Today's Church

The Pope's 'apology'

by Fr. Andrew Morbey

Ed. Note: The following was written to an Orthodox internet list as a commentary on an opinion piece published in the May 8, 2001 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled "When Will the Orthodox Learn to Love the Pope?" The author of the opinion piece was Rod Dreher.

Orthodox bashing...

It was only to be expected. The visit to Greece and elsewhere was something of an RC PR coup. On the one hand, a frail and venerable leader preaches forgiveness, tolerance, and peace. On the other - in Greece, at least - a hectoring, sullen, resentful gaggle of bombastic xenophobes. That is how the script was written. That it is how it played out. That is how it was received. 'Why are you Orthodox so mean?' I was asked. 'He was so gentle and forgiving, but your guys bristle with fury and indignation?' 'Why do you lovingly rehash all that wounds your pride.' 'Yours is a broken record, a litany of how evil everyone else is...' 'He says I love you; you say anaxios and go to hell...'

Yes, it was only to be expected.

And, of course, we play into the hands of this because, in fact, we ARE, many of us, hectoring, sullen, resentful, bombastic, xenophobic, proud, furious, rude....
In any event, the Pope did not apologize on behalf of the Roman Church for anything, did he? Instead, he asked God to forgive some sons and daughters of the Roman Church who were involved in some wicked acts. That is not exactly an apology. Why didn't he ask the Orthodox to forgive the past sins of these sons and daughters? After all, every confessor in east AND west knows that while asking God to forgive is important, if the possibility of asking forgiveness of those hurt or offended exists, it is important to ask precisely THEIR forgiveness.
It's very interesting! The whole hoopla assumes that the division between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Church is based upon history - bad things done by one to the other, or to one another. But our division is not, when you get right down to it, the result of nasty things done by the Romans to the Orthodox (and/or vice versa) The division arises out of doctrine and the attitude shaped by doctrine. It is not history but ecclesiology that 'really' divides us. Of course, if were simply a matter of history and historical atrocities, it sets us Orthodox up, doesn't it? 'The Romans regret what bad Romans may have done. Haven't the Orthodox done bad things too? Are they so lilly-white? Do they not have their fair share of atrocities? So why can't they say they're sorry too? That nice Pope said he was sorry; why can't those fierce-looking Orthodox say THEY'RE sorry?'

On the level of history, the Romans and the Orthodox both have blood on their hands. In the popular mind this equation cancels out any claim by one or the other to the moral high ground. The moral high ground goes to the one who says 'sorry', 'that was wrong', 'lets move on'. And here the Romans beat us to the punch. So they occupy the high ground...
But the issue isn't history. We should, of course, regret the black pages of our own history. We were not always victims! It would be adult to admit and repent. And it would be really good PR, too! And we, in fact, can go one better than the Romans, because the Romans cannot admit that their Church as Church, the Papacy, the Petrine institution actually did wrong... only certain sons and daughters of the Church did wrong.
But we are free to say that our Church as an institution has been wrong-headed or syncophantic or mean or obtuse or unjust or nasty - from the very top down. (In this regard, the recent words of the Patriarch of Moscow concerning the persecution of the Old Rite, and asking forgiveness in the name of the Russian Church, was utterly refreshing).

The issue isn't history. It is ecclesiology. The point is, may I reiterate, that the historical atrocities committed by 'westerners' - and the attempted subversion of our Churches by the 'agents of Rome' - ONLY took place BECAUSE the Roman Church saw the Orthodox world as 'other', as "not-subject-to-Rome" and therefore as "not-truly-Christian." Thus we became the legitimate object of the Roman imperative: persuasion, evangelization, subordination, domination.
If Rome had seen us as fellow Christians, sister-Churches, as the local Church wherever we were when they arrived in our home places - there would have been no theory and excuse to justify or sanction atrocities and polemics, no need for persuasion, evangelization, subordination, domination. So the issue is not really one, or only one, of grievances concerning historical acts - we have enough historical acts for which we need to repent, too - but one of fundamental theological vision, of ecclesiology. 'That is truly and only the Church which subsists in communion with the See of Rome' says Rome. Period.

In fact, in this address of the Pope, the universalist pretensions of Rome are implicit in everything the Pope read out. The only difference now is that hostility, brow-beating, and the use of force towards the 'other' is no longer acceptable. Instead, aspects of 'otherness' are celebrated and praised. Honey is used instead of vinegar. And the offer is made: 'if YOU would only accept us as the loving centre of unity, as the mind and guardian of the universal Church, WE would recognize you as a legitimate, local, colourful and enriching sub-set of the universal Church. In fact, we DO - already! - recognize you as a sub-set of the Church, you funny and obtuse people! All YOU have to do is simply reciprocate... Get over your anger! We've said we're sorry! Now give us a kiss...'

Fr. Andrew Morbey is the Dean of the Annunciation to the Theotokos/St. Nicholas Cathedral in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (OCA).