Mistaken View Of Fr. Louis Bouyer On The Byzantine Greek Schism

In his classic work "The Church of God" which appeared in French in 1970 (in English in 1982), Fr. Louis Bouyer merely repeated the same "Reflections" he submitted to the 1974 Pro Oriente Conference held in Vienna. With regard to the suggestion that the Catholic Church accept only the dogmatic decisions of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils as fixed doctrine, one of the theological experts at the Conference, Prof. Joseph Ratzinger, declared Fr. Bouyer’s proposal to be "une utopie realiste". That the definitions of later Catholic Councils be not regarded as obligatory would be, Ratzinger noted, "to destroy the Catholic Church". Fr. Bouyer’s proposals were also firmly rejected by historian and theologian Fr. Wilhelm De Vries who noted that Fr. Bouyer’s proposition that Catholics and Orthodox constituted but one Church was acceptable neither to Catholics or Orthodox. It was clear at the Conference that for both the Catholics and Orthodox, the rupture of communion between Rome and the dissenting Eastern patriarchates constituted a factual schism with each hierarchical communion claiming exclusive identification with the "Una, Sancta, Catholica et Apostolica" Church of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Credo.

Interestingly, at the Conference, Orthodox theologians Prof. Evangelos Theodorou and Prof. Galitis declared the "Filioque" to be compatible with Orthodox doctrine and noted there are other theologians who believe the "Filioque" to be an acceptable "theologoumenon". Prof. Jean Meyendorff observed at the same Conference that the "Filioque" has proved the essential pretext for the centuries of schism with Rome. How the Eastern Orthodox can fail to acknowledge the "differences in faith" presently existing among them remains to be explained.

Fr. Bouyer’s proposals did credit to his generous ecumenical spirit, but defied common sense as well as the historical record of the emergence of an anti-Catholic Byzantine Greco-Slav communion which had departed from the teaching of the ancient Church on both the Petrine Primacy and the Procession. With regard to the witness of the New Testament and the early Church vis-à-vis the Petrine Primacy of supremacy in the Church, Fr. Bouyer correctly acknowledged that the "East" tended "to forget the attestation of its own past". In my book "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church" will be found ample testimonies of Greek Fathers and Councils to the universal authority of the Successor of Peter over the entire Church, East and West.

Fr. Bouyer’s analysis of the present situation between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox communion was not only unrealistic as downplaying the seriousness of the formal Schism that factually exists, but suffers from a false historical/theological perspective. There is no Orthodox Church that parallels the absolutely unique Catholic Church in its organic corporate unity; there are rather a number of autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches that have no visible bond of unity among them such as the Catholic Church possesses –in Fr. Bouyer’s words– "the distinctive sign [of which] is communion with the successor of Peter". If Orthodox and Catholics remain "one Church" as he inconsistently held, how can there be the present Schism which continues to be justified by the Orthodox on the grounds of "differences in faith"? The history of the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism reveals clearly that after a period of mutual estrangement and discord marking a mere suspension of communion, the Papal Primacy of universal jurisdiction and the "Filioque" (not to mention "Azymes" and a host of other grievances) would become regarded as "heresies" worthy of "anathema" thereby preventing intercommunion and a common celebration of the Eucharist, Sacrament of Unity.

Fr. Bouyer made much of the "innumerable incidents of intercommunion" in the past (18th and 19th c., and one could even add some in the Near East up to our own time) to prove his contention that Catholics and Orthodox constitute but one Church ("two inseparable units of the Church"). But such incidents involving prelates and faithful occurred among those who gave no credence to the "violent and acrimonious polemics" which were used to justify a state of formal schism. Older Catholic theologians were to use the term "material schismatics" to refer to those dissidents in good faith and who were openly pro-union. These were to be regarded in practice as Catholics, being distinguished from the formal schismatics intent on maintaining the Schism with the See of Peter. It is apparent that Vatican II sought to return to that situation of actual intercommunion where Orthodox would transcend the sterile polemics of the past, acknowledge the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, seek Unity with Rome, participate in Catholic sacraments, and be ready to explicitly profess the Catholic Faith.

