Catholic Answers has done a great service to Catholics in reprinting "Russia and the Universal Church", the ecclesiological masterpiece of the greatest of Russian philosophers, Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). Originally written in French to avoid czarist censorship, this remarkable volume was first translated into English by Herbert Rees in 1948, and is now reprinted as "The Russian Church and the Papacy", edited by Fr. Ray Ryland, who has fittingly abridged the volume. He has omitted the more philosophical and esoteric sections of the volume that do not bear directly on Soloviev's masterful defense of Catholic doctrine, where he sets forth the necessity of the papacy for the Church's visible unity and catholicity and for maintaining the Church's independence from temporal rulers. "The Russian Church and the Papacy" makes clear why Soloviev, a spiritual genius and profound religious thinker, has been heralded as the "prophet of Catholic-Orthodox unity."
In his fine Preface, Dr. Scott Hahn notes that Pope John Paul II has introduced Soloviev to contemporaries in his encyclical "Fides et Ratio" ('Faith and Reason') as an illustrious Christian thinker and declaring his work "prophetic". In his excellent Introduction, Fr. Ryland admirably captures the central themes of Soloviev's work, which shook the foundations of anti-Catholic Russian Orthodoxy:
Vladimir Soloviev's true legacy consists of three simple propositions:
- Jesus Christ instituted the universal jurisdiction and infallible teaching authority of the papacy as a perpetual gift to His Church.
- Apart from the papacy, the Eastern Churches will always remain what they are now: ethnic, national churches, totally independent and disunited.
- Only in union with Rome can the separated Eastern Churches become truly Catholic.
Fr. Ryland continues:
Seldom, if ever, has this Catholic doctrine of the Church been stated more eloquently, more persuasively in an apologetic context than by Vladimir Soloviev.
In his Foreword, Austrian Cardinal Christophe Schönborn notes sadly:
"'Unity in legitimate diversity' has been the hallmark of the Church's appeal for reconciliation with the Orthodox Churches. Yet prelates and theologians of those Churches seem never to have taken the Catholic Church's reassurance at face value."
He stresses Soloviev's profound conviction that in building the Church on Peter the Rock, Christ established the Roman primacy to give expression to "the unique institution of universal fatherhood in the Church."
Soloviev's spiritual journey from being a rank materialist at the age of 13, toward a renewed belief in God and Christ, accompanied by a mystical mission to help restore unity between the Catholic Church and separated Byzantine Orthodoxy, is a fascinating one. In his brief 1887 autobiography, he confessed the goals of his life to be the reunion of the Churches and the reconciliation of Judaism with Christianity. In his classic apologetic, "Russia and the Universal Church", written in 1889, he fully developed the themes which would lead to his being acclaimed as "the Russian Newman."
He decried the "deplorable state of religion" in Russia, with the Church enslaved to czarist despotism, his country's isolation from the European West, and Byzantine Orthodoxy's languishing in schism from the Chair of Peter, the Universal Church's center of unity. He declared the Roman primacy of universal jurisdiction - over the Churches of both East and West - to be essential to the theocratic and incarnational nature of the Church dear to the theology of the Fathers and Councils.
The deficiencies of "anti-Catholic Orthodoxy," resulting in the "Eastern Church of today, paralyzed and dismembered," he saw as lying in "the general weakening of the earthly organization of the visible Church." He mercilessly exposed the errors of the anti-Catholic controversialists, such as the Slavophile Alexei Khomiakov. Their negations of various Catholic doctrines..
"..do not rest on any ecclesiastical authority accepted by all the Orthodox as binding and infallible. No ecumenical council has condemned or ever passed judgment on the Catholic doctrines anathematized by our controversialists."
To the endless assertions of his opponents that Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church, Soloviev replied:
"If He were for them the sovereign head, they would obey His words. Is it obedience to the Master that drives them into rebellion against the steward that He Himself has appointed?."
Deep meditation on the famous Petrine texts in Scripture, together with a careful examination of the facts of Church history culminating in a review of the relations of Pope Leo the Great with the East, led the "Russian Newman" to conclude:
"The present day papacy is not an arbitrary usurpation but a legitimate development of principles which were in full force before the division of the Church, and against which the Church never protested... In those days the Greek Church was, and knew herself to be, a living part of the Universal Church, clearly bound to the whole of the common center of unity, the apostolic Church of Peter"
For all those praying for reunion with the separated Byzantine Greco-Slav Churches and for a deeper appreciation of the Petrine primacy as the keystone of orthodoxy in the Church, Fr. Ryland's new edition of Soloviev's masterpiece is indispensable reading.