To Russia With Love

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


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