I was delighted to see the appearance of my friend Will Cohen's new book, The Concept of "Sister Churches" in Catholic-Orthodox Relations since Vatican II. He truly is a gentleman and a scholar, and I'm glad to see this important book in print since it offers vital clarifications to both Catholics and Orthodox alike. I sent him some questions for an interview about this book, and here are his thoughts.
AD: Tell us about your background
WTC: I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis in a secular Jewish family, studied literature and political science at Brown and lived in New York after college, where in my late twenties I underwent a religious conversion. Some of the works of Kierkegaard played a key role, but things culminated when I was preparing to teach English at a prep school in northern New Jersey and read Genesis, Exodus, and Matthew’s Gospel for the first time. After that I began attending a Lutheran (ELCA) Church on the Upper West Side and was baptized.
Within a couple of years, I felt the need of a stiffer drink, so to speak, and wound up in an Anglican Catholic context through a former professor of mine whose husband was a bishop in that communion. He invited me to study for holy orders and would have sent me to an Anglican Catholic seminary, but as it had recently closed and he had a high regard for Orthodoxy and St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I ended up going there. I lived and worshipped at St. Vladimir’s for three years as an Anglican Catholic, with no end of ecclesiological questions on my mind from the day I set foot on campus to the day I graduated.
That summer I married my wife, Julie, with ordination plans on hold, and two years later, when I started a doctoral program at Catholic U. in Washington, DC, we entered the Orthodox Church. After finishing at Catholic U., I joined the Theology and Religious Studies department at the University of Scranton where I have been teaching theology since 2009. We live in Scranton’s Hill Section with our three children Ella, Matthew, and Jonathan.
AD: What led you to write this book?
WTC: From the beginning of my encounter with Orthodoxy, I have wondered about the nature and depth of the divisions between the Orthodox Church and other Christian communions. First I wondered if Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism were really so different; then I wrote my Master’s thesis on the division between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox families of churches. But inevitably I became interested in the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In a doctoral seminar paper, I had a little section on the phrase “sister churches”, and Fr. Joseph Komonchak, who taught the seminar, said almost in passing that I might consider doing a dissertation on that topic.
I did some research and proposed the idea to Fr. (now Msgr.) Paul McPartlan, my natural choice to direct my dissertation because of his extensive work in ecumenism and sympathetic knowledge of Orthodoxy, and he had some initial and quite reasonable reservations – he worried that the topic might be too diffuse. However, he agreed, something he perhaps came partly to regret given how much time he wound up devoting to the project to keep it humming along! The dissertation on sister churches, at any rate, turned into the book Aschendorff has just published, thanks to the interest that Barbara Hallensleben, editor of the Studia Oecumenica Friburgensia monograph series, took in it when she heard of its existence from Fr. John Erickson, my former teacher at St. Vladimir’s and a writer on ecclesiological topics from whom I have learned a great deal.
AD: You secured prefaces from two venerable and important figures. Tell us a bit about that process and why their voices matter.
WTC: Dr. Hallensleben surprised me when she told me she was going to ask Cardinal Kurt Koch to write a preface; I was further surprised when she said he had agreed, though I shouldn’t have been, since she commands such respect and is very persuasive! I did not communicate with Cardinal Koch directly, though I am very grateful to him for the time he gave to reading and commenting on the book given his immense responsibilities. The focus of the book being what it is – Catholic-Orthodox dialogue – it was obviously of great importance to have a Catholic as well as an Orthodox endorsement if possible, and short of the pope I suppose, there could be no one whose voice resounds with more significance in global Catholicism, and in ecumenical circles generally, than Cardinal Koch.
Ironically perhaps, the preface from Metropolitan Kallistos was the one I had a harder time securing. At a meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society in America (OTSA) in summer 2015, where Metropolitan Kallistos had given the keynote address, I got word that there was need for someone to take His Eminence to dinner. The other officers all had planes to catch, and the responsibility fell to me. As I sat across from Met. Kallistos during the meal, I gathered my courage and told him I felt I had a certain responsibility given that Providence had brought me to be sitting there with him to ask if he would be willing to read a book I had written on Catholic-Orthodox relations and consider writing a preface for it. He said I should send him the manuscript, which I did, but from a friend close to him I heard that His Eminence was just too swamped. He and my friend recommended another Orthodox scholar to approach. But that scholar couldn't do it either, and for reasons that were so complicated that Met. Kallistos, hearing of it, somehow felt sorry and agreed to write at least a dust-jacket blurb based on selections of the book I had specified he might read. However, once he started, he didn't stop, he later told me, but read the book straight through and went ahead and wrote a proper preface after all. I think this was because the topics the book deals with are very close to his heart.
