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Soloviev and the Pope

John Couretas

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John Couretas responds to Deal Hudson of Crisis Magazine about the article "Soloviev's Amen."

The editorial warrant for Crisis Magazine is to safeguard Roman Catholicism in the United States from the left-liberal factions that challenge traditionalists on matters of culture, politics and faith. Crisis has discovered a new threat looming large over orthodox-minded Roman Catholics --Orthodox Christians.

Rev. Ray Ryland's "Soloviev's Amen" in the November issue puts forth Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) as an Orthodox apologist for the papacy. Father Ryland, an adjunct professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, recently edited a book on Soloviev. The priest, a former Episcopal clergyman, is active in Roman Catholic programs designed to attract Protestant converts and has -- apparently in an effort to aid his cause -- written disparaging articles about Orthodoxy for a number of Catholic publications.

The Crisis article is a work of sparkling mediocrity that ignores the very real differences in theology, history and culture that tragically divide the ancient Church. What's more, Fr. Ryland's polemic sets up Soloviev in a role that he is most unsuited for -- that caricature of the benighted Orthodox yearning for reunion with Rome, only to be blocked by hardheaded Patriarchal "schismatics."

But there's a deeper problem. The Crisis article altogether ignores the long-running bilateral dialogue between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, here and abroad, aimed toward a greater sharing of information and cooperation on issues of mutual interest. Despite very considerable obstacles, that dialogue has been carried out for decades in a spirit of brotherhood, charity and respect -- a spirit entirely absent from Fr.Ryland's article. Indeed, to find heartfelt Roman Catholic expressions of brotherhood with the Churches of the East, all one has to do is review the public statements of Pope John Paul II issued during his meetings with Orthodox hierarchs. Last year in Sophia, Bulgaria, John Paul II addressed Patriarch Maxim and the members of the Holy Synod and said: "Christ Our Lord founded a single Church, while we today appear to the world divided, as if Christ himself were divided." Either we can take the Pope's words as sincere expressions of a desire to, as he told Maxim, "restore full ecclesial communion" or his statement was mere p.r. cover for another agenda: Inviting the Bulgarians to annex themselves to the Vatican.

Fr. Ryland's article on Soloviev is shot through with gross distortions and untruths about Orthodox Christians who, he would have us believe, have simply failed to see the inferiority of their position for the past 1,000 years. For example, the priest asserts that the Orthodox Church is not in a position to call an Ecumenical Council and cannot "name one action that affects Christendom in its entirety apart from the papacy." It's unclear what this "entirety" refers to. Does Fr. Rylandsuggest that the papacy today effects jurisdiction over a "Christendom" that includes the Orthodox and the Protestant? Other statements in the article border on the fantastic. Fr. Ryland's claim that Roman Catholicism is "the only Church that has successfully defended the freedom of spiritual power from state control" contradicts European history and ignores the concept of human freedom as expressed in Orthodox Christian anthropology.

The subservience of the Orthodox Church to political powers, ancient and modern, is an old canard. But the truth is always more complicated. Christopher Dawson, the great historian and a Roman Catholic, noted that in thel ate Middle Ages it was the general tendency of secular powers in western Europe to exercise control over the papacy. "The king kept his gains and continued to control the Church in his dominions," Dawson wrote. "He appointed the bishops, and exercised a wide control over the clergy and over ecclesiastical property. The autonomous rights of the local churches were lost and the supreme authority of the Papacy was limited and reduced."

To better understand Soloviev, turn to another Russian, the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev. In his writings on Soloviev's religious consciousness, Berdyaev noted that his countryman "sees in the East the prevailing of God without man, and in the West the prevailing of man without God." Berdyaev said Soloviev's book Russia and the Universal Church, in which he "defends papalism with the usual Catholic arguments," was remarkable only for the fact that it was written by a Russian. "What attracted him most of all in Catholicism was the hierarchic churchly structure, and papism, as anactive organization, suitable to the struggle for the truth of Christ upon the earth," Berdyaev said. Russia and the Universal Church showed Soloviev to be, Berdyaev maintained, "essentially an adherent of the medieval papal theocracy." This Western theocratic world, Berdyaev said, "does not seek for the City-to-Come, it has its own city in the hierarchic structure of the Church and in its pretensions to be the kingdom."But Berdyaev was no party hack. At the same time, he was unflinching in his assessment of what he saw as the weaknesses of the Orthodox Church, especially its nationalism, particularism and passiveness.

Berdyaev's thoughts on a closer communion of East and Westare worth quoting at length:

"Strictly speaking, it is not possible to speak about the re-unification of the two human worlds, the world of the Eastern-Christian and the world of the Western-Catholic. The Church -- is one,and is the fullness thereof. The divisions and the non-fullness are but of people, only human history. And the division separating Orthodox and Catholic mankind is a human sin, a limitedness that is human. But the redeeming of the human sin and the overcoming of human limitedness is not to be gained by formalunias, by negotiations and agreements, by mutual concessions or reciprocal pretensions, but only by a transformation of the mutual attitudes of the two Christian worlds within the very deeps of the religious experience."

In a November 19 interview with Zenit*, the Roman Catholic news agency, Fr. Ryland said "there is an unsubstantiated report that (Soloviev) received last rites from a Russian Orthodox priest." This is another inconvenient fact clouding Fr. Ryland's polemic. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, which might be considered by Roman Catholics to be an authoritative source: "On his death bed Solov'ev received the Last Rites from a Russian Orthodox priest."That Soloviev chose to receive the sacrament of Holy Unction from an Orthodox priest should be viewed as decisive.

In theend, we could view Soloviev's life as a contest for one man's soul that produced a win for Orthodoxy and a defeat for the Roman team. But that would be wrong. Soloviev's choice was for Christ. Could Fr. Ryland and Crisis Magazine ever come to the same conclusion?

*To read the article, go to Zenit News and enter "Father Ray Ryland" in the search box.

John Couretas is a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Copyright 2001-2020 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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