To Russia With Love

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The
Russian Church and the Papacy
Vladimir
Soloviev, edited by Father Ray Ryland
Catholic Answers, 203 pages, $11.95, paperback

As
Newman might have said, but didn't, "To be deep in history
is to realize that the Eastern Orthodox are crazy." They are
now, they were then, and they always have been.

Recent
examples are easy to come by. When Pope John Paul II visited Greece
in the spring of 2001, a group of Greek Orthodox priests politely
referred to the pontiff as the "arch-heretic" and "two-horned
grotesque monster of Rome." Last year, the Russian Orthodox
hierarchy threatened theological war over the reestablishment of
Catholic bishoprics in Mother Russia; and the Russian Orthodox have
even pushed — successfully — to have the Russian government deny
long-serving Catholic priests visas to re-enter the country. Wherever
you find the Eastern Orthodox, there you will find people who live
not by the words of Jesus — "forgive us our trespasses as we
forgive those who trespass against us," words admirably embodied
by Pope John Paul II — but by the grudge and the "narcissism
of small differences," in Freud's apposite phase. In their
surly defensiveness, hatred, and envy of the West, the Eastern Orthodox
are the Islamicists of the Christian world. The West offers the
hand of friendship, the East responds with intemperance, abuse,
and fear.

Vladimir
Soloviev's wonderful book The Russian Church and the Papacy makes
this plain. He says the Orthodox churches are actually more accurately
described as "semi-orthodox" or "orthodox anti-Catholic,"
and that Eastern Orthodoxy "contains no positive element; it
consists merely of arbitrary negations produced and maintained by
controversial prejudice" propounded by people who "preferred
to be Greeks rather than Christians." Islam, he says, "is
simply sincere and logical Byzantinism, free from all its inner
contradictions. It is the frank and full reaction of the spirit
of the East against Christianity."

Who
is this man who speaks so bluntly — and honestly? Vladimir Soloviev's
life spanned the last half of the nineteenth century (1853 to 1900).
He was a friend and inspiration to Dostoyevsky, a profound religious
thinker, a man of letters, and a Christian of sincere, self-abnegating
piety. The Russian Church and the Papacy is a modern abridgement
for American readers of his Russia and the Universal Church,
which Soloviev wrote in French.

As
a Russian, Soloviev proudly declared himself "a member of the
true and venerable Eastern or Greco-Russian Orthodox church."
But to be truly Orthodox, Soloviev reminds his fellow Easterners,
one must "recognize as supreme in matters of religion him who
has been recognized as such by St. Irenaeus, St. Dionysius the Great,
St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian,
the Blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore of
Studium, St. Ignatius, and on, and on — namely, the apostle Peter,
who lives in his successors."

A useful exercise is to read Soloviev's book in conjunction with
Karl Adam's classic The
Spirit of Catholicism
, which was originally published in
Germany in 1924. For the "spirit of Catholicism," as captured
by Adam, is warm, generous, and active — exactly the spirit of the
true faith that Soloviev wants Orthodoxy to rediscover, breaking
it free from its crabbed, inward-looking semi-orthodoxy. In a wonderful
passage too lengthy to quote in full here, Adam summarizes that
"Catholicism is the positive religion par excellence, essentially
affirmation without subtraction, and in the full sense essentially
thesis. All non-Catholic creeds are essentially antithesis, conflict,
contradiction, and negation."

Indeed,
that is Soloviev's view. The Orthodox purport to believe in ecumenical
councils yet they have severed themselves from the only body that
can call them. The Eastern Orthodox have "a church at prayer,
but where among us is the Church in action, asserting itself as
a spiritual force absolutely independent of the powers of this world."

Soloviev
is mindful that Jesus Christ "did not send his apostles into
the solitude of the desert, but into the world to conquer it and
subject it" to His kingdom. But while the Orthodox surrendered
the secular realm to the emperor or the czar — wanting nothing more
than to assert their nationalistic, ecclesiastical independence
from Rome — and retreated to their monasteries, "The Western
Church, faithful to the apostolic mission, has not been afraid to
plunge into the mire of history." Against all the pagan and
barbarian impulses of man, the Catholic Church succeeded to a point
in establishing the Christian ideals after which Western society
should strive (the very ideals that are now, in our own twentieth
and twenty-first centuries, being subverted, abrogated, and changed
by secular society). Soloviev charges that in its hostility to "Christian
progress" and the "Pax Christiana" established
by the governing authority of papal Rome, the Eastern Empire not
only failed "in its appointed task of founding the Christian
state, but it strove to abort the historic work of Jesus Christ."

To
the additional horror of his Eastern Orthodox readers — and to the
horror of Protestants who have fled into the Orthodox folds seeking
tradition and a defense against liberalism — Soloviev says flatly
that the Orthodox churches are Protestant. Like the Protestants,
the Orthodox churches reduce the fullness of the Christian vision.
In the Orthodox case, Christianity becomes a sort of sola pietas
boxed within "past history, a dogmatic formula, and a liturgical
ceremonial." And while Catholics graciously uphold that Orthodox
orders are apostolic and Orthodox sacraments are valid, what other
point to Orthodoxy is there — aside from pretexts — than to protest
against the power of the pope? Yet the authority of the papacy does
not represent "an arbitrary usurpation but a legitimate development
of principles which were in full force before the division of the
Church and against which the Church never protested."

Why,
Soloviev asks, have "the guardians of Orthodoxy become mean-spirited
curs that can only bark from behind a wall?" A true Orthodox
Christian has nothing to fear from recapturing the fullness of the
faith to be found in the Catholic Church. "We are not asked
to change our nature as Easterns or to repudiate the specific character
of our religious genius. We have only to recognize unreservedly
the elementary truth that we of the East are but a part of the universal
Church, a part moreover which has not its center within itself…
[but] which Providence has placed in the West" — in the See
of St. Peter.


There is far more in Soloviev's worthy little book than can be touched
on in a review. It deserves to be read. For those who take no interest
in the East, it is still worth reading for the light it shines on
our own Catholic faith. For readers who are dyspeptic, antiquarian,
nationalist, cranky, bearded fanatics, it might even offer inspiration
to join the Eastern Orthodox. But if you, like me, yearn for the
Sack of Byzantium to become a feast day of the Church, and feel
wistful when you muse on that one brief shining moment when there
was a French-speaking Catholic Crusader kingdom there, this book
will be a pleasure and a confirmation.

January
8, 2003

H.
W. Crocker III [send him
mail
] is the author of the newly published Triumph:
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History

as well as Robert
E. Lee on Leadership
.
His comic novel, The
Old Limey
,
has recently been reissued in paperback. A version of this
piece originally appeared in The
Latin Mass
magazine.

H.W.
Crocker III Archives


     

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