Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A modest proposal to end the Great Schism

This is just a thought, and I won't be offended if you think it is stupid.

Ecumenical problems have, it seems to me, the character of problems in differential equations. One starts with constraints and boundary conditions, and must come up with a solution that violates none of them. With two Churches that claim meaningfully to be The Church, I think we have the following boundary conditions:

1. The Catholic Church is not heretical.
2. The Orthodox Church is not heretical.
3. Papal infallibility is a true doctrine (otherwise 1 is false).
4. The infallibility of the Church as a whole is a true doctrine (otherwise #2 is false).

So, here is my solution. Infallibility _must_ be understood as a characteristic of the whole Church, deriving directly from Christ's promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. In the first thousand years, this infallibility inhered in doctrinal pronouncements of the ecumenical councils--not in the canons, since one can see that later canons chance or supercede earlier canons. On this, I think we could all agree.

Now, there is a problem with conciliarism: how does one know a council is ecumenical? Various schemes or characteristics are proposed, but they all (on the Orthodox side) end up with "We don't know how we know, but _these 7_ are." One could say that they are those the Church receives, but that presupposes one knows where the True Church is; what about Chalcedon, for example? What if the non-Chalcedonians are really the Church?

From the Catholic side, one can say that ecumenical councils are those councils recognized by the pope of Rome. This is, I think, the solution to the problem. The Church teaches infallibly when the bishops and Rome speak together. But since 1054 (and really since 787) the ecumene has been wounded, so that genuine ecumenical councils have not occurred.

Does the charism of infallibility leave the Church because of the mutual estrangement of east and west? I don't think so. God's promises do not end. As a result, the East has no ecumenical councils, and the west has councils which say many true things, but which lack the presence of the other four patriarchates, and are therefore irregular.

The Church has been sundered, and that although infallibility continued to inhere in the Church, it did so in an irregular or defective fashion, devolving to an exaggerated papacy and a diminished episcopate in the West, and in the East through a theological conservatism which clung to those things decided when the Church was whole.

The decree would recognize these facts, and then would affirm papal infallibility as a gift to the whole Church, _to be exercised only with the whole Church_. Past exercises of this charism (which are, fortunately, few) would not be termed false, but irregular, as a result of the separation of the Churches. Future exercises would only come in unity with the bishops.

Well, that's it. Have at it. Don't worry about offending me--I'm not even sure I agree with me.


Robert said...

How do you define "heretical?"

Joe said...


As I mentioned in the forum, I think your proposal is balanced and reasonable. The only problem is that it is not agreed that papal infallibility is true. And unless there is agreement about this, then the discussion won't even get off the ground. This is why I think that the Catholic-Orthodox dialogues have made as much progress as they can. All we are doing now is saying the same things over and over. One side will have to capitulate on this and I just don't see it happening. But, at least our Churches are being friendly and we are praying for, and with, one another.

Karl said...

Thanks, Joe.

The problem of infallibility is why I prefer to frame it in terms of the infallibility of the Church.

Joe said...

Certainly, framing the discussion in terms of the infallibility of the Church is the place to begin. Perhaps, one could articulate a clear and coherent understanding of what infallibility means. Then, since the infallibility of the Church must be related to the governance of the Church, you could discuss the relationship between infallibility and primacy. It would seem that the way we understand Petrine primacy would be an essential determinant of how infallibility might be exercised by the papal office.

Joe said...

Karl, here are some books I would recommend if you haven't read them:

Olivier Celement, "Thou Art Peter."

Aidan Nichols, "Rome and the Eastern Churches"

Klaus Schatz, "Papal Primacy"

And there is a recent collection of lectures and articles from the Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation edited by Walter Kasper.

Demetrios said...

Once patriarchs and bishops separate from the full communion of the Apostolic See of Peter, they no longer participate in the infallibility of the Church. They are not necessary for the holding of an Ecumenical Council. Otherwise some of the 7 Ecumenical Councils could not be acknowledged to be Ecumenical since the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church have not agreed to their ecumenicity.
It is astonishing that the separated Byzantine Orthodox Churches have yet to come to grips with the fact that Papal Infallibility is the concrete localization of the Infallibility of the Church, and that there can be no Infallible Church without the infallible Petrine authority of the Pope.The disintegration of the Eastern Orthodox concept of the Church's infallibility is revealed in the number of Orthodox theologians who now no longer accept the infallibility of the Church's hierarchy. To declare the Church's infallibility as diffused through the entire membership of the Church is to introduce a quite Protestant/ democratist concept of the invisible Church.

Acolyte4236 said...

This is why the proposal won't work. It directly contradicts the definition of papal infallibility in Vatican 1, which indicates that the infallibility of the papacy is function of the papal chrism and not of the church entire. This is why the Pope can revoke past ecumenical councils and make null and void currently sitting council's decisions. The Pope is the principle of unity, not a product of it. Not that I mind contradicting Vat 1. I do it all the time.

As for Demetrios, I couldn't disagree more. The infallibility of the Church in Orthodox thinking stems from our understanding of the divine energies as being empirichoretically related without reduction in a personalistic way. The power of infallibility is available to all, which is why the Councils recognized various Fathers as being infallibile interpreters of specific Christian doctrines-Athanasius on the deity of Christ, Maximus on the two wills, etc.

As for Eastern theologians who reject this idea, I haven't a clue of whom you speak.

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