A Sister Squabble

Family feuds can be the worst of feuds-perhaps that explains the rancor which surrounds so much of Catholic/Orthodox dialogue. If we weren’t so close, our actual differences would seem so far away. They’d be mere annoyances from some strange person. But as ecumenical dialogues have reiterated so many times, the Catholic view of Herself and the Orthodox Church is that they are two Sister Churches, which may explain the bitterness surrounding their interactions.

Does this notion of Sister Churches deny the primacy of Rome or imply that the Orthodox are clearly some sort of step-daughter? This is where we can see that many have allowed the cart to overtake the horse, especially in online dialogue.

For a concrete example of this, take a recent interview with famed liturgical scholar, Fr. Robert Taft. As a Greek Catholic priest, Fr. Robert goes at length to explain why it is that he or any Catholic should be invited by Orthodox scholars to describe the Orthodox tradition to the Orthodox.

The simplest way of putting it was when Fr. Robert pointed out that the two liturgy professors at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (an Orthodox Seminary) did their doctoral studies with him! They were each his protege!

But on a more foundational level (and with broader implications), Fr. Robert speaks to the problem of ecumenism as it relates to a lack of genuine desire to give in these discussions, where the notion of Sister Churches is not normally granted in ecumenical discussion. He says,

“…I don’t take it upon myself to judge any Sister Church. Because my ecclesiology is the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which recognizes all the Orthodox Churches as Sister Churches.”

Ecclesiology is truly the heart of many Catholic/Orthodox understandings, for the understanding of the Church is such that many have (especially in the past) cast their language about the Church such that their own communion is understood as encompassing the totality of the Church. Thus, if one is Catholic, the only people “in the Church” are Catholics. And if one is Orthodox, the only people “in the Church” are Orthodox.

As such, when Fr. Robert Taft was interviewed even more recently, his comments on the notion of Sister Churches have ruffled the feathers of some with a simpler ecclesiology.

When asked about what Catholic/Orthodox reunion would look like, Fr. Robert wrote:

“What it would look like is not a ‘reunion’ with them ‘returning to Rome,’ to which they never belonged anyway; nor us being incorporated by them, since we are all ancient apostolic ‘Sister Churches’ with a valid episcopate and priesthood and the full panoply of sacraments needed to minister salvation to our respective faithful, as is proclaimed in the renewed Catholic ecclesiology since Vatican II and enshrined in numerous papal documents from Paul VI on, as well as in the wonderful Catechism of the Catholic Church. So we just need to restore our broken communion and the rest of the problems you mention can be addressed one by one and resolved by common accord.”

Where Fr. Robert Taft’s interview becomes most interesting in terms of ecclesiology and Sister Churches comes just a bit later in the interview. There he states:

“The new Catholic ‘Sister Churches’ ecclesiology describes not only how the Catholic Church views the Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself: we are no longer the only kid on the block, the whole Church of Christ, but one Sister Church among others. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated for one reason or another in the course of history, and Catholics held, simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to Rome’s maternal bosom.

Vatican II, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve Disney-World view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this historically ludicrous, self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality. In doing so they had a strong assist from the Council Fathers of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose concrete experience of the realities of the Christian East made them spokesmen and defenders of that reality.”

Here he is quite explicit that if the terminology of Sister Churches is genuine, as it is quoted repeatedly in Vatican II, that spiritual kinship is such that one can hardly argue that two sisters have an ultimately different parentage. Thus, one can consider the concept of Sister Churches and see that there is a common foundation between Sister Churches, even though these Churches are not normally in communion with each other (at this point in history, at least).

Fr. Robert’s thoughts would be in line with the Joint International Theological Commission for Orthodox Catholic Dialogue, which has released such documents as the Balamand Declaration. In it, one can see that proselytizing of Catholics by Orthodox (and vice versa) is condemned, because of our common heritage as Sister Churches.

But has Balamand gone too far? Is the whole idea that we are Sisters in a squabble not authoritatively Catholic, subject to theological opinion which are not in contrast with Tradition? Does a lack of proselytizing imply relativism between the actual issues which do divide Catholics and Orthodox? Ultimately, Balamand is part of the Joint International Commission, which is engaged in an ongoing dialogue that is not dogmatic in nature. Its statements are, as such, not as authoritative as actual councils. Put simply, Balamand is not infallible.

To answer this critique of Balamand, I will not enter into philosophizing or anything of the sort. Instead, I will quote a document from Vatican II, which should be authoritative for Catholics (at least). In Unitatis Redintegratio paragraph 15 we read:

“Everyone also knows with what great love the Christians of the East celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the eucharistic celebration, source of the Church’s life and pledge of future glory, in which the faithful, united with their bishop, have access to God the Father through the Son, the Word made flesh, Who suffered and has been glorified, and so, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they enter into communion with the most holy Trinity, being made ‘sharers of the divine nature’.(35) Hence, through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in each of these churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature(36) and through concelebration, their communion with one another is made manifest.”

