“A Sign of Contradiction”: A Forgotten Reflection by Florovsky on the Pope and the Patriarch

Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

Upon his election to the chair of bishop of Rome in March of this year, Pope Francis announced his intention for a personal meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in the Holy City of Jerusalem for the coming year of 2014. Although the trip has not yet been confirmed, the event is intended to commemorate the meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI on the Mount of Olives in January 5-6, 1964.

The 1964 encounter in the Holy Land was a significant development. The first physical meeting of a Roman pontiff and a patriarch of Constantinople since the failed 15th century union council of Florence, this Jerusalem summit led to the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of December 7, 1965. In this declaration, read simultaneously at a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and at a special assembly at the Phanar in Istanbul, the 11th century anathemas between the churches of Rome and Constantinople were lifted simultaneously by both sees, and a sincere desire for ecclesiastical concord was expressed. The first in a series of similar reconciliatory gestures, the “dialogue of love” begun by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras would soon lead to a bi-lateral theological dialogue on multiple levels, international and local, pursued with increasing seriousness up to the present.

These developments have continued to provoke a conflict of responses among the Orthodox ever since, ranging from enthusiastic embrace, to cautious, patient and discriminating commitment, to distrust, indignant denunciation and opposition. Now, with the news of a possible recapitulation of that first meeting in Jerusalem, the moment is propitious for reflection on a half century of ecumenical dialogue between Orthodoxy and Rome.

Father Georges Florovsky spent his entire service of over five decades as an Orthodox theologian intensely involved in ecumenical dialogue. His person and work continues to command respect from all corners of the Orthodox spectrum of opinion, from career ecumenists to resolute anti-ecumenists and everything in between. In early discussions at the WCC central executive committee meeting in Rhodes in the summer of 1959, Father Florovsky strongly supported a bi-lateral international dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians, while also resisting what he saw as the attempt of the WCC leadership to control the dialogue. His opinions on this dialogue, however, were rarely publicly expressed. It is therefore of great interest and value to learn his thoughts in this matter, offered on the occasion of the 1964 Jerusalem meeting. The present text we now introduce was originally published in Russian: Georges Florovsky, “Знамение Пререкаемо,” Вестник Русского Студенческого Христианского Движения, nos. 72-73, I-II, 1964, pp. 1-7. It has never appeared before in translation. It is also not cited in the existing scholarship on Florovsky or on the ecumenical dialogue. We offer the text now both for its historical interest and in the conviction that Father Florovsky’s sage and balanced counsel still remains relevant and worthy of consideration for today.

– Matthew J. Baker, November 2013

A Sign of Contradiction

Georges Florovsky

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, but it is still night. (Isaiah 21:11)

The meeting of two patriarchs – the new and the old Rome, long separated from each other – certainly was a significant event. And the venue, chosen deliberately – the holy land, a country of great promise, the country of the accomplishment of the sacred memories, the country of Christ – it gave to the event a very solemn, even symbolic, character. Some perceived it as a miracle.

The importance of the event is obvious. It is not so easy, however, to unravel its full meaning and to determine its value. In any case, the meeting of the patriarchs was an unexpected event, almost a surprise. Few were prepared for it inwardly, psychologically and spiritually, even among those who were ready to welcome it sincerely. Therefore, as soon as it was talked about, there were misunderstandings. Some embraced it with joy, as a favorable sign. For others it is deeply troubling. Among many Orthodox, this meeting caused alarmed and suspicion, made them wary and plunged into passion and fear. This could and should have been expected, and to remain silent about it now it would be foolishness. The topic of Rome is a painful topic for the Orthodox. Too many painful memories, disappointments, bitterness are connected with it. To account for that past is not easy, and it is hardly likely that it could be accounted for. Sober historical memory is a necessary guarantee of responsible action. Only the memory should not be binding. One cannot act only on historical precedents. History does not only repeat itself. History is still going on. What was impossible yesterday might become possible tomorrow. Conditions are changing, and are changed by people. The horizon can be shifted. New possibilities may always open up.

Strictly speaking, from the Orthodox point of view, the topic of Rome is the chief and principal ecumenical question. Here exactly is the beginning of “Christian division,” the tip and the root of “schism.” In a certain sense, we may be right to speak of the “undivided” Church of the first Christian millennium, although there was division then also. The image of “one Church,” however, stood firm in the Christian consciousness of the time. The “divided Church” – if this careless and ambiguous expression should be used at all – begins with the break between Byzantium and Rome. The unity of the Christian world was broken precisely then. This was the central catastrophe or tragedy of Christian history, in its universal perspective. The history of this break has been described many times, and from different points of view. A completely impartial image of this sad history is difficult to achieve. It was very much the result of a misunderstanding, a matter of human frailty, stubbornness and sin. Probably the division could have been avoided. In fact many for a long time refused to believe it. History is composed of human decisions, it depends on human freedom, sometimes greedy and often blind-sighted. Events, of course, could have proceeded differently. However, now we are facing the reality of accomplished separation, and reference to unrealized possibility does not solve our current problem. Is it possible to restore the lost unity, and to strive for this? Or, alternatively, should one be reconciled to the separation as final and irreversible, and read any attempt to “reunite” as hopeless and rather dangerous? Historical examples suggest, it seems, the most pessimistic answer. In fact, all the attempts to fix the “separation” were clumsy and hasty reunions, and the memory of them is a heavy stone in the mind and heart of the Orthodox. Does this mean, in the final analysis, that it is necessary to give up all hope and retreat into disconnection? Do I need to reject any glimmer of hope with distrust and suspicion?

