The Great Synod of the Orthodox Church and Christian Unity: Another View

by Athanasios Giocas

Orthodox Christians throughout the world exhibit a range of different attitudes towards other Christians and with respect to the cause of inter-Christian relations more generally. It is commonly assumed however that the Holy and Great Council planned for 2016 is meant to reaffirm the case for Christian reunification as well as the manner of its achievement. As expected, the top-down approach to proclaiming a common Orthodox witness continues to be the subject of critical discussion. This post introduces a somewhat different perspective by highlighting one area where the mere holding of the Council could set a negative precedent for Orthodox-Catholic relations in particular. As counterintuitive as such a claim may at first appear, it is useful to set out the argument before attempting to assess its merits.

At its core, the argument is based on a specific canonical narrative maintained by nineteenth century Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, notably in his 1886 French correspondence with Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Strossmayer. Soloviev, whose fondness for Catholicism was and remains alarming in traditionalist Orthodox circles, assessed the nature of the Orthodox-Catholic schism in terms of the perennial distinction in law between a determination as a matter of law (de jure) and one based in point of fact (de facto). More specifically, Soloviev claimed that the schism between East and West represents only a de facto separation. In the absence of an Ecumenical Council which would confer upon the de facto schism a de jure status, the resolution to the schism singularly remains within the domain of fact. As a matter of law, no canonical obstacle thus prevents a de facto reunion between Catholics and Orthodox (which in no way implies that this reunion can be easily achieved). Given that the Orthodox Church’s law largely developed alongside the broader backdrop of Roman law, the appropriation of the de jure/de facto distinction in the assessment of the legal effects of the schism and the manner of its reparation is not without foundation. Nonetheless, Soloviev’s argument is as much based on legal principle as it conforms to a deep-rooted commitment to a peculiar vision of a universal Church centered on divine-human communion. Irrespective of whether one is ready to endorse Soloviev’s position or not, the canonical argument itself does not lend itself to easy refutation (not least because the Orthodox canon law tradition has evolved into a vast and inaccessible field of study increasingly disconnected from working out a divine-human normative complex).

As a result, and despite the well-intentioned resolve to hold a Great and Holy Council in 2016, such a meeting risks being counterproductive to the extent that it would confirm at the highest level, even if indirectly, a schism that has arguably yet to receive such formal ratification. Said differently, the question is whether the mere fact of convening a Council with “Ecumenical” pretensions without having first duly mended the Orthodox-Catholic divide creates an additional (and unnecessary) impediment to the cause of Christian unity. While some commentators ardently argue against the “Ecumenical” moniker (see for e.g. Paul Gavrilyuk’s recent post), it is hard to ignore the fact that the Council is being reported in “Ecumenical” terms and without nuanced consideration of how a council or a certain part of it can in time become truly Ecumenical. The following title is quite characteristic: “Orthodox Churches Will Hold First Ecumenical Council in 1,200 Years in Istanbul”. Without necessarily articulating a fundamental opposition to the idea of a Great and Holy Council, even one to be held as early as this summer, it seems at least prudent to more fully investigate the prospect of unintended consequences and the ways in which such risks can be mitigated.

This train of thought also highlights the possibility of a theologically progressive critique that has yet to be seriously considered. In other words, not all critical discourse regarding the Great Council can be relegated to the sphere of theological extremism. In a similar vein, not all critical argument regarding the Great Council can be presumed to indicate a fundamental polemical opposition against either the Council, its organizers or its proponents. If the vision of conciliarity espoused in the lead-up to the Council implicitly treats the Council’s detractors en bloc as enemies of the Church, it is hard to imagine how this Council can succeed in promulgating anything but the very worst of Orthodoxy, which would be the exact opposite of what was intended. Said differently, an honest and open dialogue at the very least necessitates the presumption of good faith.

Athanasios Giocas is currently in the final stages of completing a doctorate in law at the Université de Montréal.