AD: Ecclesiology and ecumenism were both much controverted at Vatican II, and of course at the recently concluded Gt. and Holy Synod in Crete. I've noted some thoughts on that council elsewhere, but wanted to know what your thoughts were on that council?
Among the many important emphases of Vatican II, the notion of degrees of unity and communion was certainly one of the most fruitful. It managed to avoid two ecclesiological dangers -- on the one hand a relativism that makes no distinction between lesser and greater degrees of real unity, and on the other a facile triumphalism that sees unity as simply all or nothing. According to Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, the Church of Christ is truly present and operative outside the Catholic Church, yet not fully -- this is the paradox that the Council's phrase "subsists in" sought to express. Exactly what it means for a communion to be truly but not fully church, as Vatican II said of the Orthodox communion, obviously requires a lot of unpacking. But as a starting point for reflection it is a very promising and dynamic way of construing the Great Schism -- as having terribly damaged, but not altogether destroyed, relations among the local churches of East and West.
A vocal contingent within Orthodoxy has wished to draw from the doctrine of the oneness of the Church the conclusion that there can be no reciprocal or mutual relations of ecclesial significance between the Orthodox Church and any other, including the Catholic Church. There were analogous Roman Catholic ecclesiological hardliners at Vatican II, of course, whose unsubtle vision lost out to the more profound and paradoxical vision that Vatican II finally promulgated.
At the Orthodox Council in Crete this past June, a battle was waged over the word "church" and whether it can be applied by the Orthodox to non-Orthodox communions. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, among others, refused to relinquish this term, and the official text on "Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World" retains it in reference to non-Orthodox. In fact, Orthodox tradition is replete with instances in which other, separated communions are named "churches" -- the term is applied to non-Orthodox bodies in all kinds of writings by Orthodox theologians and official ecclesiastical texts -- so the hardliners who were wanting to get rid of the term would have been innovating, quite remarkably, had they gotten their way. It's unfortunate that they have managed to convince many of their followers that denying all ecclesial reality to every communion outside of Orthodoxy is somehow the traditional thing. I'm hopeful, though, that the authority of the recent council can serve as a bulwark against their misguided efforts.
AD: You note at the outset that the term "sister churches" came roaring onto the scene in the early 60s, and enjoyed prominent and frequent usage until the turn of the century when it seems to have, as Waclaw Hryniewicz put it, to have fallen into disgrace. What led to such a fate?
On the Catholic side, there were some pendulum swings going on. What Catholic advocates of the term "sister churches" were saying in the 60s and 70s was the Catholic Church should be able to affirm the ecclesial reality and value of the Orthodox Church even though the latter exists outside of full communion with the bishop of Rome. This was a needed corrective of an earlier Catholic ecclesiology that had generally confined itself to designating the Orthodox as schismatics, and had closed itself off in some measure from the rich inheritance of the Eastern Christian tradition. As part of the same trajectory, "sister churches" advocates spoke of the importance of the local church, in order that a more conciliar, less centralized ecclesiological vision might be rediscovered in Catholicism.
Then in the 80s and 90s, there was some push-back from more conservative Catholic ecclesiologists who worried that Catholic advocates of "sister churches" language and conciliarity were losing sight of the significance of Roman primacy and were making the universal church secondary to the local. In pushing back, these conservative Catholic ecclesiologists -- Adriano Garuti was the most influential -- pushed too far, in my view, and seemed merely to revert to the earlier imbalance that "sister churches" advocates had wanted to redress. Garuti even wished to question in what sense the Orthodox could really be called "church", and hence "sister church".
But he and others like him were correct, I believe, in at least reintroducing the principle of primacy as one of essential ecclesiological importance. Some of Garuti's less than balanced vision found its way into the "Note on the Expression 'Sister Churches'" issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2000 -- after which official Catholic usage of the term "sister churches" virtually disappeared -- but in general, documents of the CDF have resolutely affirmed the true ecclesial reality of Orthodoxy. Today, I think it is possible to hold primacy and conciliarity together, the unicity of the church and the reality of "sister churches". Pope Francis has used the expression "sister churches" again in relation to the Orthodox, and so have other Catholic officials.
