“Orthodox Constructions of the West”: Report (3)
July 12, 2010 by Irenaeus
The presentations by DD. Markus Plested and Norman Russell respectively completed the first day of the Conference. As these were more descriptive than analytical, and relied more on biographical material and textual citations, my notes were more perfunctory. As a result, what I draw here may reflect more my personal interests than what the presenters really chose to focus on. I have also taken some liberty in filling some of the historical “blanks” in rounding off Dr. Russell’s argument, based in part on side conversations with him. For an alternative perspective, you may wish to read Dr. Gilbert’s observations here.
In his presentation, “‘Light from the West’: Byzantine Readings of Aquinas,” Dr. Plested noted that in the 20th century it became common place to define the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in binary mystical vs. legalistic or universalist vs. nationalistic frameworks. He described, in contrast, the picture in the last century of the Byzantine Empire (circa. 1250-1350) as far more complex. Far from dismissing Aquinas as a schismatic heretic of no relevance to Orthodoxy, Byzantine scholars of the period took him very seriously as a skilled and insightful theologian and made extensive use of his writings. Aquinas’ works were engaged not only in controversies with the West, but also by all parties to disputes within Orthodoxy. Both unionists and anti-unionists as well as both Palamists and anti-Palamists would cite Aquinas favourably (albeit not uncritically) and use his arguments in defending their respective positions.
In the next presentation, “From the Shield of Orthodoxy to the Tome of Joy: the Anti-Western Stance of Dositheos II of Jerusalem (1641-1707),” Dr. Norman Russsell jumping forward 350 years and described the role played by Patriarch Dositheos Notaras of Jerusalem in the hardening antipathy between East and West. Dr. Russell argued that despite his subsequent reputation Dositheos’ view of the West was more nuanced than is commonly believed, and that it was important to appreciate the specific historical context and that Orthodoxy faced in the second half of the 17th century. Material circumstances had changed profoundly for Orthodoxy under Islam, and this was to shape the East’s attitude to the West.
The initial Orthodox reaction had not been entirely negative. The superior learning of the Jesuit priests serving the Latin communities in the East was recognized early on. A number of Orthodox bishops were to license Jesuits in their dioceses to preach and hear confessions in support of the comparatively poorly trained Orthodox lower clergy. In addition, Eastern scholars were to take advantage of the superior educational opportunities available in the West where they consequently gained a greater appreciation and sympathy for Western theological perspectives.
Dositheos was to identify and confront the negative consequences shortly after becoming Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1669. In 1672, he summoned a synod to oppose the theology contained in the “Confession of Faith” issued earlier in 1629 by Patriarch Cyril Lucaris of Constantinople. Cyril had come under Calvinist influence while studying in Geneva and Wittenberg, and his Confession had notably expressed agreement with predestination and salvation by faith alone. Under Dositheos’ leadership, the Jerusalem synod rejected these doctrines and reformulated Orthodox teaching in a manner that distinguished it not only from Protestantism but from Tridentine Catholicism as well.
The rest of Dositheos’ tenure as Patriarch was to focus on polemic but also jurisdictional disputes with the Catholic West, notably against French efforts to secure from the Sultan control of the Holy Sepulchre and other key shrines for Catholic religious orders. Dositheos gathered funds to this end and, to counter Jesuit inroads, set up the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire (actually set up in semi-autonomous Moldavia to avoid Ottoman hostility and charges of proselytism). By means of this printing press, Dositheos was able to publish his key apologetic works and compete against the flow of Jesuit-published Greek-language works that were pouring into the Ottoman Empire.
From Russell’s description and Fr. Taft’s admissions in his address, I draw the conclusion that the Catholic side lost a major ecumenical opportunity in the 17th century in pressing too hard for sectarian advantage. In reduced circumstances and denied access to official patronage, Orthodoxy found itself at a serious disadvantage with respect to both the theological ferment stemming from Western Protestantism and the battle-hardened, Jesuit-led Catholic response reinforced by the reforming Council of Trent. The Union of Florence had failed, but Rome could still have made common cause with the East against the Reformation. Instead, it demonstrated contempt for Orthodoxy in its weakened state, pressing sectarian advantage quite literally to the breaking point. The Melkite Church was to split with most of it coming to Rome just a few years of the death of Dositheos. Whereas Dositheos, despite his efforts to contain Latin influence, had been disposed to view Catholics as prodigal sons, (and without my wanting to minimize Constantinople’s role in exacerbating it) the Melkite split was to lead to the deep and lasting chill that would colour Catholic-Orthodox relations down to our day.