Several years ago, in 1950, Professor Ioannis Karmiris spoke at the celebration of the Three Saints, at the University of Athens, on this subject: the schism of the Roman Church. His speech was devoted to the history of the separation. He concluded by raising the question, whether reunion is possible? Despite all the sad lessons of history, he emphasized, the peaceful resolution of the disagreements between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church is entirely possible – under certain conditions, “by economy.” The separation should not be considered final and insurmountable. On the contrary, it must be overcome and can be overcome. Only this will require, above all, a long and serious training in the hearts and minds of both Churches, including both clergy and the laity. The Orthodox Church, Prof. Karmiris was convinced, should not shy away from collaboration with Rome in this direction, to coordinate existing differences soundly “by way of economy” and to restore harmony, love and unity between the two Churches.

This judgment of such a careful and discreet theologian and historian as Professor Karmiris requires serious attention. It is not entirely clear how he understands the “way of economy.” In any case, he did not think that “reunification” can take place without a substantial “agreement,” without addressing controversial issues. Only he believed that these issues, with the good will of both parties, may be resolved. In fact, he invites both Churches to a responsible theological dialogue – based on the Word of God and the ancient Tradition of the Church, and in a spirit of mutual attention and love. One must not expect such a dialogue will be easy and lead to quick resolution of all controversy and doubt. On the contrary, one must anticipate that it will be lengthy and difficult, if it is to be honest and deep. But this is not a sufficient reason to refrain from it, or to avoid it. The main obstacle to ecumenical progress is always just ecumenical impatience, ecumenical hastiness. And it always will tend towards the simplification of problems. The history of relations between Orthodoxy and Rome in the past demonstrates the danger of such haste, and its futility. However, under present conditions the dialogue may be easier than even a few years ago. The Roman Church is now in the process of reviewing her theological tradition, and in many ways returning to the tradition of the Ancient Church. This creates conditions favorable for meeting.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

The dialogue is primarily a meeting. In many circles – both from the side of Rome and among the Orthodox – there is now a real will to meet. Meeting has already occurred by distance – in the theological literature. We must first of all get to know each other. The problem of mutual familiarization must be put in all its breadth. Most fruitful of all would be joint study and discussion of the main themes of the Christian faith, based on the Word of God and in the context of the Tradition of the Church. This would be the beginning of the “preparation of the hearts and minds,” mentioned by Professor Karmiris. The problem of separation must be put in all honesty. And this will inevitably discover that the very meaning and nature of the division is understood differently in Rome and in the Orthodox Church. Therefore, the question of “reunification” is posed differently. This does not mean however that the first task of the dialogue must necessarily be the topic of “reunification” as such. This topic will arise of itself in the process of dialogue. To begin there would have been premature. It is necessary first of all to make sure that the “reunification” is a real and not an artificial task, that the very being, the very nature of the Church requires it. The phrase, which is now so often abused – separated brothers – will be filled with a living meaning only then when it is experienced as an acute pain of separation, sorrow over separation, when the depth and reality of the schism is identified.

The method of theological dialogue can only be ecumenism in time. A true meeting of the divided East and West is possible only within the element of Church Tradition. The futility of the method of “comparative theology” has long been exposed in the broad experience of the ecumenical movement, and this method has already been abandoned. We must return to the sources. “Ecumenism in time” does not mean, however, retreat to antiquity, it does not mean a simple return to the past. Tradition in the Church is something more, and something different, than just memory, than just remembrance. Meeting in Tradition is not a restoration – “restoration” is always violence to life.

In any case, we cannot just go back to the year 1054 and recreate the questions of those days. East and West have changed since then, and there now stand other questions. Christian Tradition was divided in history. Now the task will be to restore its unity and completeness. That should be the task of theological dialogue. Meeting in Tradition is a mutual and joint dwelling in the fullness of Tradition.

And another way to real reunion, there is none.

