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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 29-May-05
Pope Benedict XIV pledges to end rift with Orthodox Christians

Web Log - May, 2005

Pope Benedict XIV pledges to end rift with Orthodox Christians

The whole concept is misguided, and besides, my grandmother would never have stood for it.

In a Sunday visit to Bari, Italy, a city which is symbolic in the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the new Pope Benedict XIV pledged to make healing the 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox church a "fundamental" commitment of his papacy.

My mother always enjoyed retelling this story of her own mother in the 1930s Chicago: Since there was no nearby Greek Orthodox Church, she would frequently attend Sunday services at a neighborhood Catholic Church. She contributed to the Catholic Church, and became friendly with the Priest. One day, the Priest said to her, "You've been so good to us, and you're so devoted to God. Why don't you consider converting and becoming a Catholic?"

My grandmother was infuriated, and replied, "If I converted, then I would be no good to either you or myself." And she never returned to that Church or spoke to that Priest again.

I'll bet that a lot of Greek Orthodox are having similar thoughts today, hearing that the Pope wants to reconcile. They aren't at war, so what's to reconcile? Does the Pope think that some Greek Orthodox will convert to Catholicism? My grandmother would be laughing in her grave.

Incompatible religions

History has made Catholic and Orthodox Christianity basically incompatible religions. The difference can be illustrated forcefully by the following: There are Catholic missionaries in China whose purpose is to convert people to the Catholic religion, but there are no Greek Orthodox missionaries in China to convert people to the Greek Orthodox religion.

In fact, anyone can become Catholic by agreeing to be baptized. But to become Greek Orthodox you pretty much have to, well, become Greek, or at least marry a Greek.

After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and massacred thousands of Jews in a crisis war that climaxed in 66 AD, Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, centered in the West in Rome and in the East in Byzantium (later Constantinople) in what is now Turkey. Later, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Constantinople became the "second Rome," and the center of the "orthodox" or "true" version of Christianity, presumably the direct descendant of Jesus' original teachings.

But the Catholic religion was born with a remarkable difference: It became a "stateless religion." Although centered at the Vatican in Rome, it was independent of Italy. When the Germans sacked Rome, they adopted Christianity, combining it with some of their former pagan beliefs, creating the Catholic religion. In order to survive, the Catholics had to declare themselves independent of any state, so that the religion could survive any invasions and conquests.

The Orthodox religions have always been closely related to the state. Constantinople was the center of both an empire and a religion. The Catholics competed with the Byzantines to gain the favor of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, and in 988 he adopted the Orthodox religion for himself and his people, the Slavs. When the Slav culture moved east to Moscow, the Russian Empire adopted it, and it became the Russian Orthodox religion.

For the Greek Orthodox, the seminal moment in their relationship with the Catholics came with the Crusades, the same Crusades that the Muslims complain about. In 1204, along the way to fighting the Muslims, the Crusades sacked Constantinople, starving and murdering its citizens, and plundering the Church's treasures accumulated over the centuries. The deed was capped by placing a prostitute on the Emperor's throne at the church of St. Sophia, at that time the most beautiful church in Christendom.

Though 1204 was a long time ago, this moment is burned into Greeks' minds. When Pope John Paul II visited Athens in May, 2001, he was met with anti-Catholic demonstrations and violence. Finally, the Pope said, "For occasions past and present, when the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by actions and omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him."

So now what?

So, Pope Benedict XIV pledges to end the rift with Orthodox Christians. Exactly what is Benedict going to do that John Paul didn't do? Is he going to apologize harder? Is he going to return some of the treasures that were plundered in 1204? I assume not.

But there's still more to the story.

Pope tries to end rift with Orthodox Church

One of the most significant events in world history in the last millennium was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans (Muslims) in 1453, renaming the city Istanbul. This ended the Byzantine Empire once and for all.

In 1472, Pope Paul II saw this as an opportunity unify the Churches. He arranged for Russian Grand Prince Ivan the Great to marry Sophia, a Byzantine princess, hoping to draw them both into the Catholic Church, along with all of Russia. The move backfired, as Sophia convinced Ivan to declare Moscow as the "third Rome," and himself the first Czar (a word derived from the name "Caesar") of the entire Orthodox ("true") Church.

So Benedict XIV is not the first Pope to try to "reach out" to the Orthodox Church.

Actually, the Orthodox and Western civilizations are about as different from one another as the Western and Muslim civilizations, and have fought as many wars, most recently in World Wars I and II. All three civilizations fought a crisis war together in the Balkans in the 1990s.

As we approach the "clash of civilizations" world war, it's worthwhile remembering that there are these three civilizations, and that the fault lines between them did not develop in either the Clinton administration or the Bush administration; they developed centuries ago, and no mere pledges to reconcile are going to make much difference today, as my grandmother could have told you. (29-May-05) Permanent Link
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