership at the top to hammer together a few pellucid doctrinal statements permitting no questions but demanding complete assent from everybody. I knew—or thought I knew—exactly who was in and who was out. Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox were in because all of us claimed apostolic succession and sacraments. Once we achieved unity en bloc, we could then dictate terms de haut en bas to the sordid and shabby Protestants, whose fractiousness would melt away in a pique of gratitude for whatever scraps we fed them from our high table (where, my then 17-year-old Anglican self fantasized, I would one day be seated as archbishop of Canterbury in secret talks with the pope of Rome and patriarch of Constantinople).
My 45-year-old self now finds fatuous that whole fantasy, not least because, in 1991, I left home to study psychology, and have never stopped thinking in psychoanalytic categories. From Freud—and later Alasdair MacIntyre and the Eastern Fathers—I learned the value of questions and an apophatic suspicion of overly tidy answers. I’m glad to see that the latest statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (NAOCTC) also raises some psychologically invaluable questions about the prospects for East-West unity. In fact, their newest statement, released this week, begins and ends with questions, and these are both more valuable and certainly more interesting than what is found in many ecumenical statements.
The questions here concern authority. In broad terms these are the same questions I attempted to treat eight years ago in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011), the same ones that Christians have been talking about since at least 1995, the year the landmark encyclical Ut Unum Sint raised the question of how and where we might find new models for the exercise of the papacy.
None of us has totally answered these questions yet because they are so complex, involving many further questions about universal, regional, and local authority; synodality and primacy; the relationship between historical practices and doctrinal claims; and the interplay between structures of the Roman Empire and those of the Church now living in a vastly different world. And in fact the new statement from NAOCTC rightly begins by asking whether we need one single answer to the problems of primacy, authority, and synodality:
Is it necessary, or even desirable, that we have absolutely identical understandings? Perhaps the ecumenical model of differentiated consensus is of service here.
“Differentiated consensus” allows for broad agreement on major issues, but tolerates diversity of thought and practice on what are regarded as secondary or tertiary issues. This has long seemed to me the only realistic and hopeful prospect of Christian unity: we can agree on the importance of unity with the pope, but it is neither necessary nor theologically justifiable to insist, e.g., that everybody accept that every bishop in the world be appointed by him—an entirely novel practice, anyway, that is barely a century old and certainly ripe for reform if not abolition.
On this point, in fact, the new statement of the North American dialogue rightly notes that “the faithful were normally involved in the process of electing a new bishop in the early church.” The question left eloquently unsaid here is: why are they not so involved today? And why, the dialogue asks later on, is the ecumenical focus here and elsewhere today so often on universal or regional structures, and not the local: “In this and previous statements, there is little mention made of the reality of the parish.” And yet the parish is precisely where most people live out their faith and experience all the major moments of their life—baptism, reconciliation, marriage, and so forth.
In an era of globalization, of cultural homogenization thanks to advanced capitalism, and of an often excessive and deeply harmful focus on “universal” leaders such as Roman popes and American presidents, the statement rightly calls for us to recognize that “the early Church had a diversity of ecclesial organizational models, responding to local custom and need.” We need to spend more time on the questions and problems of the local community and less time obsessing outrageously about papal and presidential comments.
The statement raises other questions too little considered in the past, including why the “Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches” are too often overlooked. These Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Christian traditions have all, in varying ways, lived under Islam, which itself raises another set of questions and problems the dialogue says we have not considered enough:
As Islamic rule extended over most of the Christian East it changed the nature of Church governance, and even Church order. It would be difficult to discuss the matters at hand without also taking into consideration the influence of Islam.
As I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, the role of Islam, and, more recently, communism, both profoundly shaped (and often perverted) the ecclesial consciousness and actual structures of both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. The East has long been aware of this, and recently begun to question this in part, seeking structural reform to remove some of the residue of these nefarious influences.
But what about the West? I’m increasingly coming to think—and here Cyril Hovorun’s recent book Scaffolds of the Church (Wipf and Stock, 2017), is extremely helpful—that the Western Church has not seriously questioned its own “ecclesial imaginary” and how much it has been, and continues to be, shaped unconsciously by universalizing imperialist tendencies and the never-ending reach of the modern state.
Decentralization, the virtues of which the North American dialogue says we must continue to contemplate, is much more theologically, historically, and practically defensible than the Roman centralization and personality cult of the pope we have been enduring for decades. Perhaps all the novelties and peculiarities of this Franciscan papacy will finally bring us to reconsider papal centralization and begin to rid ourselves of it both for the good of the Catholic Church and also the cause of Christian unity.
The desire some have (as my younger self did) for the pope to ensure and enforce absolute uniformity everywhere in the world is psychologically questionable, and probably based on an unconscious ecclesiological mistake. Here is where a totally new reading of Freud’s Future of an Illusion allows us to raise new questions about how and why Catholics can be infantilized by images and actions of an earthly and human (pace Freud) “holy father.” These images are unconsciously beholden to old Roman-imperial, and more recent West-European monarchical, ideas of the omnipotent and absolutist ruler whose coronation formula effuses about him “that you are Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Questioning the rococo spectacle of a papal coronation was easy after 1963. But interrogating our unconscious desire to be ruled by Rome (or Moscow or Alexandria or Constantinople or Etchmiadzin) will take longer. The “service of unity,” as Pope John Paul II wrote, is not about
exercising power over the people—as the rulers of the Gentiles and their great men do (cf. Mt 20:25; Mk 10:42)—but of leading them towards peaceful pastures. … The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the College of all the Pastors consists precisely in “keeping watch” (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular Churches. In this way, in each of the particular Churches entrusted to those Pastors, the una, sancta, catholica et apostolica Ecclesia is made present. All the Churches are in full and visible communion, because all the Pastors are in communion with Peter and therefore united in Christ. With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. (UUS, 94)
It is up to us—encouraged by the good work of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, by John Paul II in 1995 (cf. Ut Unum Sint nos. 94-96), and Pope Francis in 2013 (cf. Evangelii Gaudium nos. 16 and 32)—to keep before us these two crucial questions with which the dialogue ends its newest statement: “Are we asking more of each other than we did when we shared communion? With all we share and with all the cost of the division, do we still have the right to remain divided?”