Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Adam DeVille on the theology of Metropolitan Hilarion

Numerous people have asked me to post this article (a response by Dr. Adam DeVille to Met. Hilarion's talk given at St. Vlad's recently in particular and the Russian position in general). After you read it, you won't be surprised that some people sent it in as a strong defense of the Catholic position while others guffawed at the piece, calling it "unhinged." I leave it up to the reader to decide. As always highlighted points are in red and my editorial comments are in blue.

(Catholic World Report) - Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the “foreign affairs minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church, is, as George Weigel observed recently in First Things, a talented man, “charming and witty.” However, the gifted Hilarion, Weigel rightly noted, “does not always speak the truth.” Hilarion is rather like the Energizer Bunny: he goes on and on and on repeating tirelessly whatever pernicious propaganda the Russians want to spread. He has three channels to choose from: tired and outright lies about Ukrainian Catholics, repeated ad nauseam for over a decade now; useful if rather vague calls for Christians to co-operate in addressing the social ills of our time (same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion); and tendentious distortions of his own Orthodox tradition, particularly her ecclesiology. It is the third I wish to address. Speaking to the first and second points: There is absolutely no arguing that Met. Hilarion has some very strident views of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. I'm sure if he got in a room with a survivor of the systematic oppression of the Ukrainian Catholic Church that some of his statements denying Soviet persecution would be met with equally strident outrage. It seems that Met. Hilarion doesn't believe that Uniatism should exist at all and that's a hard place from which to find compromise. On the second point, I wouldn't call the points "vague" but comprehensive. Met. Hilarion has gone to Rome many times to discuss these subjects and been involved in many efforts to combat a panoply of issues (Christianophobia, violence against Christians, bio-ethical concerns). Truthfully, he's so active in this arena that I post more stories on his speeches on these topics than any two other entire patriarchates combined.

[Book plug beginning.] Earlier this month, the metropolitan gave a speech at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York, about primacy in the Orthodox Church and in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. Since I've written the most wide-ranging, up-to-date, and comprehensive survey on both topics—Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame Press 2011)—I was vexed at the ignorance and distortions on display in the metropolitan's essay. It is absurd, frankly, that he cannot even relay his own Orthodox tradition faithfully and that it fell to me, lowest of the low (for I am a Ukrainian Catholic—one of those horrible old “Uniates” that Alfeyev is forever denouncing), to more faithfully represent and adequately describe the Orthodox tradition than he himself has.

Now, to be sure, I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur and imagine that everyone has eagerly devoured my book, treating it like some Delphic oracle revealing the way to Christian unity. But it has been lauded by many Orthodox for its faithful, wide-ranging, and comprehensive survey of Orthodox positions in all their diversity. For the Orthodox do not speak with one voice on these matters, and they do not speak in one place, either. I gathered dozens of articles and books, most from very obscure places, and put them into one sweeping chapter, which had never been done before. As Fr. John Jillions, a scholar and the Chancellor of the Orthodox Church of America, said to me quite sincerely and gratefully, “At the very least your book will be useful for telling us Orthodox what we say and think!” [Book plug ending.]

Had Hilarion read the book, he could have saved himself the embarrassment of uttering such howlers in New York as this:

… we are dealing with two very different models of church administration: one centralized and based on the perception of papal universal jurisdiction; the other decentralized and based on the notion of the communion of autocephalous local Churches.

This is the old mythology, never accurate in the first place, that sees the West as all papal and monarchical, and the East as all patriarchal and synodical. Like all stereotypes, it distorts. For the plain facts are that there is a long history of robust synodality in the Church of Rome going back to the earliest centuries of her history, and there is a long history of Eastern Churches attempting to be heavily centralized and run not in a synodal manner but in a manner that some Orthodox themselves have confessed to be “quasi-papal.” The clearest recent example of a super-centralized Orthodox church run on quasi-papal lines is Alfeyev's own Russian Church, whose 1945 statutes gave the patriarch of Moscow (for political reasons insisted upon by Stalin) powers that popes of Rome could only dream about. I document all this in great detail in my book. For Alfeyev not to acknowledge any of this makes it clear that his treatment of primacy is grossly tendentious and thus must be dismissed as inaccurate and unreliable. All of that might be true, but the metropolitan's point is this is where we are now. If you see these past events as corner cases where governments forced changes or the lamentable excesses and overreaches of certain patriarchates, you are left with a Church that has tried to avoid and correct these power struggles, not embrace or validate them. Hard cases make bad law.

