I mention this now in late January, which, for over a century, has been celebrated as a week of special prayer, between January 18 and 25th, for the unity of all Christians. (The history of this week of prayer, the so-called unity octave, is recounted in part in Catherine Clifford, ed., A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity.) The strides we have made in the last century are very considerable indeed, but we have not yet achieved the longed-for goal of full Christian unity. The prayer and work can and must continue.
Our conception of what "full Christian unity" would look like has changed over the century. Many, if not most, of the early models envisaged a complete, structured, "institutional" unity of one hierarchy, a model that is now largely abandoned. Such a model was often bound up with assumptions that the way to achieve such a unified structure was through an "ecumenism of return" in which the wayward "heretics" or "schismatics" returned to whatever the "mother-Church" was thought to be (Rome, Constantinople, etc.). Today we realize not only is such a model not very possible, but in some very important respects it is not even desirable. Instead, many today, especially in the context of East-West or Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism, have, rightly, recovered the model of "full communion," which model seems to have obtained in most of the early Church. In this model, there is no "ecumenism of return" because no one party unilaterally, let alone contumaciously, walked away from the other. Rather, both parties, through an enormously complex historical process, grew estranged from one another and the communion that obtained for most of the first millennium (not without problems and occasional breaks) was increasingly lost.
We conventionally date the East-West estrangement to 1054, though that is more a heuristic than anything. It is not as though there was some magical expiration date on unity that came due in July 1054 after which all unity vanished. Those who know the history know several things, not least that it is highly likely, canonically speaking, that Cardinal Humbert's actions lacked "validity" because the pope in whose name he was acting had died already. In addition, his actions, and the corresponding actions of Patriarch Michael Cerularius, were thought only to pertain to each other and their delegations: they were never intended to be church-dividing in the way we often assume. (Even if they were, the mutual lifting of those excommunications in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras should have taken care of this problem. De iure it is arguable that they did, but de facto they manifestly did not, alas.) In proof of this, there is ample evidence of Catholics and Orthodox continuing to share the Eucharist as late as the seventeenth century in some parts of Greece, and well into the twentieth century in the former USSR, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
And today? Today officially most Orthodox Churches will refuse to share the Eucharist with Catholics, while Catholics are in fact permitted to share the sacraments with those Orthodox who request them. But officially neither side will condone a full eucharistic celebration with priests, let alone bishops, together. Both sides, in other words, maintain that we are not yet ready for that--that some kind of doctrinal agreement must take place first in which lingering issues are resolved. I am of course deeply aware of what the last and greatest of those issues is said to be, and I treat the papacy extensively in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.
But since finishing the book, I am increasingly inclined to think two things. First, the idea that we have to have some kind of perfect doctrinal accord, a complete unity of dogmatic understanding, is to hold ourselves to an artificial, unhistorical, and wholly unnecessary standard. Nobody in the first millennium, and arguably for much of the second, would have thought such a standard necessary beyond, say, reciting the Nicene Creed together. If Orthodox and Catholic bishops can do that--and they can--then what else is necessary?
Now, to be sure, we need--and I argue this in more detail than anyone else has--some kind of modus operandi allowing Eastern and Western bishops to work together in full communion together with their brother, the bishop and pope of Rome. I still think my proposal could and would work, and I am gratified that in all the serious reviews to date, nobody has shown me otherwise or come up with a plausible alternative proposal.
The second thing on which I have changed my mind is precisely the question of the Eucharist. I used to hold to the so-called traditional position of most Catholics and Orthodox today that we cannot celebrate the Eucharist until every point of doctrinal disagreement is resolved. I no longer believe that, and in every instance of the half-dozen or so authors who have changed my mind on this question, they have all been Orthodox:
- Lev Gillet
- Olivier Clément
- Antoine Arjakovsky
- David Bentley Hart
- Nikos Nissiotis
- Catholicos Aram of Cilicia
- Michael Plekon
But let's not aim so low. I think all Catholics and Orthodox who care about this--and who cannot?--should spend the rest of the year challenging their fellow communicants to work harder for East-West unity. And one way to do that would be through the inspiration, and perhaps even intercession, of Lev Gillet. Gillet was a fascinating figure who moved from French Roman Catholicism to Greek Catholicism (in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, whose primate, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, he saw as being his spiritual father even after Gillet became Orthodox), to Eastern Orthodoxy, all the while blurring the sacramental-spiritual-ecclesial boundaries along the way. That is what is needed today: to blur those artificial and wholly sinful boundaries we have erected until such time as they disappear entirely. And what better way to do it than through that medicine of immortality which heals all wounds, the Eucharist?