Monday, May 07, 2007

Reflections on Orthodox Catholic Differences

Some thoughts I had yesterday at Mass regarding the differences between the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The spirituality of the Western Church – borrowing a metaphor from sacramental and liturgical theology – could be described as an imminent (this-worldly) Eucharist; whereas the Eastern would then have to be described as a transcendent (other-worldly) Eucharist. By this I am not saying that either Church essentially lacks imminence or transcendence, but rather that in each Church, respectively, one or the other is a dominant element. Obviously, both Churches seek a balance; the particular character of that synthesis is, however, different. Similarly, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the distinguishing principle in the Western Church; whereas the doctrine of Deification is the distinguishing principle in the Eastern Church. Again, both Churches embrace these doctrines in their essential relatedness; however, with differing emphasis and priority.

No one can dispute the transportative character of the Divine Liturgy. This is not a feature of the Holy Mass (even before the change of the Liturgy). The very materials used to express the spiritual qualities of worship between these two Churches exhibit the aforementioned attitude (ex., icons vs. freestanding statues).

The reason for this is primarily historical. At the zenith of Byzantine Christianity in the early Middle Ages the Eastern Roman Empire was largely intact and expanding. The Church’s spiritual – as opposed to secular – role was much easier to distinguish than in the West. The Church in the East was the godlike or deified community whose sights were set on heaven since the control of all things terrestrial was securely in the hands of the Emperor (so long as he was not a heretic). In the West, however, the state was largely gone and society was both in ruins and chaotic. It was forced upon the Church to take over the reigns of government. Despite how awful this fusion of sacred and secular power may have been, the worldly interests of the Church – both virtuous and vicious – were providentially determined by the cultural catastrophe faced (often bravely) by the clerics and the monks of the 5th through the 10th century.

The dynamic unfolding (sometimes called “development” from an historical point-of-view) of Western Civilization never ceased to affect the interior life of the Western Church. This is most evident in the 13th, 15th, and 20th centuries. It is not, however, a case of simple accommodation. Granted, the Eastern Church at a certain point (or points) ceased to be affected by this evolution and became (much like Hasidic Judaism and, today, Islam in Western still-Christian/secular societies) a self-contained overtly religious culture. On the other hand, the Western Church’s capacity for modernization (to use the word loosely) gives it a distinct advantage in the proclamation, application, and defense of the Gospel. Three areas in which this is most evident are (what is commonly called) social justice, philosophy and science.

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