A CATHOLIC-ORTHODOX DIALOGUE
I first met Annette Colin exactly twenty years ago when she was a student of mine in Cambridge. Coming from the town of Nantes in western France, she is a sincere and devout Roman Catholic. The following are the edited transcripts of conversations with her, translated from the French.
Fr Andrew: As far as I am concerned, Protestantism (and that includes Anglicanism, of course) is not a logical choice, since it only began in the sixteenth century and has no historical roots. Catholicism is more attractive, since it does have roots. But try as I might, I cannot find the original roots of Christianity even in Catholicism. Everything is so overlaid, either with the medievalism of Dominic and Francis, or else with the Counter-Reformation, or else with the piety of the nineteenth century of Bernadette and Teresa, or else with the movements of Vatican II and the 1960's mentality. However, in Orthodoxy, I can see and hear the original and ancient voice of the Church of the Apostles.
AC: But surely as a Westerner, by becoming Orthodox, you reject your own cultural heritage?
FA: I actually believe just the opposite. For me the Orthodox Church reveals and illuminates what is truly Christian in Western culture. Orthodoxy is a light which teaches me what to reject in Western culture, for example Non-Christian Roman and Germanic pagan barbarism, secularism, the spirit of this world, and what to accept, the Christian. In the light of Orthodox Christianity I can regain and save the essentially Orthodox values of my own English culture. Only Orthodoxy puts into perspective my own culture and sifts the wheat from the chaff. For example, you reject Protestantism, you also reject the French Revolution, you reject abortion, does that mean that you reject Western culture? The difference between us is simply that I am more radical, more 'revolutionary' than you, because I reject greater parts of Western culture, because I see those parts as falling short of Christ and His Gospel commandments. They are thisworldly, unspiritual. I accept only what is Orthodox in my own Western culture. I cannot accept what is not Orthodox in my own culture, only a secular mentality accepts a culture as a whole without discriminating between what is Christian and what is Non-Christian in it, because only a secular mentality places culture before faith.
AC: But Orthodoxy is foreign. For example, you are in the Russian Church, other English or French Orthodox are in the Greek Church. You are not in your own Church.
FA: The first Christians in Rome were Jewish or Greek. Roman, that is Latin Christians, had to wait for two centuries in order to have their own Church in their own country. As regards England, our Orthodox Apostles were Romans, Italians. It does not bother me to have to wait to have our own Orthodox Church of the British Isles.
AC: But why wait? You already have a Western Church.
FA: Yes, but it is not Orthodox!
AC: Well, but what about numbers. There are far more Catholics than there are Orthodox.
FA: What about numbers? You know very well that the Catholic Church claims to have about fifty million Catholics in France. In reality there cannot be more than five million who actually practise from time to time. And it is the same elsewhere. There are very few believing Catholics elsewhere. For example in Poland, 95% are said to be Catholic but apparently 65% are in favour of abortion!
AC: Yes, but most Orthodox are also only nominal believers.
FA: I absolutely agree with you. But isn't the whole numbers debate therefore sterile? I know that most Orthodox are only Orthodox because they were born Russian, Romanian, Serb, Greek etc. And the same is true for Catholics, born Italian, Spanish, Polish, French, South and Central American, Mexican, Filipino or in former French colonies in Africa. Suppose the Russians had populated the Americas before the Spanish and the English, or the Greeks had colonised Africa before the French and the British, that would make the majority Orthodox, at least nominally. The whole thing is meaningless. And if we are to argue that the majority is right, we should probably both become Muslim or perhaps atheists. Truth is not in numbers and you know that. And Christ and His Twelve Apostles knew that when they battled against the millions of the Jewish and Roman establishments.
AC: You are very frank. But let me put this to you. Orthodox do not have a good reputation. For example, look at the Serbs who raped Croat women, or the Russians who mass raped Austrian and German women at the end of the Second World War. And look at the treatment of the Chechens by the Russian Army today.
FA: Annette, are you seriously accusing Orthodox of these acts? You know that it was the Red Army that raped its way into Austria and Germany, an anti-Orthodox Communist Army that also raped Russian slave-labourers. As regards the Serbian army under Milosevic, that was the basis of his Communism, which I might say was introduced into Serbia by the Catholic Communist Tito. Less than five per cent of Serb soldiers are even baptised. And as regards the Chechens and the Russian Army, how many soldiers in the Russian Army are actually practising Orthodox? And as regards atrocities, it would be hard to beat the Crusaders or French Catholics massacring Cathars under the Inquisition, Spanish Catholics in South America or the Nazi Catholics exterminating Slavs and Jews, or the Catholic Rwandans massacring another tribe.