But it gets worse. Referring rather sweepingly and positively to “Orthodox....polemics,” the metropolitan sums these up as arguing that “in the Universal Church there can be no visible head because Christ Himself is the Head of the Body of the Church.” He recognizes that some Orthodox do not subscribe to such a view, naming the (safely dead) Fr. Alexander Schmemann, former dean of St. Vladimir's. Tellingly, the metropolitan fails to mention the most important Greek Orthodox theologian alive today, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, who is Orthodox co-chair of the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and has argued in favor of universal primacy—as the majority of modern Orthodox theologians also do—exercised in a synodal manner. Zizioulas, moreover, has rightly insisted that universal primacy requires universal synodality, and one cannot speak intelligently about one without the other. Alfeyev's failure to even mention Zizioulas strikes the reader as thin-skinned and perhaps even motivated by envy—there can be only one prima donna in this town, and c'est moi. Met. John's position is more nuanced than that.  For example, he said in an interview some years ago: "According to Tradition the bishop of Rome is the first bishop in all the Church. The difficulty concerning the Petrine primacy lies in the fact that it entails universal jurisdiction whereby the pope can interfere in a local Church. But if we can find a way in which to see the universal primacy of the pope that doesn’t encroach on the full nature of the local Church, we could accept it... That aspect has still to be assessed. From my point of view, the first thing is that the bishop of Rome should not do anything without the other bishops. He should always consult them. Additionally, he should not interfere in the normal life of other dioceses and of the other Churches. He is the bishop of his Church. He can have a moral influence and he can have the power canonically to summon synods and to express himself as spokesman for the common voice of the Church. But he can do nothing in solitary manner. He does not as individual represent the whole Church. He can safeguard the depositum fidei only in communion with the other bishops." That's hardly the Catholic position and finds more in concert with Met. Hilarion than Rome.

Hilarion next makes another spurious claim:

The notion that a supreme hierarch for the Universal Church is a necessity has been approached from different angles over the last fifty years, but invariably the consensus among the Orthodox is that primacy as expressed in the Western tradition was and remains alien to the East. In other words, the Orthodox are not prepared to have a pope.

Current modes of exercising the papacy may indeed remain “alien to the East” in broad measure, but the second sentence here is, as my book's survey of twenty-four Orthodox scholars shows, completely bogus. Again and again, modern Orthodox thinkers have recognized that there is a role for the papacy, that they are prepared to have a pope under certain circumstances, and that the papacy, when exercised properly, is a gift and a blessing for all Christians, including the Orthodox! Indeed, the late Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop Vsevolod of Chicago bluntly stated, in a 1997 address at Catholic University of America, “the Church needs the Roman primacy.” This is not speaking to the point he's trying to make. Orthodoxy will not submit to the complete papal authority as it is exercised in the Roman Church. We will accept a primus inter pares, but could accept very, very little of the wording of Vatican I.

There is more tiresome nonsense: Hilarion ties up his piece by referring to the statement of the Rusian Church about primacy, adopted on December 26, 2013 (which I debunked in this CWR piece), where it is claimed that “primacy in the Universal Orthodox the primacy of honor by its very nature rather than that of power.” There are few phrases more vexatious to me than “primacy of honor.” More than twenty years ago now, the widely respected historian Fr. Brian E. Daley, SJ, in an article—““Position and Patronage in the Early Church: The Original Meaning of ‘Primacy of Honour’”—published in Journal of Theological Studies, one of the most prestigious theological journals in the anglophone world, showed that the notion of “primacy of honor” in the early Church did not mean an absence of authority. Such primacy, in fact, was honored precisely because it was authoritative, and the one exercising that primacy could and did call people to account, where necessary coercing and compelling obedience in various circumstances. The primate of “honor,” then, clearly is not a useless avuncular fellow—able to smile and wave and nothing more. He had real teeth—or, to use Alfeyev's word, “power”. And I don't believe Metropolitan Hilarion is debating that. He is not, though, in favor of an understanding that sees a complete, infallible primacy as is currently exercised within not just the Roman Church, but its sui iuris Churches as well.

Why, then, such a shoddy speech? Was Metropolian Hilarion Alfeyev just being lazy in not reading widely recognized landmark scholarship such as Daley's article (to say nothing of my book)? Or was he setting out to distort the record and ignore evidence that does not fit his (and broadly Russian) prejudices? The inescapable conclusion is that he cannot even be relied upon to faithfully, truthfully, and accurately represent his own tradition. If he repeatedly tells lies about Catholics in Ukraine, and is now caught out uttering distortions about his own Orthodox tradition, how can this man be called upon to reliably discuss anything?

