I wrote this a couple of days ago and have been hesitating about posting it as I’m not sure that I express things adequately, and I don’t want to offend people. But I can’t help thinking that there are things that need to be said… and if I don’t post it now it will be too old.

Since posting on this topic before, which was really an attempt to draw attention to a dialogue Deacon Stephen was trying to get underway at Thandanani, I have been wondering how and whether I should say anything more, and I suppose that this post is really an attempt to get my thoughts together. The Thandanani discussion has been pretty much limited to Deacon Stephen and me and we seem to more or less agree with each other, which is very nice but doesn’t really take things further. I’ve also followed some recent Eirenikon discussions, and participated a bit, but realised that I was quite uncomfortable with that in a way that I couldn’t properly articulate. What was presented was worthwhile, but I could not help but feel that there was an underlying dynamic with the discussion that I was not comfortable with. More recently I have been struck by an interview with Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon which Father Milovan Katanic posted and by a post on Orthodox hostility to Catholicism by Father Gregory Jensen.

Now, as I said, I’m not sure that I should be getting involved in such discussions – apart from the fact that I’m even less than a neophyte, I probably have other things that I should be attending to. But because of the space that I have been in in the last couple of years, I have become aware that there is much that is left unspoken in the ways in which Orthodox and Catholics relate to one another, and that it is perhaps especially this unspoken layer that needs to be brought to light.

In a comment on my earlier post, Mary Lanser posted a quote from Cardinal Walter Kasper in which he called for grass roots spiritual ecumenism. It is not enough for official dialogues to take place between theologians and hierarchs, but it also has to take place on the grassroots level. This is clearly important but it also points for me to the importance of praxis. It is not enough for grassroots initiatives to enable Orthodox and Catholics to be polite to one another, to think that they are all the same anyway, except that the Orthodox are more exotic, and that all that they have to do is wait for the theologians and hierarchs to find a way around the filioque and the pope. Instead the theological divisions manifest themselves at the level of popular practice. Deacon Stephen had given an example of the use of icons by some western Christians and in a post at Thandanani I gave an example of Catholics not being able to understand why Orthodox should have a problem participating in a Blessed Sacrament procession. After writing that I happened to come across a Catholic news report describing the procession which paid particular attention to the fact that the Syrian Orthodox had joined in and from the tone of the article it was as if this somehow gave legitimacy to the whole thing. And I was left thinking: “They just don’t get it!”

In his earlier post Deacon Stephen argued that the “different culture and ethos” that separates Orthodox and Catholics is “just as much theology as the kind of theology that is written in books.”  In his post at Thandanani he picked up on my quote from Father Alexander Schmemann that the original sin of the entire western theological tradition is that it made texts the loci theologica of the entire theological enterprise. I have also been reminded of David Fagerberg’s point in that same lecture that “people do theology with their knees.” I was reminded of this while reading some of the discussion at Eirenikon because I often had the sense there that dialogue was about resolving certain basic theoretical things – and, depending on the circles one is in, that either looks more or less likely – but that that was somehow separate from how people live their faith. In one of the discussions at Eirenikon, when the topic of iconoclasm arose someone asserted that one need not actually expect people to venerate icons but just to accept the legitimacy of other people doing so. Now, I am not going to go around calling people heretics if they don’t venerate icons – God knows that I had to jump over a certain threshold before I could do it, and I’m probably still somewhat minimalist when it comes to some of this kissing stuff – but I also can’t say that it doesn’t matter what we do as long as we agree on paper. Theology is embodied and ritual action reaches us at a level that cerebral reasoning cannot get to. It is a text, as Ricoeur would say.

I certainly don’t deny that there are Orthodox who operate at this abstract level – especially, it would appear, among internet polemicists. But from my perspective there seems to be an almost build in Catholic inability to see beyond the framework of its own perspectives. And this is not just Catholic and theological but I suspect that it is also western and cultural, although that plays out differently in different contexts. Indeed it seems to be something that both “conservative” and “progressive” Catholics have in common and points to an underlying and sometimes subtle form of imperialism and power dynamics.

In the interview posted by Father Milovan, Metropolitan John Zizioulas argued that Orthodox opponents of ecumenism need to appreciate that the Catholic Church has changed in her attitudes to the Orthodox and no longer seeks to dominate them. While Catholic attitudes to Orthodoxy clearly have changed, I think that we may legitimately ask to what extent this has simply involved a mutation into something more subtle, and I suspect that some of the Orthodox hostility to Catholicism and rejection of ecumenical dialogue has its roots in this less-than-entirely-clear and certainly not-always-rational territory. I don’t think this justifies a rejection of dialogue, but until such dynamics are brought to light, I can’t really see it getting anywhere.

Last year I was struck by a letter by Father Alexander Schmemann which he wrote to an Anglican friend on the topic of the ordination of women. He wrote:

The debate on women’s ordination reveals something we suspected for a long time, but which now is confirmed beyond any doubt: the truly built-in indifference of the Christian West to anything beyond the sphere of its own problematics, of its own experience. I can only repeat here what I have said before: even the so-called ‘ecumenical movement’, notwithstanding its claims to the contrary, has always been and still is a purely Western phenomenon, based on Western presuppositions and determined by a specifically Western ‘agenda’. This is not ‘pride’ or ‘arrogance’. On the contrary the Christian West is almost obsessed with a guilt complex, and enjoys nothing better than self-criticism and self-condemnation. It is plagued with a total inability to transcend itself, to accept the simple idea that its own experience, problems, thought forms and priorities may not be universal, that it may need to be evaluated and judged in the light of a truly universal, truly ‘catholic’ experience.” (Sourozh, 17, August 1984, 8).

I was struck by this, not because of anything to do with the ordination of women, but because it resonated with my experience of trying to communicate with Catholics (and other western Christians) who appeared to be just unable to see beyond their own concerns and quite indifferent to how their actions would appear to others. They wanted to be on good terms with the Orthodox, and indeed were almost bullying in their expectation that the Orthodox should be on good terms with them, but without being prepared to acknowledge that this would demand something of them. And something similar happens at an official level, when the pope appeals for unity and yet continues to issue documents that are decidedly problematic from an Orthodox perspective.

In this context it seems to me that we need to be looking at the more subtle dynamics of power and of how this influences our perceptions. And to what it really is that Catholics, and other western Christians, want from the Orthodox Church.