Orthodoxy and Ecumenism


by Nikolai Berdiaev, 1927


#328a (1); translated by Heinrich Michael Knechten



[p. 3] The Church knows that it is by nature both orthodox and ecumenical. It confesses to be guardian of the right orthodox belief and to encompass all peoples and countries, the whole universe, the ecumene. The ideal consciousness of the Church cannot tolerate any impairment or deformation of the faith nor any particularistic limitation by space or time. The Eastern, the Orthodox Church esteems more its right-belief, the Catholic Church of the West estimates more its universality. This is to be seen in the very terms. But, of course, the Orthodox Church considers itself also as ecumenical, and the Catholic as the right-believing, too. Yet in spite of this there is not always a correlation between the ideal consciousness of the Church and its empirical existence. Orthodoxy and ecumenism can become impaired in their historical actualisation and appearance, they can see as fullness that, which is only a part, and even the pureness of the faith can become obscured. In the historical development an empirical fact may be given an absolute meaning which is not proper to it. First of all we have to point out the different meanings of "ecumenism" in Catholic and Orthodox consciousness. Catholicism understands ecumenism horizontally, external-spatially. The ecumenical Church is for the Catholic consciousness a homogeneous world organization, described in juristic concepts, international and encompassing the whole earth. Orthodoxy understands ecumenism is vertically, a going into the depths. Ecumenism herein is an attribute which may thus belong to every eparchy [p. 4] [= the Western word for diocese], to every parish. Ecumenism is not a spatial category and does not need a juristic world organization to express itself. That means: Orthodoxy understands ecumenism more in a spiritual sense. But we Orthodox must admit that the spirit of ecumenism has not been visible enough in the Orthodox Church and has not been actualized enough, the ecumenism has been so to say there only potentially. Ecumenical Christiandom assumes in history an individualised aspect, and that is in general a blessing. Yet neither individual persons nor individual peoples nor times can contain the fullness of the ecumenical Truth. Each earthly existence in fleshly form contains particularism. The existence of an Eastern and a Western Christian type, the existence of different rites is a beneficial individualisation which realizes pluriformity and fullness. Even without the disastrous separation of Churches there would exist still the individualised forms of an Eastern and Western Christianity, different agendas, different spiritual styles. The ecumenical Church would contain the whole pluriformity of individualised types. And in spite of this, there would still exist a Latinism which might appare strange to the Eastern, Greek Christianity. Man is a limited being, not able to comprehend much, and caught up in his own. The individualisation may transform itself into the pluriformity of ecumenism, but may also see itself as the pluriformity, i.e. may pass the particularism off for ecumenism. The individualistic spiritual styles may yield different meanings, according to the point of view. In the Western Christian world, Catholicism and Protestantism are opposite types. But from the point of view of Eastern Orthodoxy they appear to belong to the same Western spiritual style. Both have at their center the idea of the justification, but not of transfiguration; to both the cosmic conception of Christianity is strange; both have forgotten the Eastern teachers of the Church; and the traditions of Platonism are far remote for them. Equally foreign for official [p. 5] Catholicism and for official Protestantism are Origin, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maxim the Confessor. Blessed Augustine however stands equally high for both Catholicism and Protestantism. Dogmatically, Orthodoxy and Catholicism are nearer, than Orthodoxy and Protestantism, or Protestantism and Catholicism, but their relations are different from the point of view of spiritual styles. Luther worked and thundered against Catholicism, but he remained part of the Western-Catholic spiritual type, determined by the spirit of blessed Augustine, he sought more for justification than for transfiguration, and his conception of Christianity was more anthropological than cosmic. Dogmatically and ecclesiastically, the Catholics are nearer to the Orthodox than to the Protestants, but the Orthodox can work easier with Protestants than with Catholics. The reason for this is first of all that Protestants confess the freedom of conscience. That is the great and characteristic privilege of the Protestantism. Orthodoxy too has as principle the freedom of conscience, freedom of spirit, and this freedom belongs organically to our conception of Universality [Sobornost']. Protestantism however understands the freedom of conscience too individually. Orthodoxy sees itself organically linked with Universality, with the principle of Love. Catholicism officially condemns (2) freedom of conscience under the name of "liberalism", in spite of the fact that just this freedom produced in the Catholic world all that, which was the best in it. The individual forms of Christianity opened themselves these or those aspects of Truth in different form.


