I recently discovered David Bentley Hart’s 2014 review of Ecumenism Today: The Universal Church in the 21st Century, a 2008 volume edited by Francesca Aran Murphy and Christopher Asprey. The review is really an essay and represents a remarkable work of Christian historiography. I recommend it to anyone interested in questions of ecumenism and the union of the Eastern and Western churches.
Hart’s essay is provocatively titled “The Myth of Schism” and contains many provocative claims, the chief of which is that the moment of schism is impossible to locate with any historical accuracy. (Dates that compete with 1054 include, in Hart’s reading, 1729, 1755, 1892, and 1942.) Additional provocations include Hart’s suggestion that the siege and sack of Constantinople by Western troops in 1203/04 was retaliatory “for the brutal mass slaughter of the metic Latin Christians of Byzantium” and that that Eastern Christians regard the papacy not as a troublingly universalizing office but as the seat of too much diversity. Vladimir Lossky, of whom Hart is usually a vocal admirer, is subject to much scrutiny in this history. Hart’s essay distinguishes between theological, doctrinal, and ecclesial divisions between East and West. The three divisions appear in order of ascending importance, with the ultimate issue being the question of papal jurisdiction.
[W]hen and where can we really locate the schism? Not only in time and space, that is, but within dogmatic and canonical norms? We are divided, we know, but how, when, and by what authority? And, while it is a social and cultural and political fact that we are divided, what is its theological rationale? Can the failure of communion between two patriarchs or bishops—a frequent event in the early church—create a real division of sacramentally united communions from one another? Could, for instance, the Orthodox really believe that the pope could excommunicate another patriarch and his flock? By what provision of Eastern canon law? And if Rome cannot, how much less Constantinople? And if communion has never truly wholly ceased, how can we actually identify the moment, the cause, or in fact the possibility of that division?
And this, I think, may be the real question that a discussion of papal jurisdiction must ultimately broach, the least obvious or expected question of all: not how we can possibly discover the doctrinal and theological resources that would enable or justify reunion, but how we can possibly discover the doctrinal and theological resources that could justify or indeed make certain our division. This is not a moral question—how do we dare to remain disunited?—but a purely canonical one: are we sure that we are? For, if not, then our division is simply sin, a habit of desire and thought that feeds upon nothing but its own perverse passions and immanent logic, a fiction of the will, and obedience to a lie.
For Hart, division between East and West occurred gradually, over centuries, for complex social, cultural, and political reasons, and was justified theologically only retroactively and only very recently. The burden of proof and the responsibility to argue one’s case lie not with those who would recommend reunion but with those who would recommend continued disunity. The case for reunion should be regarded as the default stance.
For many of us, the possibility of a reunion between East and West recalls the old joke about the fate of futball in the United States: “Soccer is the sport of the future, and it always will be.” Likewise, reunion between East and West is inevitable, and it always will be. The sense of an ecumenical breakthrough just around the corner has been palpable since the days of John Paul II, and that palpability persists decades later even as any progress toward actual reunion seems to have barely occurred. Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew could not be on friendlier terms, but nobody in a position of authority seems sure what to do about those terms.
Hart advises that reunion occur, and quickly. To this question he dedicates his haunting, prophetic final paragraph:
[R]eunion of the Orthodox and Roman Churches has become an imperative, and time is growing short. I say this because I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. And it is, I think, a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism, possessing a singular power for absorbing the native energies of the civilization it is displacing without prompting any extravagant alarm at its vacuous barbarisms. And I suspect that the only tools at Christianity’s disposal, as it confronts the rapid and seemingly inexorable advance of this nihilism, will be evangelical zeal and internal unity. I like to think—call it the Sophiologist in me—that the tribulations that Eastern Christianity has suffered under Islamic and communist rule have insulated it from some of the more corrosive pathologies of modernity for a purpose, and endowed it with a special mission to bring its liturgical, intellectual, and spiritual strengths to the aid of the Western Christian world in its struggle with the nihilism that the post-Christian West has long incubated and that now surrounds us all, while yet drawing on the strengths and charisms of the Western church to preserve Orthodoxy from the political and cultural frailty that still afflicts Eastern Christianity. Whatever the case, though, we are more in need of one another now than ever. To turn away from ecumenism now may be to turn towards the darkness that is deepening all about us. We are called to be children of light, and I do not think that we will walk very far in the light hereafter except together.
How starkly and well Hart describes the situation that faces the Western democracies and much of the planet: “consumerism…devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism…a particularly soothing and saccharine nihilism.” This barbaric energy against which Hart warns may have found a temporary and unlikely nemesis in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proved capable of reawakening some segments of our society to the intrinsic value of life, human relationships, and the divine. But the plague is not enough: it has also reinvigorated the forces of individualism and libertinism, as witnessed in the United States in large protests against the state’s hapless (and comparatively mild) attempts to keep the virus in check. And the virus has brought with it too much despair and destruction; although the cure—social isolation, economic ruin—may not be worse than the mass death caused by the disease, the cure is indeed terrible. Modern barbarism needs a worthier adversary than the deadly havoc wreaked by mere strands of RNA. I pray that the one, holy, apostolic catholic Church may prove to be the true foe of this encroaching present darkness.