Here we see that to Catholics who accept Vatican II, Orthodox Churches are able to build up the Church of God, which raises the obvious question: if Apostolic Christians (like the Orthodox) outside of “the Church” are able to build up “the Church”, how can this possibly be? Instead of pointing to Balamand and newer writings, we can go back to Vatican II and acknowledge that Orthodox Christians who are not in communion with Rome are in some sort of relationship with the Catholic Church whereby they can build up “the Church” in its totality.

Therefore, unless we deny the truth of Vatican II, we are confronted with the first image that began this post. Catholics and Orthodox are Sister Churches who share the same holy mysteries. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in point 1399:

“The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. ‘These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.’ A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, ‘given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.'”

Here I should note that the Catechism is again quoting Unitatis Redintigratio, and it is making the point that even now in our era of Bishops who are not in communion with one another, intercommunion is to be encouraged if the Bishops approve.

In closing, the image of Sister Churches as it relates to Catholics and Orthodox only makes sense if they are one family. Defects in communion and the primacy of Rome notwithstanding, it is far too simplistic to speak of Apostolic Christians who are not Catholic as merely “outside” of the Church.

May God enkindle a greater sense of Love among His Sister Churches, that the feuds which divide us may enter into oblivion.


Cutting the Psalms short…

In the Byzantine prayer life, our divine liturgy normally first sings the Scriptures through what are known as Antiphonal or Typical Psalms. Depending on the tradition, one may prevail over the other (and this of course depends on the time of year etc.), but regardless there is a genius to the songs that we sing, both in terms of the connection it gives to the Old Testament, and with regard to the specific Old Testament passages chosen (not to mention our lectionary of New Testament readings!).

In our day and age of hustle and bustle, sometimes these prayers are cut short. It is sometimes thought that the faithful cannot endure a long service, and truly there was a time when what we sing in the nave was done as a procession of sorts, which covered much more than what happened at the final destination where the divine Eucharist was celebrated. The “stational” nature of the liturgy has been described by many, but at the end of the day the psalm verses were intermingled with refrains, and this is particularly true of the antiphons.

As one on the Gregorian Calendar, my thoughts have turned to a recent set of antiphons particular to the feast of the season. For the Ascension (and in its post-festive days), the first antiphon is,

“All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.”

after which we repeat the refrain “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

and then we sing

“Glory to the Father…”

with the same refrain,

“Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

In older times/fuller services, this would not be the extent of the antiphon. The first verse of the Psalm would extend further into the Psalm. One could ask whether this was a lengthening that is merely quantitatively longer, but I think if we look more closely we will see some unique qualities of the liturgy and the liturgical calendar, which are arguably somewhat compromised through the current practice which we have of shortening the antiphons.


To see this clearly, let’s look at the first antiphon as it is printed in an older liturgy book. There we find:

All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with cries of gladness.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us.

For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear; Great King over all the earth.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

He subdues people under us, and nations under our feet.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

God ascends amid shouts of joy; the Lord ascends amid sounds of trumpets.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

Glory be: Now and ever:

Through the prayers of the Mother…

(emphasis added)

The psalm which begins with claps and shouts of joy is allowed to blossom into a prophecy of the Ascension itself. The refrain of the prayers of the Theotokos is allowed to echo more loudly in our ears as well.

Thus, there are times when the first verse of an antiphonal psalm may not be the clearest testimony of the grandeur of a feast. Thus, we may ask whether we are losing something qualitative in such a shortening of the antiphonal songs. Immediately we must note two key points, however, which do not make this a clear cut matter.

First, the original antiphons almost certainly sung all the verses of the whole psalm. So while some other jurisdictions may sing all four verses found in our own particular Church’s older liturgical books, the older historic practice was to sing all verse of the psalm selected for a service.

Second, the key psalms relating to a feast find their way into the service on multiple occasions. Clearly, “God ascends amid shouts of joy…” is perhaps the most clear Old Testament testimony to the Ascension of our Lord. As such, it finds its way into the Psalm verses of this Feast’s Entrance Hymn, Alleluia verses, and Communion Hymn verses.

In that sense, we have not lost the emphasis on the feast.

Nevertheless, we can ask whether our increase in technology and power has illogically left us less able to fully celebrate our salvation through Christ and His Church. To the extent that we have cut things short to only have more free time, we have lost a wonderful treasure. In that regard, I note the enthronement homily of my own Church’s Metropolitan, Metropolitan William (Skurla).

“As we look to the future, I have been asked by the media and people what is the most immediate problem for our Church. My answer is that we need to present Jesus Christ and His Gospel teachings in a way which touches the lives of our people. In the same way, our beautiful Divine Liturgy has been translated to the language of the people living in many different countries. We need a method of teaching the faith which opens their minds to a deeper dimension of spiritual life. God has not changed, but just within the lifespan of my generation, the world has radically changed. Some changes have been good, but many have undercut the pillars of the family and the Church. The cool things we have received from technology have chilled and dulled our ability to see God.”

Might our eyes be more open to the Gospel when we hear the genius of our liturgy with fuller harmony? Might the refrains that were written so long ago be the key to reinvigorate the deadness of our hearts?

Through the prayers of Our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!