When I was, more than a decade ago now, working on my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I made a deliberate decision to concentrate only on the 20th and 21st centuries, knowing the history of earlier discussions and debates would have to await another book. In Siecienski's new tome, we have not waited in vain: our patience is richly rewarded.
As I did for his previous book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, so for this one about the papacy I sent him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts.
AD: For readers new to your work, tell us about your background
I am a native of New Jersey, and received my BA in theology and government from Georgetown University in 1990. After graduation I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995. After several years teaching at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA I studied at Fordham University, earning my PhD in historical theology in 2005. I worked for 2 years at Misericordia University and have been teaching theology and Byzantine history at Stockton University in New Jersey since 2008.
I am married with two children, ages eleven and nine.
Religiously I am usually reluctant to talk about my background because once people find out where you go to church they immediately begin to suspect biases. For example, when I tell people that I was raised Roman Catholic, but that I am now Orthodox, many immediately assume that I must have an axe to grind against the RC Church. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. And while I suppose some will inevitably say, “Ah, he’s Orthodox, that’s why he believes X or denies Y,” the hope is that most will see my real effort to examine all the material objectively.
AD: What led you from your previous book on the filioque to The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate?
At first I had actually planned something bigger — a book that would deal with all the other issues (aside from the filioque) that have divided East and West. However, I soon realized that there was so much out there on the primacy of Rome — primary sources and secondary studies, histories and theological works (like your own) — that the papacy demanded its own book. The hope was to try and put all that information together into a coherent whole so that it could be more easily understood, even by the non-specialist.
AD: It’s often the case that both Catholics and Orthodox think that “history” somehow “proves” their position on any given topic to be right. But history, like Scripture, is not one giant proof-text, and handling historical texts requires a great deal of judicious insight. Give us a sense of how you approach Christian history and why.
History is fluid, and the problem with most debates between Catholics and Orthodox is that there is a failure to appreciate that. There is usually a desire to “pick a century” or “pick a moment” that allegedly captures the view of the undivided church, forgetting completely that the papacy was (and still is) always in the process of developing, just as the Eastern response to it was. Of course the other problem, and Catholics and Orthodox are equally guilty here, is the desire to read the present into the past and interpret 4th-9th century statements using a 21st century understanding of what you think the papacy should be. For example, if I believe that the pope has universal jurisdiction as defined by Vatican I, then I am probably tempted to read Maximus the Confessor’s statements on the place of Rome as upholding that view.
AD: Attempting to “prove” or “disprove” Peter’s primacy on the basis of scriptural and patristic texts has often been done—badly—by Catholic and Orthodox apologists alike. In leaving aside apologetical and polemical methods, your historical scholarship examines Peter in the Scriptures and Fathers serenely and fairly. In doing so, did you find points of convergence or consensus? Did you find any surprises about Peter and his role along the way?
I think here is where you see the biggest progress in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue thus far. Over the last seventy or so years biblical scholars, historians, and theologians on both sides of the East-West divide have begun to look at the sources of the debate in a new way. Oh sure, you can go online and still find hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of blogs and forums where people still throw around the prooftexts in order to demonstrate the truth of the Catholic or Orthodox position. Yet I think that among scholars an objective reading of the evidence has led to a far greater degree of consensus, causing both sides to question the older (and far more polemical) reading.
So take Peter for example. Today there are few Catholic scholars who would maintain that Peter either founded the church of Rome or ever served as its bishop (as we would understand that term). At the same time, most Orthodox scholars, with some important exceptions, now accept that Matthew 16:18 does actually intend to call Peter himself “the rock” upon which the Church is built. These are not insignificant developments.
However, for me the biggest insight into Peter concerned how the fathers dealt with him. Obviously there is the long-standing debate about who or what the fathers believed “the rock” to be in Matthew 16:18, and I do deal with that. Yet the truth is that this question was not the fathers’ biggest concern. They far more often dealt with Peter as a figure of the Church — the shepherding, forgiving, Christ-loving Church who itself was in constant need of forgiveness and grace. Sadly all the debates about “the rock” made people forget that.
AD: You give some fascinating glimpses into such controverted Western councils as Constance (which I discuss here) and various attempts to draw the “Greeks” to support either the new pope or the “conciliarists.” Tell us a bit more about those machinations.
The conciliarist debate is fascinating because in many ways the Western conciliarists were saying exactly what the East had been arguing for centuries. It almost seems like a “no brainer” that given the choice between Pope Eugene IV and the conciliarist bishops gathered at Basel, the Byzantines would choose the latter.
And yet they don’t. It doesn’t make sense. The fact that the Holy Roman Emperor switched sides probably had something to do with it, but I think Gill is correct in saying that the East had been dealing with popes for centuries, and recognized him as chief bishop of the West. An ecumenical council needed representatives from all five patriarchates, including Rome, and if Basel couldn’t provide that, then it was off to Ferrara.
AD: In treating Florence, you quote Bessarion who said Orthodox views of the papacy were “more an expression of oriental politeness than inner conviction.” Given that, were Catholics then and now (following Gill’s “optimistic” assessment of Florence: p.380 in fn. 63) too sanguine about the chances for Florentine success? How else to explain how things unraveled so quickly after the delegation returned to Constantinople in February 1440?
There is a part of me that would like to think that Florence could have worked. As I said in the filioque book, even at Florence Maximus offered a theology that could have worked if only both sides could have read his work as something other than a prooftext.
However the reality is that even if that was possible (which it wasn’t) the Greeks had arrived at precisely the wrong moment in history. Eugene IV had just beaten the conciliarists, a group who, more or less, shared the Greeks’ own vision of the Church, and the pope was not about to surrender his victory so easily. This explains why the Greeks’ rejection was inevitable — they had agreed to his vision of the Church, not their own.
AD: You end your epilogue, and so your book, rather soberly by noting that Orthodox-Catholic unity is not likely to come soon, in part because of an “anti-Roman affect” in certain parts of Orthodoxy. Much of that affect, it seems to me, while drawing on older polemics, is a post-Soviet phenomenon. Do you have any thoughts on why it seems that some Orthodox have become so reactionary over the last quarter-century when it comes to relations with Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular?
It is sad that the ecumenical progress that has taken place among scholars and many Orthodox hierarchs has not penetrated beyond Western Europe. I honestly don’t know why. Is it an internal thing related to the tension between Moscow and Constantinople — i.e., does Moscow want to be seen as “holding the line” while Constantinople is more open? I don’t know the reasons, but the anti-Roman affect is real. Too often Orthodox in the West are tempted to forget, in our atmosphere of ecumenical goodwill, that we are the minority. If ever there is to be real progress toward the restoration of communion, a way must be found to bring the majority with us, and frankly they haven’t expressed much of an interest. The recent Great and Holy Council proved that.
AD: Sum up what your hopes are for the book, and who especially should read it.
Well, from a purely selfish perspective I think everyone should read it! But the more realistic part of me merely hopes that the book can be of use to lots of people. For example, scholars working on a certain historical period may find in the book a resource for understand the larger context. Theologians and ecumenists may find a place to understand what has been before trying to decide what can come next. However, my real hope is that anyone, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, who wants to discover how this debate got started and where things are now will find a really interesting story, told without prejudice or polemical intent.
AD: Having finished now two grand histories of the major East-West debates about the filioque and the papacy, what’s your next project?
As I said before, this book was originally undertaken as part of a larger project to deal with “the other issues” that divide East and West. Once I decided to deal with the papacy in a separate book, it meant that I had to put aside the other three issues I hoped to deal with — purgatory, azymes, and beards. I have already begun the research, and I plan to begin writing soon. We’ll see how it goes.