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Crypto-Monophysitism and the crisis in the Church today

Why not look at practical reforms to ecclesial structures? Why not honestly discuss power?

(CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

Expectations for the ongoing Summit in Rome on sex abuse in the Church are rather low, not without good reason. Personally, I am not expecting much of the pope and bishops, and will not be surprised when, as Christopher Altieri has recently put it, this meeting with no clear statement and no clear vision wraps up with no clear agenda for moving forward.

What I do find exceedingly strange is the disdain one encounters in certain quarters in the Church for open discussion by all Catholics on a regular basis about practical and structural reforms to deal with the sex abuse crisis. Part of this—as I wrote on CWR last August—comes from a misapplication of the notion of “scandal”.

But part of this, I now think, may come from an old theological mistake that lives among us, if in deformed and largely unconscious fashion. As G.K. Chesterton once observed, old heresies never truly die. They periodically show up again, sometimes masquerading as something else and sometimes playing themselves.

I regularly assess at least half of my incoming students (the ones who identify as Christian—and the Catholics are rarely different in any statistically significant manner) as being—quite unintentionally mind you—at least semi-Arian in their Christology and full-blown modalists in their view of the Trinity. When pressed for details, what usually emerges is that they do not flatly deny the divinity of Christ, which is why I call them semi-Arians, but they are entirely unaware of Chalcedonian orthodoxy about the two natures of Christ (that is, until they take my class). In addition, they see nothing wrong with the idea that the one true God sometimes plays dress-up: some days as Father, some days as Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit—the latter being the Trinitarian person about whom they are the most ambivalent. That God the Father is not the Son who is not the Spirit, but that all three are nonetheless one in nature while distinct in persons, is a bridge too far for them.

But these are undergraduate freshmen with no background in dogmatics or heresiology. What about churchmen in the highest hierarchical echelons today, with years of seminary study and advanced degrees? What excuse have they—and certain theologians for that matter—for what one might call their crypto-monophysitism?

Monophysitism in its original form was something of an overreaction to, and over-correction of,  the Arianism which preceded it. If Arians were dodgy on the divinity of Christ, monophysites overreacted in the other direction, stressing  the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, which sometimes seemed to be an afterthought to them.

The Church, of course, anathematized the idea and its successor, monotheletism. But it haunts us still, and even appears in the ideas some people put forward for solving the current sex abuse crisis. Crypto-monophysites insist the solutions are purely spiritual and have nothing to do with the humanly designed and maintained structures of the Church. They say we must pray and fast more while awaiting more pious bishops and perhaps popes to enforce this encyclical’s dictates or firm up that apostolic exhortation’s apparently woolly bits. But discussions of structures of power and their reform are nowhere to be found.

Last month in Iasi, Romania, at the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, I gave a paper on the problems of power and obedience in the Church. There I recounted the numerous times I have been told that discussions of power, and discussions of practical structural reforms in the Church, are little more than crude exercises in “ecclesiastical engineering,” as one monsignor sneered in my presence several years ago .

When pressed, these nay-sayers proffer no rational arguments, but emerge as what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre would call emotivists: they feel uncomfortable with discussions of power and reform. They feel the very notions are out of place in the Church as the divinely constituted Body of Christ. This is what I call crypto-monophysitism. It focuses only on the “spiritual” or “divine” nature of the Church, ignoring the human in all its messy and often unsavory details. These are the people who, if they had been present at the Last Supper, likely would have recoiled in horror from an actual foot-washing, piously insisting instead that Jesus simply pray for their feet magically to be made clean.

But why not look at practical reforms to ecclesial structures? Why not honestly discuss power? Why not candidly admit that the current centralized papacy is an historical aberration and, I would argue, a theological disaster? What is to be lost by examining the monopoly on power that bishops have in their dioceses, and priests in their parishes, neither needing to have any formal input from the people of God in councils and synods until and unless these clerical overlords deign to “consult” the people from time to time?

If the present crisis has done anything, it is to force Catholics to realize that few, if any, should be entrusted with the kind of power clergy have in the Church today. The present system whereby bishops are in practice accountable to nobody is not traditional (or Traditional) in any sense of the word; nor is it a part of the “divine constitution” of the Church. It can and must change, and no degree of discomfort with this fact can be allowed to hold back the necessary changes—from the parish to the papacy—that the Church should now undergo.

Angelico Press will soon be releasing my book Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. Whatever readers may come to think about its proposed reforms, at the very least it cannot be said that my proposals shy away from discussions about the material matters of the Church in her human nature, including the recovery of necessary structures of accountability to prevent abuses of power and sex in the Church. Writing the book, the famous words of St. John Damascus were regularly rattling through my mind; in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, this great doctor of the Church stoutly insisted:

I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.