AC: OK, perhaps in some ways we are equal. But in the Pope we have a world figure. There is nobody to compare with him in the Orthodox Church.
Yes, you are right, no Orthodox bishop gets publicity like the Pope. But
I would say two things. Firstly, it seems cruel to me to put on display
this sick, old man before the world media, as the Vatican does. Let him
live out his remaining months in retirement. He cannot walk, he cannot
hold his head, he has Parkinson's.
AC: Yes, but this publicity is for the good of the Church.
FA: Is it? Do more people come to church, come to repentance and confession because of television pictures of the Pope? You know that in France most Catholic churches are empty. Many are put up for sale, you can buy them at estate agencies to make into homes. And the fact is that the average age of Catholic priest in France is now 72! What good has the Pope done?
AC: There are difficulties in France, but I insist there is nobody in the Orthodox Church who is in the public eye like the Pope is.
FA: But why be in the public eye? We should be in God's eye. The public eye is secular.
AC: Our Pope has canonised hundreds of Catholic saints. That is not secular.
FA: Why does the Pope canonize? In the Orthodox Church any bishop can canonise on the demand of the people as verified by an investigation. In the Orthodox Church in this century, we have had millions of saints, martyrs.
AC: But we have had extraordinary saints, like Mother Teresa and Padre Pio.
FA: We too have had extraordinary individuals, who achieved the heights of holiness. As regards Padre Pio and Mother Teresa, we believe that they were no doubt very worthy and sincere individuals, but we do not believe that they were saints. The problem between us is that although we use the same words, we have different understandings. The word 'Saint' is a good example, 'Trinity' is another one. Even 'Pope'. For instance in the Orthodox Church we also have a Pope, the Pope of Alexandria, and we have ancient Popes of Rome in our calendar, but 'Pope' does not mean the same thing for us as for you. Even the word 'Catholic' means something different for Orthodox, just as the word 'Church' itself.
AC: A question for you. Why do Orthodox take communion so rarely?
FA: I could ask why do Catholics take communion so frequently! Yes, I think Orthodox should take communion more frequently, but for us taking the Body and Blood of Christ is such a serious thing that very frequent communion is difficult to conceive of. The preparation for communion is serious, with the eucharistic fast and often confession beforehand. For example, I met a Catholic lady in America some years ago who went to mass every single day and took communion. I was very impressed until she told me that for her it was all a sort of breakfast , for her it was just bread and wine. If she had taken it seriously, she would have had communion far less frequently.
AC: Earlier on you mentioned that French Catholics - though I would say lapsed Catholics - had persecuted the Cathars, but what about Orthodox persecution of Catholics. You know that recently the Russian Church forbade some Catholic bishops to enter Russia to look after their flocks. They said that Russia was an Orthodox territory and virtually that no-one there had the right to be Catholic.
FA: You probably know that the Russian Church in Moscow, to which I do not belong, has a State mentality, which I do not have. But I must say that the techniques used by Catholicism in Russia to acquire a flock are often very objectionable, if not simply fraudulent bribery. As regards the Catholic persecution of the Cathars, I cannot agree that it was carried out by lapsed Catholics, many of the people involved in the Inquisition were Bishops and Abbots and at least one future Pope. They were not lapsed, were they?
AC: Let us get back to the question. If you follow the Russian mentality, then surely you do not have the right to be Orthodox since you are not on Russian, but on Western, territory.
FA: Here, I agree with you. I find that territorial viewpoint in our globalised world just old-fashioned and irrelevant, a relic from the nineteenth century. There should be the freedom to confess the religion in which you believe.
AC: Well, in that case, why are you against Uniats? Don't you think that there are some people who are attached to the Eastern rite but who want to pray for the Pope?
FA: There is in Uniatism an inherent trickery, a fraud. I have been in two Uniat churches. The spirit and atmosphere was totally different from in an Orthodox church. And suppose, for example, that I wanted to be a Uniat. I would be forbidden, because I do not belong to the right ethnic group. Uniatism is an ethnic, tribal religion, it is largely about nationalism, not about religion.
AC: But isn't Orthodoxy largely ethnic, as you say?
