Ut Unum Sint

Yes, I know, that’s a terribly pretentious title for a blog installment, but as a title for a papal encyclical it can’t be beat, and it’s in that capacity that I’m borrowing it for this little nuga. It’s certainly better than “…and One For All!”, the title that I was going to use but which I decided against in the end, Deo gratias. That latter title suggested itself to me when I read “All for One?” by Frederica Mathewes-Green in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. (No link: it’s a pay site.) Ms. Mathewes-Green is an Orthodox Christian with some thoughts about what is wrong with the concept of papal primacy.

In her view, there is an important difference between the sort of unity promoted by the Roman Catholic Church and that which can be found in the Orthodox Churches. She writes:

From a Roman Catholic perspective, unity is created by the institution of the church. Within that unity there can be diversity; not everyone agrees with official teaching, some very loudly. What holds things together is membership. This kind of unity makes immediate sense to Americans: Whatever their disagreements, everyone salutes the flag, and all Catholics salute, if not technically obey, Rome’s magisterium.

From an Orthodox perspective, unity is created by believing the same things. It’s like the unity among vegetarians or Red Sox fans. You don’t need a big bureaucracy to keep them faithful. Across wildly diverse cultures, Orthodox Christians show remarkable unity in their faith.
For Ms. Mathewes-Green, this difference adds up to “two different definitions of ‘unity’.” It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sad divisions that plague Roman Catholics are probably a lot more noticeable than any differences plaguing Orthodox Christians simply by virtue of the fact that there’s over a billion of us and fewer than 100 million of them, and Roman Catholics are much more culturally assimilated than Orthodox. But be that as it may, it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the unity of the magisterium is not, in fact, the same thing as “believing the same things.” Roman Catholics are supposed to give rational assent to the magisterium, whether or not they actually succeed in doing so. What Ms. Mathewes-Green is talking about are the same old “power struggles and plain old sin” that she admits are also present in the Orthodox Churches; they’re just a lot more noticeable in the Roman Catholic Church.

Her thesis appears to be that unity between Roman Catholics and Orthodox will be more difficult, given this difference of opinion over what unity means. I would suggest that, yes, it will be difficult, but only because unity means the same thing to Roman Catholics that it does to Orthodox: it means believing the same things, and the Orthodox seem to take a certain delight in pointing out how they are not about to believe some of the things that Catholics believe. Ms. Mathewes-Green herself picks a few of these items to name, and in addition to the same old shibboleths of papal primacy and double procession, she also mentions “how salvation is achieved” among the radical departures from orthodoxy-with-a-small-o introduced by the Papists.

If that is the extent of her theological insight, then I suppose we are lucky that Ms. Mathewes-Green is a writer and not a theologian. She will not be the last person to mistakenly suppose that Rome has tinkered with and changed unchangeable teachings, but it is always a little disappointing to find such sloppy thinking out there.


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