In the Orthodox world, the situation has been different. On an official level, the term has never fallen out of favor. We should recall that historically and traditionally, Orthodox have always wanted Rome to be and behave as a sister church, rather than only the mater et magistra of all the others, and that Rome's coming to be able to learn and receive from others in reciprocal relationship in the course of the 20th century -- as reflected in such a text as Orientale Lumen by John Paul II, but also in Rome's very willingness to speak of herself as a sister church -- has been reason to rejoice from a traditional Orthodox point of view. However, reactionary Orthodox hardliners, losing sight of all this, have merely expressed outrage that Orthodox officials would ever use the term "church" to speak of the "papist heretics," etc. These are the same people who object to the text promulgated at the Council in Crete because it affirms Orthodoxy's ecumenical involvement and the use of the word "church" to speak of non-Orthodox.
AD: You argue that the term needs to continue to be used so as to avoid "certain ecclesiological imbalances" towards which both Catholicism and Orthodoxy each incline in different ways. Unpack that phrase a bit for us--which imbalances?
The imbalance to which Catholic ecclesiology is prone is toward what Hermann Pottmeyer has aptly described as a "two-tiered" ecclesiology rather than a "three-tiered". In a two-tiered ecclesiology, the only churches of which one ever speaks are the universal church and the local church (i.e. the diocese) -- there is nothing of any ecclesial significance in between. Hence there is only the pope and all the bishops as representatives of their local dioceses.
In a three-tiered ecclesiology, though, there are also regional structures of authority, e.g. patriarchates. As Pottmeyer and others, such as Hervé Legrand, have pointed out, the latter ecclesiology is much more in accord with Orthodoxy. In fact the expression "sister churches" as it has been used over the centuries in the Christian East has almost always referred to relations among or between patriarchal churches. So in one of its most important and characteristic meanings, the phrase "sister churches" might help Catholic ecclesiology retrieve the middle tier, the patriarchal structure. This of course is something you have eloquently advocated for in your own book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy.
But as Pottmeyer and many others have also observed, Orthodoxy, in the second millennium, has also been prone to a two-tiered ecclesiology, only with the missing tier in Orthodoxy's case being the one at the top that could serve as a locus of unity for all the patriarchates. We have seen what a struggle there continues to be in Orthodoxy over this question of a universal primate in the efforts to convene the global council that has just taken place and in the ongoing questions about its legitimacy and authority given the absence at Crete of some of the patriarchal or autocephalous churches. The most perceptive and historically attuned Orthodox theologians have, I believe, always recognized the legitimate place of primacy -- not just at the local and patriarchal levels but also at the universal level in the life of the Church.
Yet the arch-opponents of the use of "sister church" language by Orthodox to refer to Rome object to its usage in this way because they believe that Rome can never be understood by Orthodox to be church at all until Rome gives up her "pretensions" to universal primacy. So they see authentic "sister churches" as antithetical to Roman primacy. This is not, as I've been saying, a monolithic Orthodox view -- Metropolitan John Zizioulas and others argue strongly against it -- but it is a powerful temptation in Orthodox ecclesiology. At any rate, Orthodox recognition of Rome as a "sister church" is indirectly, I would say, a recognition that Rome's self-understanding of her own primacy is not all wrong and all bad, as Orthodox opponents of "sister churches" language applied to Rome believe that it is.
AD: You also note that in a situation where Orthodoxy and Catholicism are not in full communion the term "sister churches" has a certain "paradoxical character" which cannot be maintained indefinitely. Tell us a bit more about what you meant by that.
Sister churches are meant to be in full sacramental communion. Something I try to get at in my book is that the East-West schism wasn't so much something that happened as something that was and still is in process of happening, so that how we think about it and act in regard to it today contributes to the historically unfolding meaning of what the schism will finally have turned out to be: perhaps, in the end, a full break between what were once two portions of the one undivided church, but perhaps, instead, a temporary and less than complete break between two portions whose communion and unity, although long obscured, was never totally lost after all.
When I suggest in the book that Orthodox and Catholic churches can't comfortably go on and on calling each other sister churches forever, what I mean is that they can't do that unless there is a dynamic movement toward unity in truth and love, which would culminate in full sacramental unity. The ongoing schism is what makes "sister churches" between Catholics and Orthodox paradoxical. But the less than complete nature of that ongoing schism, and in fact the possibility and real hope of its healing, is what makes "sister churches" between them meaningful. Still, it will retain a certain paradoxical character until the moment when unity is reestablished on a sound, true basis.
