What Catholics can learn from Orthodox disputes

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 22, 2016

The Pan-Orthodox Council opened in Crete this week with a plea from the Ecumenical Patriarch for unity: a unity that is conspicuously absent.

For more than 50 years, Orthodox leaders had been working toward this historic event: an unprecedented meeting, that was to offer a vivid illustration of unity by the leaders of the world’s fourteen autocephalous Orthodox churches. But by the time the “Holy and Great Council” convened, festering controversies had prompted four of those Orthodox bodies to pull out of the event, so the desire for a show of unity was frustrated even before the meeting began.

First Things has a very informative article about one of those controversies: the jurisdictional dispute over control of an Orthodox parish in Qatar. That article will help readers to understand some of the tensions within the Orthodox world, which often seem so foreign to Christians in the West. At the same time, the article highlights some problems that seem to be inherent in the Orthodox system of organizing national churches: problems that the Catholic Church would do well to avoid.

The First Things article explains the competing claims made by the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem for jurisdiction over the Orthodox Church in Qatar. The stakes are not high; there is only one Orthodox parish in Qatar. But the principles involved are—or at least seem to Orthodox prelates—terribly important.

For centuries Qatar was deemed to be within the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch. That claim was mostly theoretical, since Qatar is an Islamic country and there were no Christian churches. But when a parish was established in 1997, political tensions between Qatar and Syria (where the Antioch patriarchate is located) made it difficult for priests from Antioch to serve there. So a priest from the Jerusalem patriarchate acted as pastor in Qatar. That arrangement apparently worked without any undue friction—that is, Antioch did not object-- until the Jerusalem patriarchate decided to appoint an archbishop of Qatar. At that point, the Antioch patriarchate felt that its historic claims over Qatar had been violated.

“In Orthodox ecclesiastical terms, naming an archbishop for a territory is claiming it,” explain Father Andrew Stephen Damick and Samuel Noble, authors of the First Things piece. The issue is unfamiliar to Catholics today, but the underlying principle is simple enough to understand: If you can appoint the bishop, you can control the Church. In the Catholic world the issue has been resolved by giving the Roman Pontiff the ultimate control over episcopal appointments. In the Orthodox world, the issue is only partially resolved, by designating the canonical territory of the various national churches.

Thus the Russian Orthodox Church controls the appointment of Orthodox bishops in Russia, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church controls the appointments in Bulgaria, the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece. But things are not always quite so simple. What about territories like Qatar, which are not within the defined geographical ambit of any particular Orthodox Church? What about a country like Ukraine, once seen as a part of the Russian Orthodox fold—and still claimed by the Moscow patriarchate as its “canonical territory”—but now politically independent, and with some Orthodox leaders clamoring for autonomy? When countries break apart, or re-draw their boundaries, what happens to the national Orthodox churches? The prospects for jurisdictional disputes are endless.

And in this era of global migration, what about the Orthodox believers who leave their native lands, and find new homes in other countries? If a few thousand Serbian Orthodox believers resettle in California, should they form their own parish, or should they worship together with their Romanian Orthodox neighbors? If the latter, in what sense are the Serbian or Romanian Orthodox? Who will appoint their bishops? Can their be several different Orthodox bishops serving the different “national” churches within the same geographical community in the diaspora, even though those communities profess the same faith? These are questions that the Pan-Orthodox Council is confronting this week.

In the Roman Catholic Church the Sovereign Pontiff is the focus of unity, not only in the theological sense but also in practical affairs: the Pope appoints the bishops. (Even for Catholics, tensions can arise when Roman Catholic bishops serves alongside bishops of the Eastern Catholic churches, the latter having been appointed by their respective synods.) The territorial controversies that plague the Orthodox world should be a warning sign for Catholics: a reminder that a national episcopal conference should be an administrative convenience rather than an authoritative body. When the governing structure of the Church is too closely identified with a nation, problems are bound to arise sooner or later. Nations rise and fall, come and go; the universal Church will outlive them all.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jun. 24, 2016 11:13 PM ET USA

    This was part of discussions at Nicea 1 & 2 and the determination that one bishop oversees one diocese. I suspect nobody expected any boundaries to shift as radically as they would. Ecclesial polity, national/ethnic identity and caesaropapism were the threads that sewed a culture and nation together. Russia is the best example. Politically, the Russian Monarchy saw all Slavs as proper subjects to be protected from alien influences. The Patriarchy claimed the same. It's very complicated.