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Restraint and Caritas in Public Discourse

Editor's note:
Today's author offers a reaction from an Orthodox perspective on the ongoing discussion surrounding marriage and the positions of Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis, among others. This perspective reflects the author's position, and in particular, the theology of the Orthodox Church.

In any heightened climate of extended political controversy – whether in ecclesiastical politics or in secular politics – it can be tempting to fall into modes of thinking which serve to easily reduce our opponents to caricatures of themselves. These reductions and caricatures allow us to easily take the high ground, or, rather, to imagine ourselves as having the morally superior position. No political or religious institution – including my own communion, the Orthodox Church – is immune to this polarizing phenomenon.

In the Orthodox Church, we have similar divides over leading church personalities and public positions, with the same tendency to demonize those who have a different perspective. One can find more ‘traditionalist’ Orthodox, ‘more liberal’ Orthodox, and so on, with traditionalists often referring to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in terms similar to those used by traditionalist Catholics to describe Pope Francis, while some more liberal critics of the Russian Orthodox Church have taken to calling Patriarch Kirill and his supporters Pharisees, legalists, etc. In all these cases, the same thing occurs: false dichotomies abound, brotherly love evaporates, and mutual resentments build amidst an unnecessary reduction and caricaturing of one’s opponents which serves no productive purpose whatsoever.

In Shaun Kenney’s February 7 article “Francis, Bannon, and the Neopelagian Crisis”, he used neopelagian as a pejorative adjective to describe those who have criticized aspects of Pope Francis’ approach and who identify as being in the “traditionalist” or “conservative” camps, if you will, within the Catholic communion. It is exactly this kind of dismissive rhetoric and sweeping generalization which detracts from attempts to find common ground and greater understanding. Anyone familiar with the tenets of Pelagius and various forms of neo-Pelagianism must realize that Cardinal Burke and those supporting his challenges to Pope Francis are not espousing Pelagianism in any form. Likewise, to argue that Pope Francis is somehow entirely “liberal” in his approach and pronouncements is also to grossly mischaracterize him.

Confusion: An Orthodox perspective “looking in” on Francis’ papacy

I am not convinced that the Cardinal is a neopelagian Pharisee or that the Pope is a liberal modernist. Does one really have to accept either claim? I ask this as an Orthodox Christian who naturally agrees here with the Pope, who might explore the possibility of allowing civilly divorced-and-remarried men and women to have the use of their consciences in determining whether they should commune or not. Naturally, in recognizing that marriages can and sometimes tragically do end, my Church out of mercy has since time immemorial permitted conditional remarriage within its sacramental life.

In the instance of the Orthodox Church blessing a second marriage for two new spouses, some of the more exuberant, joyful wedding prayers used in the blessing of a first marriage will often be omitted. Everything is considered by the priest or bishop who will be marrying the couple with regard to the question of what is most salvific and spiritually beneficial for them, to help them grow together and strive toward theosis. The couple’s spiritual guide – a trusted priest or bishop, or sometimes a wise monk or nun – strives to prepare them beforehand, and convey to them in regular meetings the absolute centrality of the self-sacrificial nature of marriage, which is supposed to lead both husband and wife together to incarnate the Kingdom of Heaven in their home and their shared family life.

Some Catholic readers might ask: if the Orthodox allow for ecclesiastical divorce and conditional remarriage, do they really believe in the sacredness of marriage? We do – and our ideal is that marriage is not a bond that lasts “til death us do part”, but that the spiritual union between the two souls carries on “unto ages of ages”, as our doxologies close. Our magnificent, deeply theologically rich weddings celebrate marriage as a holy, grace-conveying, and transformative mystery (sacrament) by which husband and wife are joined as one spiritual unit, one earthly kingdom to image and imitate the heavenly.

My Church has always applied the principle of oikonomia (economia, lit. “good housekeeping” or “stewardship”), a theological approach designed to reconcile anything imperfect or lacking for the greater salvation of the person or persons involved. The Orthodox Church acknowledges the reality of sacramental divorce and remarriage not to allow for a married man or woman to selfishly forsake the covenantal bonds and abuse or abandon their spouse, but to mercifully grant the injured or abused party the most important thing for their salvation:  chance for the healing of soul and body.