AD: Your fifth chapter quotes Orthodox voices critical of the term "sister churches." Those criticisms seemed to pick up steam this year surrounding the council on Crete. Is there a central concern or principle to these criticisms or are they largely motivated by fear of the other?
I believe that critics of the term have been troubled by legitimate concerns. Metropolitan Kallistos, in the preface to my book, acknowledges his own hesitancy to use "sister churches" to speak of relations between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The principle at stake is the unity of the Church. However, I try to show that divisions between parties or local churches have broken out at any number of times in history and then been overcome, without either side being seen in retrospect as having ceased, during the temporary separation, to be church. Right now, the Patriarchate of Antioch is not in communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Is one or the other of these Patriarchates necessarily no longer church? Or is it that we anticipate that their being in less than full communion today will prove to have been a temporary matter. With regard to the Great Schism, a thousand years is a longer stretch of time, no question, but perhaps the principle is still not essentially different: one can choose whether to see a given separation, of however long, as either an irreversible fait accompli or as still susceptible to healing.
AD: As you know, the Catholic world has just come through an extended period of commemorating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, which did so much to advance not just the concept of "sister churches" but also to deepen Orthodox-Catholic relations. Over the next half-century, what work remains to be done in your estimation so that these sisters can indeed be one around the Lord's table?
WTC: We started hearing some years ago that we had entered an "ecumenical winter", and it's true that by the 80s and 90s some of the early hopes of the post-conciliar era had faded. But there are many hopeful signs today with regard to Catholic-Orthodox relations. One of them that stands out to me is that increasing numbers of serious, ecclesially grounded Orthodox scholars are interested in overcoming a defensive anti-Western mentality and are confident enough in their Orthodox faith that they can affirm, more freely than many Orthodox theologians of a generation or two ago, whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, and lovely in the writings and witness of non-Orthodox Christians, perhaps especially Catholics.
More can be done, I think, to tell the story of how the Catholic Church came in the course of the twentieth century to open itself courageously and humbly to the gifts of the Christian East, and thereby to encourage the Orthodox Church also to adopt an increasingly receptive posture, which is always marked by discernment. The Orthodox still doubt whether it is possible to learn and receive from the Catholic West without losing themselves and their authentic faith, without falling into a "western captivity," but this is slowly changing.
AD: Sum up your hopes for the book and tell us who especially would benefit from reading it.
I like how Metropolitan Kallistos puts it in his preface when, after quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras who said that the "miracle of reunion" between Catholics and Orthodox would be a miracle within history, His Eminence suggests that "[o]ur task is to remove the human obstacles that hinder the working of this divine miracle." I hope that my book will be among those that truly help clear away the kinds of misconceptions that have hindered progress toward the miracle of the schism's genuine healing.
As to the question of readership, ecclesiologists and participants in ecumenical dialogue will probably be most apt to find the book's material directly relevant to their own work. But with globalism and pluralism being such prevalent features of today's world, virtually every thinking Christian is effectively involved in ecumenical dialogue in some sense, merely by virtue of being frequently in contact with Christians of communions separated from his or her own. When professing belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, it must occur to him or her that there is a question of what this means in view of the divisions among churches. Anyone who has wondered about such a basic question as this might find the book to be of interest.
AD: Having finished the book, what projects are you at work on now?
I am plugging away at another monograph, with the working title of Communion in an Age of Controversy. It explores how the church throughout her history has perennially confronted new questions and undergone a process of discernment to make up her mind about them in light of what she has already had revealed to her. The basic thesis is that a church that already has all the answers, that can never find herself in a condition of not knowing, is not a church alive in history. Truth is temporal, takes time. I look at ancient controversies like Arianism and iconoclasm as examples of this. But the corollary of the thesis is that a church that only has questions, none of which she can ever definitively answer, not even at a ripe moment and after immense reflection and dialogue, is a merely human church and incapable of that unity in faith that is given by God. So part of what I'm trying to do in the book is to meditate on the trouble we can get into both when we deny the real questions that arise in the life of communion and when we deny the authentic answers to them that do come -- not easily or quickly, but in time.