“The future alone will show whether the Second Vatican Council has made a significant step toward the restoration of communion in the Truth.”
The conclusion of the Second Vatican Council may have disappointed those who expected a radical doctrinal change to take place in Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, on the human, psychological level, the change that occurred is indeed tremendous: the Roman Catholic Church is directly involved in ecumenism; its government has become less monolithic and centralized, at least in principle; it is much more open to the fluctuations of opinion inside its own fold; its attitude toward the “world” has become one of dialogue; and its theologians may even occasionally adopt positions that seemed, until recently, to be monopolized by liberal Protestants. One point, however, remains unchanged: the decisions of the Vatican Council carefully and repeatedly maintain the full meaning of the 1870 definition of papal infallibility and immediate jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff over both clergy and laity.
Is there a contradiction here? Perhaps not, especially if one looks on the problem in the light of the Orthodox understanding of the Church.
The theological and ecclesiological essence of the papacy as such does not reside in centralization or discipline, or even in doctrinal continuity. Both historically and theologically, the doctrine of the papacy grew out of one main moving element: a search for doctrinal and spiritual security. The papacy did not grow out of simple papal power-seeking; the Christian West itself, after the great turmoil of the doctrinal disputes of the early centuries, learned to see in Rome the sole source of Christian truth. The Augustinian notion of fallen and helpless humanity may have contributed to the idea that the Church, on earth, needed a God-established, legal authority, without which it would unavoidably fall into error, for man is unable to see the truth by himself and needs something or somebody to guide his sin-blinded intellect. Hence, the idea that the Church is first of all guiding authority.
Papal authority can be exercised monarchically or democratically, but clear legal procedure remains necessary in any case for the Church to remain an infallible and permanent criterion of truth. The First Vatican Council sealed this development by formally defining papal infallibility, but this definition leaves to the Holy See every latitude to recognize, around the pope, the advisory power of the college of bishops, and to give to the entire body of Christians every liberty in the areas in which the pope does not give clear guidance. This liberty is possible precisely because the Holy See remains the ultimate recourse and the permanent assurance. The Second Vatican Council fully maintains this essential point of Roman ecclesiology.
In order to adopt a constructive, Christian, and truly ecumenical attitude toward our Roman brethren, it is necessary, first of all, to understand that the papacy is not simply an expression of power-seeking; it reflects a coherent ecclesiological scheme, based upon the conviction that, after the Incarnation, God did not leave his Church without a firm doctrinal guarantee. Fallen man cannot be assured in his faith, and the Roman magisterium is, for him, a gift of God’s mercy, one of the main consequences of the Incarnation. The fact that the Roman church does not visualize church union except through the acceptance by all Christians of this magisterium means simply that it wants us to share in the security without which the Church can in no sense be our true Mother—and which is a saving gift to a fallen and confused humanity.
The notion of the Roman criterion of truth has been repeatedly challenged in the West. The Conciliar Movement, in the fifteenth century, opposed to it the authority of a permanent ecumenical council, while the Reformation, in the sixteenth century, adopted a more drastic attitude, challenging the very idea of “church” authority and of “tradition,” and opposing to it the doctrine of sola scriptura.
This entire Western development, seen through the eyes of an Orthodox Christian, thus appears to be entangled in the following question: Is the criterion of truth found in the authority of the Church, or in that of Scripture? Both sides agree, however, in saying that a formal, external criterion alone determines the knowledge of God leading to salvation. The Reformation, in challenging the medieval ecclesiastical power structure, did not overcome the presupposition that originally led to the creation of this structure, the notion that knowledge of truth depends on external authority. And we all know how, when nineteenth-century liberal criticism challenged the original Protestant understanding of inspiration, the very essentials of the Christian message came immediately under its attack as well; Scripture, the ultimate authority that the Reformers opposed to the pope, no longer stood as a true authority, and therefore no Christian truth remained fully valid.
I fully realize that my description of the rise of the papacy and of the Western reaction to it is rather schematic and needs much more substantiation than I am able to give here. The scheme will, however, help me to convey the fundamental stand of the Orthodox Church in the face of the Roman papacy. This stand is based upon the understanding of the Church not as external “authority” but as “communion.”
In the eyes of Western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, the Orthodox Church appears as a puzzling phenomenon. How can one understand its doctrinal position, when, while rejecting papal infallibility, it also refuses to abide by the principle of sola scriptura; and when it emphasizes the value of tradition but without recognizing any clearly defined criterion showing its scope and limits? The Orthodox certainly often appeal to the authority of the ancient councils; but any historian will recognize that these councils, before acquiring a binding authority, needed to be “received” by the Church and thus to be recognized by the Church as real councils, for how many of them eventually turned out to be seen as heretical “pseudo-councils”! A council therefore can never be seen as a formal doctrinal authority over the Church.
The paradox of the Orthodox position cannot be fully understood as long as one abides by the basic presupposition that Christian truth, in order to be true, must depend upon criteria external to it. In fact, the Orthodox discern in the search for external authority the “original sin” of Western Christendom, first committed by Rome and never fully overcome in Protestantism. In this lies the very root of the papacy; since I cannot be sure of what the truth is, even if I am not fully and personally convinced by the instructions I receive, I feel more secure in accepting them than in relying on my own responsibility for the truth.
However, as the Russian theologian A. S. Khomiakov once wrote: “An exclusive reliance on authority implies doubt and skepticism.” Meanwhile, the New Testament affirms that the members of Christ’s body are all “taught by God” (1 Thess. 4:9) and that “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). This does not mean, of course, that apostles, bishops, and teachers are not invested, in the Church, with the authority to teach, or that a council does not constitute the highest and supreme witness to the truth. Rather, it means that truth is not created by the magisterium of the Church: it exists through the Holy Spirit, it is given to all, and all are fully responsible for it, each one in the ministry that is his. Truth is revealed in the communion of the Spirit in the Church, in the sacramental reality of God’s abiding among men. No legal concept, such as monarchy, or majority rule, or individual freedom, is able to guarantee it; direct and immediate communion in the Spirit of Truth, which is never individual knowledge nor external authority, but which is always a corporate participation in the sacramental reality of Christ’s presence, is the only way through which Christian truth is preserved in the apostolic Church. The hierarchical, episcopal, and conciliar structure of the Church is only the necessary expression of this communion in the Spirit.
The future alone will show whether the Second Vatican Council has made a significant step toward the restoration of this notion of communion in the truth. The solemnly proclaimed principle of “collegiality” is certainly a significant step forward. However, the collegiality itself remains strictly dependent upon the legally absolute power of Rome. So long as dependence is not formally replaced by interdependence between the bishop of Rome and the consensus of the whole church, the system will remain bound by the notion of “criterion.” In recent years, however, so many unpredicted and unpredictable events have taken place on the ecumenical scene that it would be foolish to anticipate the final results of the great movement that John XXIII began in the Roman church.
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