The Orthodox position is that the end goal of marriage is, and must be, the ever-deepening love and unity of both husband and wife together expressed in the shared undertaking toward salvation. No marriage is perfect, but the ideal, the expectation, is that married life will help the husband and wife to become more like God. A marriage in which either the husband or wife, or both partners, have refused to honor their commitments and invest themselves fully, and refused to do the work necessary to restore trust and heal any wounds, is one in which the true purpose of the marriage as a grace-conveying, salvific process has ceased to exist. In these tragic cases, following attempts to urge genuine repentance and reconciliation, the Church will, for the good of the injured spouse, acknowledge that the marriage has ended. The injured party is then free to eventually remarry in the life of the Church should he or she wish to do so.

Some Catholic readers might point to Matthew 19 or Mark 10 and object; the simple reality is that the Orthodox position does not interpret these verses the way that Catholic tradition or canons do. This means that, prior to the Great Schism, the Christian West and East had developed different approaches to the theology of marriage, with the East recognizing that sometimes, in certain tragic situations, a marriage can and does cease to exist as a sacramental reality.

Along with Kenney, I disagree with Cardinal Burke’s opposition to allowing sacramental divorce and the communing of the civilly remarried, but I do so for different reasons. Burke opposes these because he has a theological understanding of marriage which fundamentally differs from my Church’s, but this does not mean I see any benefit in calling him a neo-pelagian or a Pharisee.

As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that Rome would be well served to consider what my Church has always done, and mercifully address situations in which, tragically, a marriage ceases to exist, and – the couple having exhausted all attempts at reconciliation — acknowledge the end of that union for the healing of both parties.

Kenney writes of the Pope wanting to “bridge the divide with our Eastern Orthodox cousins”, and those of us who follow the ecumenical discussions are well aware of what these discussions have entailed in the last five decades. While it is naturally valuable to talk with each other, my chief concern is that so much of the Catholic intellectual world is trapped in this polemical language. How can the Catholic Church hope to draw closer to the Orthodox when its leading thinkers are engaged in a seemingly unrestrained war of words and ideas among themselves, when its leading figure and prelate, the Pope, is himself constantly at the center of controversy, using words such as “pharisaical”, “pelagian”, and “rigid”?

A question of audience: How focus on neo-Thomism excludes non-Western Catholics

Kenney helpfully points out that many lay Catholics in America “have no other conception of an authentic Catholicism among the laity apart from one seen through the neo-Thomistic lens.” This is definitely a problem. One potentially alienating aspect of the dominant role the neo-Thomistic approach continues to hold within Catholic theological or moral discussions is that operating or focusing primarily within this intellectual and theological framework risks eliminating Eastern Catholics from the conversation. These communities variously consider themselves either Catholics of Eastern rite, Orthodox who happen to be in communion with Rome (a term most Orthodox tend to cringe at), or somewhere nebulous in between.

Thomism itself was never adapted by Eastern Catholics as a way of thinking or writing, as it stands squarely in the Western systematic approach to theology. The continued dominance of neo-Thomistic thought in these discussions may serve to remind Eastern readers of the often Western centric nature of most Catholic discourse. While this Western-focused norm is hardly objectionable – the vast majority of Catholics belong to the Latin, Western rites rather than any of the Eastern – it still makes for a rather uncomfortable silence for Catholics who belong to any of the sui iuris Eastern churches in communion with Rome.

Kenney rightly points out that we should all strive to avoid the polarizing and often political “isms” that became normal in the last century, but his employment of polarizing caricatures to describe the Pope’s critics falls into a similar pitfall of a different nature. Such an uncharitable approach is best avoided if actual dialogue and improved mutual understanding is the desired outcome. Pope Francis and those pushing for reforms are not ipso facto “modernist heretics”, Marxists, or part of a dark “international left” any more than Cardinal Burke and those offering criticism of the pope are somehow neo-Pelagians, Pharisees, or part of some dark “international right”. As long as these ongoing discussions remain steeped in such animosity, non-Catholics will continue to be scandalized by their tone.

If true caritas is to prevail, one of the necessary first steps is to realize that most people disagreeing with our position are not the caricatures we like to reduce them to – but actually have motivations and ideas as multifaceted and complex as our own. This doesn’t mean one has to concede to a kind of relativist “both are right” position – clearly, on the issue of sacramental participation by divorced and remarried couples, any Orthodox person would be obliged to defend the Pope’s position – but simply that one should refrain from needlessly stoking the fire with polemics.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Ambrose Maonaigh

    I found this excellent although I confess that I am unfamiliar with the idea that the Rite Of Second Crowning initiates a “conditional marriage.” Could you expand on that?