But the individualisation of Christianity may produce the forms of a harsh ecclesiastical nationalism and the fusion of Church, state and nationality, a fusion which becomes an enslavement of the Church. An identification of the religious and national element is a sort of Judaism within Christianity. It cannot be denied that there has been an inclination of this kind in the Russian Church. The consciousness of ecumenism of the Ortho- [p. 6] doxy was adversely affected and weakened. After the fall of Byzantium, the Russian people felt itself the only representative of the right-belief . On this basis developed the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome. They began to call the Orthodox faith the "Russian", to identify the ecumenical Church with the Russian. The Church became nationalized through and through, and they began to ascribe an almost dogmatic significance to national peculiarities. They contrasted Russian faith and Russian Rites against not only  Latinism, but also against the Greek faith. They saw patriarch Nikon not as the representative of the Russian, but of the Greek faith. The true Orthodoxy however was the Russian, not the Greek faith. The extreme Russian traditionalism broke de facto with the older Greek Church. On this basis developed the schisms of the Old-Ritualists and the Old-Believers. The Old Ritualists defended the Russian faith against innovations, in spite of the fact, that these innovations were a return to older traditions. The errors in the liturgical books were seen as genuine tradition, associated with the essence of the Russian Orthodox faith. The consciousness of ecumenism was in a certain part of the Russian people weakened or identified with Russian messianism. The orientation of Russia to the West and Europeanizing began with Peter the Great, but the Church became even more national-particularistic than in the former Russian or with the Old-Ritualists. With Peter the Great came also Protestant influences. The Church was subordinated to the state, and the principle "cuius regio, eius religio" which was in this time triumphing in the West, began to penetrate. This was a process of secularisation.


The ecumenical consciousness was very weak in the period of Peter the Great.  Orthodoxy was ecumenical in its depths, but the consciousness of this ecumenicism was weakened. The religious concept  reawakened with us only in the 19th century, and Russian religious thinkers gave an extraordinary keenness of expression to the consciousness of the ecumenicism of Christianity. The Russian Orthodox idea had in the time of its maturity an ecumenical character, and Dostoevsky saw already in the ecumenicism, in the "All- [p. 7] humanity" a characteristic Russian trait. Chomiakov and the Slavianophiles recognized the ecumenical character of the right-belief, but they treated Catholicism unjustly and one-sidedly. Vladimir Soloviev has ecumenism as a central idea. He was its martyr and prophet. The weak point was his inclination to an external Unia. But his effort for the unity of the Christian world, for ecumenism, for fullness, was just and yet premature in comparison with his time. The defective relationship between Church and state in Russia before the revolution, the external oppression of the Church by the state, was disturbing to the consciousness of the ecumenicism of the Right-belief. The state did not want it and was afraid of it, and it upheld the particularism of the ecclesiastical consciousness. The break of the old relations between Church and state must prove to be advantageous for the ecumenical ecclesiastical consciousness, and lead at last to fulfillment of the great religious hopes of the Russian world of thought in the 19th century within the life of the Church.