Such a broad program will seem to many impractical, unrealistic, and too “academic.” For its implementation will require, obviously, a lot of time and a huge mobilization of forces. Is it possible to solve the problem more easily? In broad ecumenism, movements have long been talking about immediate “intercommunion” as the method of solution: should we not start just with “communicatio in sacris,” that is, in the Eucharist, and postpone theological dialogue? Is it necessary, in fact, to strive toward a real unity in faith, outside of a formal agreement on some conventional minimum, for example, the Nicene Creed, with the full freedom of interpretation, and only this minimum? In a strange way, this method is sometimes proposed today to address the problem of reunification of Orthodoxy and Rome. True, “minimum” here is taken in a much more robust and wider sense, but still with an uncertain interpretation of freedom – apostolic succession, sacramental hierarchy, the mysteries, a common symbol of faith. Should we not start with the resumption of Eucharistic communion between the separated Churches, Orthodox and Roman, with no further “harmonization” in the doctrine of the faith? Strictly speaking, the method is not new – it is the method of the Unia. The sterility and the ambiguity of this method has long been revealed in historical experience, but strangely it is still echoed now, albeit in a new and subtle way. Unia does not provide a real unity. What is achieved is only the appearance of formal unity, but the “reunification” of one part to the other does not coalesce. Pragmatism and relativism are introduced into the realm of faith, a certain kind of indifference, on the pretext of theological pluralism. Unity in faith, of course, does not require uniformity in theology. A certain freedom in theological interpretation remains, but under the condition of the living and organic conjugation of those things which are interpreted. Of course, we must strictly distinguish between levels: dogma, doctrine, theology. The distinction is not so easy to hold, in fact, for all levels are related to each other in the unity of ecclesial consciousness. In any case, in the dogmatic realm, there can be no room for pluralism. Strictly speaking, such a formal scheme of “reunification” under current conditions is unacceptable because spiritually and psychologically it is hopelessly out of date, besides the fact that it is spiritually wrong. For our time, thank God, is characterized by theological awakening, a new sensitivity to matters of faith, the search for the living fullness. Of course, this awakening has not embraced the whole of the Christian world. It must be hoped that, with God’s help, it will break forth. In this regard, theological dialogue may play the role of a kind of ferment.

No doubt, the very fact of the meeting of two patriarchs – and it is already one thing, that it was made possible – speaks of the desire for unity. But what kind of “unity” is in question? From the Orthodox side, a wish was initially expressed to bring to the meeting Palestinian representatives and other Christian confessions, to make it, so to speak, completely “ecumenical” in composition. This did not materialize. Apparently, the Vatican had in mind only the meeting of the two patriarchs. This limitation has profound ecclesiological sense. On the other hand, what was supposed to be discussed: “union” or “unity”? The distinction between these terms may appear artificial and arbitrary. However, it has recently been insisted upon openly in some Orthodox circles, with the purpose of stressing that “Christian unity” is possible without “union.” This is not just a question of terminology. The distinction of terms means a division of tasks. Under the name of “Christian unity” is implied in this case “collaboration,” cooperation in practical schemes. It does not necessarily require “harmony” and “unity” in the faith, except in very general terms. Then the participation of other confessions is logical and desirable. In the dark and troubled conditions of our time, this desire to create a sort of uniform “Christian front” for direct action is understandable. And one can even sympathize with this desire. Nevertheless, it is necessary to make at least two substantial reservations. First of all, it is not surprising that in today’s environment the emphasis is often is transferred to the opposition of “belief” and “unbelief” – it is a burning contemporary theme. But often there is a tacit, but no less dangerous, substitution of “religion in general” in place of Christianity, and the content of the faith pushed into the background. In this perspective, differences between separated Christians lose their practical importance, and the question of unity of shifts and is reduced to the psychological or the political plane. In reality, the power of Christian unity is just the unity of faith, within the Unity of the Church. In the second place: no matter how desirable Christian “cooperation” in a certain sense and to a certain extent may be, it does not lead to a real unity, and it even overshadows the very theme of “unity” – in the One Church. Strictly speaking, Christian “cooperation” is, in the final analysis, an inevitably ambiguous undertaking. “Cooperation” may only serve the cause of Christian unity only when it is inwardly subject to the search for “unity”, that is, Unity in the Church. Otherwise, it can easily lose its distinguishing Christian character and become a hindrance to “unity.” And this danger is very real.

The Palestinian meeting of the Patriarchs – of the new and the old Rome, for a long time and still divided – is, in any case, a timely reminder, and a double reminder – of the fact of separation, and of the task of unity. A reminder and a call . . . This is only the beginning of the way. And, in the apt expression of St. Basil the Great, “the beginning of the way is not yet the way.” The question now is how the voice of the Church will respond to this reminder and call. The subject of Rome is once again put on the order before the Orthodox consciousness. For some, Rome is a Church, even though a “separated Church.” For others, Rome is simply not in the Church. Strictly speaking, there is a similar disagreement also among Roman theologians, with a variety of nuances. This question requires a thorough theological development. The question of Rome is an ecclesiological question.

Orthodoxy in our time is strongly called to theological work. And only in this will be revealed the universal nature of Orthodoxy.

“The watchman said, The morning cometh, but it is still night.”

Cambridge, Mass.