  • AsherLev

    ‘Naturally, in recognizing that marriages can and sometimes tragically do end, my Church out of mercy has since time immemorial permitted conditional remarriage within its sacramental life.’

    This is simply false. The Church Fathers clearly opposed the de facto heretical practice of remarriage while a person’s previous spouse still lives – as noted by John Rist: ‘virtually none of the [Early Church] writers who survive and whom we take to be authoritative defend it’. And it is only at the Council of Trullo in 692, under Emperor Justinian II, where the absence and presumed death of the spouse became sufficient grounds for the Church in the East to overturn its previously uniform stance on indissolubility. But even then, it will take many centuries before the interlocking of the Church and State in the East will force Eastern Orthodoxy ‘to ‘secularize’ its pastoral attitude towards marriage’, as described by the Eastern Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff.

    Of course, turning to the substance of the article, Pope Francis is not simply a liberal modernist; he’s a sufficiently complex and discursive thinker that it isn’t possible to fit him into such easy categories, even if the Western media would like to think otherwise. But on this particular issue, he is clearly not cognisant of how irreconcilable Kasper’s proposals are with the de fide doctrine of the Church, as expressed by the Magisterium over the last millennia. To pretend, then, that Eastern praxis regarding ‘oikonomia’ is in any way applicable to the remarriage debate in the Roman Catholic Church is to ignore the fundamental doctrinal issues at stake.

  • DLink

    The author was setting out the Orthodox position quite well until he started referring to neo-Thomist view. To go to the basic thought, a thing either is or it isn’t. One may be unclear as to the exact nature of a thing, but that has no effect on the matter being considered. This principle of logic applies whether East or West. I agree that polemics tend to diminish one’s arguments unless they are directly reflective of the matter at hand. An insinuation that those of Eastern Rites in unity are somehow neither fish nor fowl is also not helpful. It does not appear that this matter will be resolved any time soon, if ever, and I am not in the camp that believes reunion is inevitable.

    • Ryan Hunter

      Hello! Thank you for your comment. I am the author of the piece here. In what way do you believe I mistakenly referenced neo-Thomist views on the question of marriage? I am not sure how I made the insinuation that you allege here: “An insinuation that those of Eastern Rites in unity are somehow neither fish nor fowl is also not helpful.” Would you mind elaborating on your thoughts?

      For what it’s worth, I share your view that these matters are not likely to be resolved any time soon, and that reunion is not inevitable.

      • DLink

        The Eastern Rite Catholics are not held in high regard by the Orthodox who view them as a sort of outside the fold status. Roman rite Catholics are simply not very knowledgeable about Eastern Rites and it has only been through the efforts of the last two or three Popes that the Eastern Churches of all branches have been actively approached with a view of commonality. The Thomist approach to theology is, as you state, a Western characteristic. The East has always taken an approach that was a bit more esoteric in the spiritual sense. My first theology teacher wryly explained it as Easterners had more time and inclination to think and philosophize while the West was busy trying to fight of barbarian incursions. A bit exaggerated but got the point across.

        • Ryan Hunter

          With all due respect, that’s painting with far too wide of a brush. I myself am Orthodox, have numerous Eastern Catholic friends, and have attended Eastern Catholic services and welcomed them to attend Orthodox ones. I know numerous Catholic and Orthodox young people who take this approach — while realizing that we obviously have core and undeniable differences in dogma, overall outlook and ethos, etc. Sadly you are all too correct about most Roman rite Catholics not knowing much about Eastern Churches in communion with Rome. I will note that it is always interesting for me to hear that many Eastern rite Catholics regard themselves as “Orthodox in communion with Rome”, as I have heard many of them say, including their priests. This is, of course, a self-labeling or self-conceptualization which we would find problematic, just as it would be problematic for we Orthodox to call ourselves “true Catholics who are not in communion with Rome.”

          You certainly won’t find me disagreeing with you that “The Thomist approach to theology is, as you state, a Western characteristic. The East has always taken an approach that was a bit more esoteric in the spiritual sense.” Your first theology teacher, however, evidently knew little of the constant military pressures the Christian East — while the West was facing the first Germanic waves and then, of course, the Vikings, the Christian East faced numerous heresies (Nestorians, Arians, etc), pagan nomadic tribes like the Pechenegs, Avars, and Magyars, and then successive Arab Muslim caliphates. Both the East and West faced the Huns, and, ultimately, the Vikings. Constantinople’s empire was essentially fighting for military and political survival for most of its history.