The ecumenicism, the universal unity possesses for the Catholic Church the pathos for Right-belief. It is an actualizing of the ecumenicism, and demonstrates it in a fleshly form wherein we can perceive it. It possesses a visible and universal center and a visible, uniform and universal outlook which contains all peoples and countries. But in spite of this it is clear for us that the ecumenicism of the Catholic Church is not genuinely complete, that in it a part is passed off for the whole and that not all the whole potential has been actualized. In these times they tend to stress that Catholicism cannot be identified only with Latinism, that the Latin rite is only one of the Catholic rites, that the Eastern rite is equally and organically its own. But in fact the Catholic Church in history has been the Latin Church, the Latin rite, the Latin spirit. The whole classic style of Catholicism was created by a Latin spirit. Only the Latin mass and the Latin rite are organic in Catholicism and can be considered as a whole, in the sense of a work of art. St Thomas Aquinas, so central and influential for Catholicism, is a Latin spirit, a Latin genius. The Catholic Church is an artistically perfect masterpiece, one of the most perfect creations in world history, but it is a creation of the La- [p. 8] tin genius. Latinism not only bears the seal of the Latin mass and the juristic edifice of the Catholic Church, but also of scholasticism, of Catholic theology and Catholic mysticism. German Catholicism was always specific and less Latin, and so it was less classic and not rarely came under suspicion. The German mystic was regarded as not really Catholic, in spite of the fact that he remained within the limits of the Catholic Church (Eckhardt, rehabilitated by Denifle (3), Tauler, Suso, Angelus Silesius), and he was not so highly esteemed as was the Spanish mystic (St John of the Cross, St Theresa). The best German Catholic theologians of the 19th century (not only Moehler, but also Scheeben) were in their outlook very different from the Latin: they are less rationalistic. Moehler, e.g. in his book "The Unity of the Church" is very near to Orthodoxy. (4) Without doubt, Latinism also lays claim to world supremacy, as did the Roman Empire. The idea of a forced universalism is a Roman idea. And Latinism passes itself off without scruples for ecumenism. Its potentiality is actualized by Latinism in abstractness. The center of the Catholic Church remained Latin, and that not by chance. But a contradiction for the Catholic consciousness is that for the ecumenical consciousness the Church of Christ should be only actualized in some of its elements, remaining therefore in a high degree potential and hidden. A total actualization of the ecumenicism would demand not only the abolition of the confessional schisms inside of the Christianity, but also the spreading of the Christianity to the non-Christian world, its being pervaded by the spirit of Christ: The Orthodox consciousness can entirely recognize that the ecumenical Church has been actualized only partially, being partly in a potential and hidden state. This does not mean that the ecumenical Church is not real and should be invisible. But this visibility and incarnation is not complete, [p. 9] not yet perfectly accomplished. For the Catholic consciousness it is difficult to think in this way, in consequence of the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the relationship between potentiality and act [potentia et actus]. From this point of view potentiality bears always a minus in comparison with act, potentiality is to a high degree not-being. In God there is no potentiality, God is pure act [actus purus]. This point of view is very sceptical about potentiality, because out of its depths could come a new, not yet existing, creative development, destroying the system, which has become normative, and indeed the whole edifice. The Catholic consciousness thinks that ecumenicism has become a total reality, in the organisation of its Church. There is nothing new to await containing a greater fullness out of the hidden, not yet manifest, potentiality. But outside of the Thomistic system of thought it can be said that the potential ecumenism is deeper and broader, richer in possibilities than the actualised ecumenism. The Church of Christ is not a finished and completed edifice, there are always creative tasks in it, and enrichment of the life of the Church is possible. The ecumenicism of the Church is given in the depth of being and has in historic incarnations its task. But the ecumenicism of the Church can only become reality by its carried-out partial actualisation and bodily creation.


Protestantism in comparison with Catholicism represents the opposite type in its view on ecumenism. Visibly it exists in the Protestant Churches not at all. Ecumenism remains invisible and not revealed. The Protestant consciousness is comfortable with the existence of many Churches, i.e. – essentially – many Christian communities, and doesn't suffer for one visible ecumenic Church. Ecumenism is realised by a multiplicity of Churches, no one of which makes claims to ecumenicism. Protestantism is willing to acknowledge also the Orthodox Church with its peculiarities as but one of many Churches. But this consciousness comes at the price of a complete reduction of the value of the dogmas and sacraments in the Church, by a [p. 10] displacement of the center of gravity exclusively to the subjective world of the faith and the spiritual disposition. Protestants are aiming at unity, union of the Christian world, but not at unity of the Church, not at one ecumenical Church. This direction has in our days also a positive aspect, because it helps uniting Christians of all Confessions, helps their vital inter-mutual relations which is for Catholics always difficult. We see this in the many conferences and congresses which are organized by Protestants, and in the help for Christian movements of all countries by the Christian Young Men Association (YMCA) and the Universal Christian Federation.



The end