I, too, venerate the Church in her material and spiritual natures. But this veneration does not blind me to the need for profound material-structural changes that are supported (but not supplanted) by the secondary spiritual works of fasting, prayer, and penance. The changes I propose were all mined from earlier Catholic and wider Christian traditions to show that there are other ways—deeply grounded in history and theology—to structure the Church and to break up the monopolies enjoyed by popes, bishops, and priests. The need for such discussion has never been more urgent, and the deeply corrupted human structures of the Church must now be openly examined and subjected to radical reconfiguration–not least because the psychodynamics of power in the Church have for too long been used to give cover to the many sexual pathologies that lurk under the label of “obedience” and are supported by demands for silence from the victims.

Ultimately, the reforms I propose—to parish councils, diocesan synods, regional episcopal conferences, and to the priesthood and episcopate themselves—are to be found in earlier Catholic history, and still found even today in many parts of the Christian East. The Church has forgotten many of them, and my book will have achieved its purpose as an aide-mémoire if the Church remembers and reinstitutes these practices so that the human nature and structures of the Church, purged of sinful abuses of power and sex, no longer prevent the world from seeing the divine splendor and dignity which comes from the Church also being the spotless bride of Christ.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 109 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).


  1. At root of this “headline” tribulation is theological corruption. Thank you, Dr. DeVille, for frequently bringing that concrete truth to the table. It need be shouted from the rooftops.
    Theological abuse, liturgical abuse, sexual abuse …

  2. Well said.
    However, the changes Dr. DeVille looks for will probably come to pass even if no changes are made, mostly because of the effects of the diminishing demographic of humans in general, and Catholics in particular.
    Based on what I’ve read about demographics in the last ten years, there will probably be about half the dioceses we have now in the next century. As Pope Benedict XVI foretold, the Church will be small. It is already considered irrelevant, even by some bishops who cater to worldly structures of power.
    As long as there is no will to preach Christ (along with all the other reasons mentioned by Dr. DeVille), the present-day ecclesiastical power structures will devolve.
    Most Catholics now are pro-abortion, pro-gay “marriage”, pro-socialism, etc., so don’t look to them to make reforms. The necrotic theology of the hierarchy has spread to the laity, ergo, Dr. DeVille’s clueless students – our future.
    Thank you, dear Doctor, for closing up the wound of their ignorance.

  3. Red Herring is how a Beda Pont prof termed the Filioque Clause. Inserted in the original Nicaean Credo 325 at Constantinople 381 and point of contention betwixt East [including the Eastern Catholic Rites] and West since. Ironically Arianism, Monophytism, Monotheletism all originating in the East have a common denominator. Each heresy declared heresies by Roman Pontiffs holding centralized authority-whether divinity diminishes human nature or the opposite or whether Jesus possessed one will as in Monotheletism remarkably all diminish the Historical Jesus of Nazareth as mere human. The Word in all three remains detached from this mere human. Honorius I in his letter addressing an Eastern Patriarch’s Monotheletism considered it merely grammatical, the controversy a Red Herring. Nestorius held a similar Monothelistic view challenged by Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril’s theology now dogma confirmed by every Pontiff since is that Jesus of Nazareth possessed two wills human and divine thus affirming Jesus as true God true Man. To make that dogma viable he has to possess a Complete Human Nature. The importance for Christianity particularly Catholicism as well as Orthodoxy is the doctrine that the flesh and blood Jesus received from Mary conveys the Divinity to the recipient who receives Holy Communion. My point is that authority centered with the Roman Pontiff has had a vital function in Church Structure. Whether structural change in commonality with Eastern Catholicism as commended by DeVille improves the transmission of Truth in Catholicism is a matter for study. Although I disagree that our current crisis is primarily a Sex Power dynamic. That is another distancing from addressing the underlying issue, a distancing concept such as “clericalism”. That underlying issue is not power vagrant bishops or a Pontiff who teaches lies or errors, since Pope Francis has nowhere definitively taught error. Suggestion, manipulation complacency, tolerance of adult clerical homosexuality the underlying issue among others are not properties of the Office of Papacy. Rather of the man.

    • As an addendum although it’s obvious Church structure is Rome’s responsibility and the Church may benefit from Dr DeVille’s suggestions I meant to say “My point is that authority centered with the Roman Pontiff has had a vital function in Church orthodoxy east and west”. Neither do I wish to give the impression that the Eastern Church did not contribute greatly to dogma and Apostolic Tradition considering the number of ‘Fathers of the Church’ of eastern or Greek origin.