If all his invitations to various conferences—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—do not now dry up, then the fault is not with him but with us for our willingness to indulge duplicity. We have made ourselves accomplices in this man's self-destructive utterances by regularly giving him a platform from which to lie. As Christians, we must surely recognize that it is itself a sin to aid and abet another in actions we ourselves know to be sin. Out of genuine charity for Metropolitan Hilarion, it is time that we no longer seek him out or listen to him. Let him never again be given an invitation to a Vatican event of any kind; let no more honorary doctorates be conferred on him; let him be denied all future speaking engagements and photo ops with Billy Graham, the pope, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Let us pray that, being young enough, perhaps he may yet amend his ways so that truth and honesty might light the difficult but vital path of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


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  2. Attributing motives as if he can read minds makes DeVille no better than Weigel. Pity.

  3. Hilarion Alfeyev has a habit of saying half the right thing in the wrong place - he did the same for the Anglicans in his notorious Nicaean Club dinner speech at Lambeth in 2010. His diplomatic skills are, shall we say, somewhat wanting. Also remember how when first made a bishop he was sent to England and within months created a split in the Diocese of Sourozh.

  4. The topic Metr. Hilarion rose needs to be discussed in a forum by all3 partie: Uniates, Roman Catholics and Orthodox but I think DeVille's article is NOT a helpful response. DeVille is using the topic to promote his book. We need a calm unemotional discussion taking into account historical circumstances of the political force by which the Uniate churches were created, the open wound that was left in the Orthodox Churches and at the same time the present reality of Uniates churches that have now existed as Christian communities for centuries. How do we move forward in a helpful and healing way?

    1. How do we move forward in a helpful and healing way?

      That is indeed the question. Somehow I think the answer does not involve Latins and Uniates lecturing us Orthodox about the content of our own tradition and ecclesiology when one of our spokesmen says something they don't like.

    2. Agreed on DeVille's approach. And it sounds like he expects Abp. Hilarion to comment as if he already agrees with him. It's not hard to pick someone apart if they speak your theological language. DeVille cannot define Orthodoxy for the Russian Church.

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  6. Having read both Met. Hilarion's speech at SVS and Dr. Deville's brief response, as well as personally knowing the background context of Met. Hilarion's disingenuous track-record regarding the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church and personally being familiar with Dr. Deville's thesis on the question of Roman primacy, I thought it appropriate to make a few brief observations here. (Full disclosure: I'm a priest of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church)

    Dr Deville is no more attributing motives to the Metropolitan than simply following the proverbial bread crumbs. The facts are that Met. Hilarion is on record lying about the false synod of 1946 by which Stalin, with the cooperation of the Russian hierarchy, liquidated the UGCC and began her existence as the largest banned religious body in the world after the Second World War. Untold numbers of our faithful, priests, nuns and every last one of our bishops were tortured and exiled to Siberia. Among the latter category most died as martyrs for the principle of unity with Peter. In Deville's defense, he is not attributing motives to Hilarion. Yet, as an earnest historian and theologian he cannot ignore the propensity of the Russian Church's hierarchy (I speak not against the Russian tradition, nor against her faithful) to coddle with authoritarian regimes to its own advantage, even going so far as to contravene her own tradition to do so. This brings us to the specific issue of Met. Hilarion's speech at SVS.

    In Hilarion's speech at SVS it should be admitted by anyone of noble intent and Gospel eyes that he simply misrepresented his own tradition on the question of primacy. How so? Simplification and misrepresentation.

    I say "simplification" because the Metropolitan attempts to cast the West as centralized and the East as decentralized. Anyone who has read the history of the Constantinopolitan Church and her many reforms knows that the operative term here is centralization.

    I say "misrepresentation" because Hilarion says that "primacy is alien to the East." Here he departs from the patristic roots of his own tradition whereby primacy and key instances of Roman authority being acknowledged in the East are matter of record, yet he completely skips over them. Further, in his address he misrepresents and dismisses out of hand the notion of Trinitarian theology being superimposed on ecclesiology, yet he somehow devotes considerable energy trying to interface the Russian iconographic tradition into the discussion. Alarmingly, for a Christian leader there is no Scripture in his speech at SVS. This is a clear misrepresentation of the issue: to overlook/downplay the role of Trinity and Scripture in this discussion, yet overplay 15th century Russian iconography.

    I believe Deville does everyone a service by pointing this out. His book is not "Uniates" lecturing Orthodox. Even the Chancellor of the OCA has recommended it as a guide to helping Orthodox know what their own tradition says. Sure, Deville plugs his book a bit frequently in his all-too-brief article, but, pray tell, what other book from a major publisher is out there which addresses these fundamental questions?

    1. It seems to me that you're simply repeating the approach of taking bits and pieces out of context to build straw men.