In a short, but brilliant article, entitled The Myth of Schism, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart shared some interesting thoughts, with his characteristic sharpness and wit. I thought it might generate some interesting discussion.
Some excerpts, regarding both sides:
As regards my own communion, I must reluctantly report that there are some Eastern Christians who have become incapable of defining what it is to be Orthodox except in contradistinction to Roman Catholicism; and among these are a small but voluble number who have (I sometimes suspect) lost any rationale for their Orthodoxy other than their profound hatred, deranged terror, and encyclopaedic ignorance of Rome. For such as these, there can never be any limit set to the number of grievances that need to be cited against Rome, nor any act of contrition on the part of Rome sufficient for absolution. There was something inherently strange in the spectacle of John Paul asking pardon for the 1204 sack of Constantinople and its sequel; but there is something inherently unseemly in the refusal of certain Eastern polemicists to allow the episode to sink back to the level of utter irrelevancy to which it belongs. (In any event, I eagerly await the day when the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a gesture of unqualified Christian contrition, makes public penance for the brutal mass slaughter of the metic Latin Christians of Byzantium - men, women and children - at the rise of Andronicus I Comnenus in 1182, and the sale of thousands of them into slavery to the Turks. Frankly, when all is said and done, the sack of 1204 was a rather mild recompense for that particular abomination, I would think).
Thus, when a certain kind of militantly conservative Catholic priest is heard to claim that the celibate priesthood was the universal practice of the early Church, established by Christ in his apostles, and that therefore even married Catholic priests of the Eastern rites possess defective orders, the historically astute among us should recognize that such a delusion is possible only for a person having no understanding of the priesthood more sophisticated than his pristine boyish memories of Fr O’Reilly’s avuncular geniality, and the shining example of his contented bachelorhood, and the calm authority with which he presided over the life of the parish of St Anne of Green Gables. And when this same priest ventures theological or ecclesiological opinions, it is almost certain that what he takes to be apostolic Catholicism will turn out to be a particular kind of post-Tridentine Baroque Catholicism, kept buoyantly afloat upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles of an antiquity no hoarier than 1729.
Similarly, when a certain kind of Greek Orthodox anti-papal demagogue claims that the Eastern Church has always rejected the validity of the sacraments of the “Latin schismatics,” or that the real church schism dates back to the eight century when the Orthodox Church became estranged from the Roman over the latter’s “rejection” of the (14th-century) distinction between God’s essence and energies, the historically literate among us should recognize that what he takes to be apostolic Orthodoxy is in fact based upon ecclesiological and sacramental principles that reach back only to 1755, and upon principles of theological interpretation first enunciated in 1942, and upon an interpretation of ecclesiastical history that dates from whenever the prescriptions for his medications expired.
In truth, the most unpleasant aspect of the current state of the division between East and West is the sheer inventiveness with which those ardently committed to that divisoin have gone about fabricating ever profounder and more radical reasons for it. Our distant Christian forbears were content to despise one another over the most minimal of matters - leavened or unleavened Eucharistic bread, for instance, or veneration of unconsecrated elements - without ever bothering to suppose that these differences were symptomatic of anything deeper than themselves. Today, however, a grand mythology has evolved regarding the theological dispositions of the Eastern and Western Christendom, to the effect that the theologies of the Eastern and Western Catholic traditions have obeyed contrary logics and have in consequence arrived at conclusions inimical each to the other - that is to say, the very essence of what we believe is no longer compatible. I do not believe that, before the middle of the 20the century, claims were ever made regarding the nature of the division as radical as those one finds not only in the works of inane agitators like the altogether absurd and execrable John Romanides, but also in the works of theologians of genuine stature, such as Dumitru Staniloae, Vladimir Lossky, or John Zizioulas in the East or Erich Przywara or Hans Urs von Balthasar in the West; and until those claims are defeated - as well they should be, as they are without exception entirely fanciful - we cannot reasonably hope for anything but impasse.
Some thoughts about the Orthodox:
Now, speaking only for my tradition, I think I can identify fairly easily where Orthodox theology has fallen prey to this mythology. Eastern Orthodox theology gained a great deal from the - principally Russian - neo-patristic and neo-Palamite revolution during the last century, and especially from the work of Vladimir Lossky. Indeed, in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the very fate of Orthodoxy had become doubtful to many, and so the energy with which Lossky applied himself to a new patristic synthesis that would make clear the inmost essence of Orthodoxy is certainly understandable; but the problems bequeathed to Orthodox scholarship by the “Russian revolution” in theology are many. And the price exacted for those gains was exorbitant. For one thing, it led to a certain narrowing of the spectrum of what many Eastern theologians are prepared to treat as either centrally or legitimately Orthodox, with the consequence that many legitimate aspects of the tradition that cannot be easily situated upon the canonical Losskian path from the patristic age to the Hesychastic synthesis of the 14th and subsequent centuries have suffered either neglect or denigration. But the most damaging consequence of Orthodoxy’s 20th-century pilgrimage ad fontes - ironically, I think - has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic, or at least in the confidence with which it is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion of Lossky and others has on occasion led to severe distortions of Eastern theology; and it has often made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology all but impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians one could imagine. The aforementioned John Romanides, for instance, has produced expositions of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas that are almost miraculously devoid of one single correct statement; and while this might be comical if such men spoke only for themselves, it becomes tragic when instead they influence the way great numbers of their fellows view other Christians.