    • In 1990 (Nov. 7) Pope St. John Paul II gave a general audience on the Filioque Debate (The Pope Speaks, OSV, 36:2, March/April 1990). His account holds that the complete filioque formula (“who proceeds from the Father and the Son” existed in the “ancient texts” (alongside, but not formally in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 A.D.)and later “was put forth again by the Synod of Aachen in 809 [A.D.] [Charlemagne was having renewed Arian troubles in Spain], and was finally introduced in Rome as well in 1014 [A.D.] during the coronation of Emperor Henry II.” The ancient wording kept spreading and then later was actually “adopted” into the Creed itself at the Ecumenical Councils of Lyons (II, 1274) and Florence (1439). At the councils the Greeks and the Latins were in agreement.

      My understanding from another source is that the meanings of words “through the Son” (Greek) and “from the Son” (Latin) then diverged rather than remaining understood as synonymous, which fed into a deeper rupture carrying forward even to the present day from the earlier Fourth Crusade when the Latins sacked and occupied Constantinople (1204 A.D.).

      Then, right after the momentary agreement at the Council of Florence, came the catastrophic fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453 A.D., after which the Greek Church disintegrated into a disunited pattern of national Churches, often to be fused with or dominated by the several emergent state powers.

      Like the great theologian Henry Ford once said: “history is just on damn thing after another.”

  4. Points well-taken, but what are the solutions? One shudders to think of the result of too much synodality, in which such groups as the German bishops compromise on the perennial teachings on the Eucharist or marriage. I look forward to the promised book elaborating on the points made here.

  5. I’ve looked for Dr DeVille’s book on Angelico’s website, but I don’t see anything. Is it possible to pre-order the book in any way yet?

  6. It would have been helpful to get a better grasp of the thesis this writer is proposing. In my opinion, the predominance of bishops in the life and structure of the Church is not something that began with the Arrian heresy or other heresies from the fourth to the eight centuries, such as monophysitism. It goes back practically to the beginning. What did Paul state to the Galatians? If anyone, even an angel from God came to present a different Gospel, anathema sit. I don’t see how monophysitism can be construed to have something to do with power and sex in the Church of today. Excessive emphasis on the spiritual seems to have more to do with gnosticism than monophysitism.
    I am wary of theologians and others to propose that the Catholic Church take on the ways of the Eastern Orthodox in a time when there is a huge schism among them and which is about what? POWER.
    I suppose one will have to read the book if one wants to know what the is actually proposing, but it seems that it is some kind of congregationalism, which has never been present in the East or the West and is a specifically Protestant invention and a bad one at that.

  7. “My understanding from another source is that the meanings of words “through the Son’ (Greek) and ‘from the Son’ (Latin) then diverged rather than remaining understood as synonymous, which fed into a deeper rupture carrying forward even to the present day from the earlier Fourth Crusade when the Latins sacked and occupied Constantinople (1204 A.D.)”. I appreciate your examination of the controversy Peter, particularly the earliest interpretation and the consequent divergence as cited here. Christ must be understood as one Person, a revealed mystery and as such a First Principle or Rule from which reason flows. Reason is always the measure of truth never the rule. As an aside the Crusaders involved French and Venetian knights [the French Crusaders arrived on Venetian ships including a Venetian Crusader contingent] had prev agreement with Constantinople’s authority to pass through and receive aid from the Greeks. After arrival the leading authority was murdered by the Greeks and replaced with a ruler opposed to the Latin Crusaders. They also massacred several thousand Latin residents mainly Italian merchants. Ships had left and the Crusaders were stranded on the shore. The Venetian commander ordered the assault on the city joined by the French. The rest is badly misrepresented history.

  8. 1000 years ago the so-called apostles and their aristocracy split the body of Christ in half and got excommunicated by the Eastern Churches. 500 years ago the so-called apostolic aristocracy kicked out half of the remaining body of Christ because of a pissing contest and forced good Catholics to become Lutheran or give up their homes. Today, the people of God are abandoning the aristocracy in droves. The body of Christ has judged you.

    All you pious hypocrites, this is your doing. You have become anathema. We will not have pederasts and pedophiles telling us anything about the Christ. You are not examples of our deification; you are examples of Roman imperial corruption. You stand condemned before the Judge of the living and the dead.

    Give us back our Republic. Give us back Diocletian’s dioceses. Give us back Caesar’s empire. We will elect proconsul of the dioceses who are upright and know how to keep it in their pants.

    But for you so-called apostles, your crosses await you at the gates of Hell. You are to be sacrificed for our salvation. That will be your only claim to nobility.

    • What is your definition of good Catholics? If they became Lutheran, or any other denomination, then calling them good Catholics is truly an oxymoron.

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