Truth, then Love

An Eastern priest’s vision for Catholic-Orthodox relations

(America Magazine – James Dominic Rooney)

I recently encountered an Orthodox priest who was taking a group of well-known Russian iconographers to look at religious art at the St. Louis Art Museum. I had met him a little earlier when visiting his parish. He introduced me to the group, in Russian, as a “uniate priest.” He likely never intended anything disparaging by this, but the label rang in my ears.

The term uniate, while sometimes used by Eastern Catholics themselvesj, originally carried a disparaging connotation. It was used after the Union of Brest (1596) by Orthodox people to identify those previously Orthodox members of the clergy and laypeople who had agreed to the “union” with Rome. Its foreign-sounding character connoted submission to the “Roman foreigners.” Today, given the term’s history, it is avoided in any official discussions, even though it continues to be used without any ill will by some Orthodox.

But those past tensions continue to play out in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and in the popular Orthodox mind. A historic Great and Holy Synod—a synod of all the worldwide episcopal primates of the Orthodox churches—will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 19 to 27. While not an ecumenical council, it is in some ways parallel in significance to the Second Vatican Council. There has not been such a meeting among the Orthodox for many hundreds of years, and the synod, like Vatican II, will deal with the church’s relations to the modern world.

But the release of a preparatory synod document on relations with non-Orthodox Christians occasioned what might seem to outsiders a surprising amount of criticism among some Orthodox. There is a significant and vocal minority of Orthodox who fear that any ecumenical activity will involve compromising the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Orthodox Church. This has been termed the “pan-heresy of ecumenism,” insofar as these people perceive ecumenism to rest on doctrinal indifferentism and disregard for truth. Catholics familiar with the history of the Second Vatican Council will likely recall similar criticisms voiced by Catholic traditionalist groups in regard to ecumenism. It is not an unfitting comparison in tenor or mentality.

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