In the welcome dialogues taking place between Catholics and Orthodox, there are very positive outcomes, such as in the recent 2003 North American Theological Consultation where the Orthodox participants called for an end to the charge of heresy regarding the "Filioque" and for "the Patriarchate of Constantinople to formally withdraw its 1755 decree on rebaptism" which did not acknowledge the validity of Catholic baptisms.

As one surveys the tragic history of the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Churches from Rome, it is, incidentally, more historically tunnel-vision to think "the East" is a monopoly of the Eastern churches of the Byzantine tradition. Moreover, it is well to point out that the Catholic Church in communion with Rome has never been completely confined to "Latinism" since there have always been Eastern patriarchs and bishops with their flocks in communion with the Successor of Peter.

It is all too clear that unwarranted prejudices, mistakes, misunderstandings, and lack of fraternal love on both sides have added to the legacy of scandalous formal schism presently existing between Catholics and Orthodox. The Second Vatican Council has addressed both theological and psychological factors underlying the separation of the Churches in some splendid Decrees and Declarations, and not least in showing that Primacy and Collegiality (or Conciliarity) are complementary aspects of the Church’s ecclesiology. The Council has done much to foster the full ecclesial communion of Catholics and their separated Eastern brethren. More needs to be done, as Fr. Bouyer has written. However, it is important to stress that in the medieval disputes between Latins and Greeks, and between unionist-Greeks and anti-union Greeks, it was the anti-unionist Byzantines who were openly disobedient to Rome and revelled in charges of heresy against Rome and the Western Church. It was they who determined to break communion with the "Latin heretics" or to remain out of communion with "heretical Rome" – despite the repeated pleas of the Popes for reconciliation. Their actions resulting in the breaking of full communion with Rome had gone far beyond what Fr. Bouyer termed with great understatement "the disputes of particularly spirited schools".

To the familiar question "Who was it (Latins or Greeks) who broke away or separated from the Unity of the Church?", the historical record plainly shows that it was the rank disobedience of anti-unionist Byzantines to the Papacy that resulted in the creation and spread of Schism. It was a hateful "spirit of schism" that was increasingly manifested by anti-unionist Byzantines, who proceeded to reject the Reunion Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439). For all the "violent and acrimonious polemics" that would ensue after the shocking Sack of Constantinople (1204), it was the Latins and Greek unionists who upheld the Petrine Primacy as being of the essence of the visible Church Militant. Schism causing divisions in the "undivided Episcopate" is unintelligble unless it involves rebellion against the living supreme hierarchical authority in the Church which can only be, as Tradition holds, the Successor of Peter in his Primacy. Schism also involves the refusal of fraternal communion with those Western and Eastern Christians in communion with that Successor of Peter. Writing in the 13th c. in his "Summa Theologica", St. Thomas Aquinas acutely noted that:

"Those persons are said to be schismatic who refuse to submit to the Supreme Pontiff and who refuse to be in communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him."
(S.T. II-II, 39.1)

History can be immensely helpful in helping us understand Fr. Bouyer’s cry: "How did we arrive at a situation as deplorable as it is absurd?"

To my mind, the continued separation between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is both deplorable and absurd since it is essentially irrational in nature (it cannot be justified theologically) as well as contradicting the will of Christ, scandalizing the world, and damaging that most holy cause – the preaching of the Gospel to every creature (cf. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, #1).

James Likoudis is author of "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism" featuring the 14th c. "Apologia of Demetrios Kydones for Unity with Rome" (available from Catholics United for the Faith at: # 1-800-693-2484). Perhaps the most comprehensive examination in English of Eastern Orthodox objections to Catholic doctrines is found in his : "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox" ($27.95). His latest book "Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter" ($24.95) contains an account of his own spiritual and intellectual journey to the Catholic Church as well as important Chapters on "Humanae Vitae: Touchstone of the True Faith", on Original Sin, and on the Mariology of the 14th c. Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas. The latter two books are available directly from the author, P.O. Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865.

For other articles of interest visit:  James Likoudis' Homepage