FA: To an extent among nominal Orthodox, yes, but then so is Catholicism. You only have to talk to Irish or Poles or Italians to see that. For example with the Irish, I am convinced that if the English had been devout Catholics, the Irish would all have become Protestants. However, if we are to talk about serious differences, it is not a matter of ethnicity, it is a matter of theology, the filioque, the understanding of God.
AC: Here I cannot agree with you. I have read about the filioque. What difference does it make, if the Holy Spirit comes from the Father through the Son, or from the Father and the Son?
FA: Frankly, we have different Gods inasmuch as we have different conceptions of God. As a result of different conceptions of God, we have different values, different spiritualities and different cultures.
AC: But nowadays we have Ecumenism so that we can be together despite differences.
FA: Yes, of course we can live together cordially, as good neighbours, unlike in Slovakia or Croatia or the Ukraine where Orthodoxy is persecuted.
AC: And where Orthodox have persecuted Catholics! But can't we do more than live side by side. What about unity?
FA: Don't ask me about unity. Ask ordinary Catholics and Orthodox. Why do they not go into each others' churches? Because they know, unlike the intellectuals who do official dialogues, that the Churches are different. It is all very well to paper over and intellectualise differences at ecumenical meetings, but the fact is that the average Catholic and the average Orthodox are not interested in going to each others' churches. Why? Because the two religions are different and it is obvious.
AC: Well, why then do so many people become Catholic? Look at Africa. And look at China. At this moment the Catholic Church has millions of bibles and missals all stored in Taiwan for when Communism falls. Tens of millions will become Catholic in China. I have never heard of Orthodox missionaries in China and Africa. Very few people become Orthodox there.
FA: You have a point. It is true that in the Orthodox Church, since 1917, we have lacked finance and infrastructure. But what did Christ have? The only finance and infrastructure He had was organised by Judas and we know what happened. I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us beyond mere human culture and politics, beyond our human weaknesses and financial inadequacies. Truth will out. The gates of hell will not prevail. In the last few years, for example, I have met many Russians who became Protestant or even Catholic in Russia in the early nineties under missionary influence. The ones I have met have all since become Orthodox. I believe that the work that Catholics and Protestants are doing trying to convert Russians is simply backfiring. Dollars cannot buy souls for long. In many ways the contacts that Russians have in Russia with Catholics and Protestants are a kind of catechism, a preparation to become Orthodox. In any case what is important for Orthodox is quality, not quantity.
AC: But look at how divided the Orthodox Church is. The Catholic Church is all united around the Pope and always has been. The Orthodox Churches cannot even agree when Christmas is, some have Christmas with us, others thirteen days later.
It is a true that a minority of spiritually weakened Orthodox in the Balkans
and the Middle East have accepted the Catholic calendar for the fixed
feasts, which caused Old Calendarist schisms in those countries. But most
Orthodox keep the Orthodox calendar and, if they had the political power,
I believe that the Orthodox would all return to the Orthodox calendar.
In the Orthodox Church the number of sectarian Old Calendarists and modernistic
New Calendarists, half-baked intellectuals, is really very small. And
in any case the calendar is not a dogma. We are not dogmatically divided.
AC: Yes, but in the Catholic Church we still have the Pope, a figure of unity.
FA: Popes come and go. I would not count on one human personality. Although you have the Pope, I would say that we have the Holy Spirit, our unity, and that therefore we need no Pope.
AC: Well, I would say that we have the Pope and the Holy Spirit and unity! How can you reject the Pope. It is in the Bible, when Jesus gives authority to St Peter.
FA: First of all, we do not believe that Christ gave authority over the Church to St Peter. We believe that Christ said that the Church is built on the confession of Him as the Son of God. Any believer can make that confession. In any case St Peter founded the Patriarchate of Antioch before he founded Rome. According to your logic, it should therefore be the Patriarch of Antioch who should have all authority over the Church. And then, even if you were right, and Christ did give authority to the Apostle Peter, how could that authority be transferrred to his successors? Are you saying that the function of Catholic Bishop of Rome automatically entitles whoever has that job to universal authority and infallibility? How can you inherit faith? You know that many Popes have been murderers, poisoners, fornicators. You cannot inherit the Holy Spirit!
AC: I am afraid we shall have to agree to disagree, Fr Andrew. There is simply too much that divides us here. We have different cultures and different mentalities. But I hope that we will remain friends!
FA: Of course, Annette.