In any heightened climate of extended political controversy – whether in ecclesiastical politics or in secular politics – it can be tempting to fall into modes of thinking which serve to easily reduce our opponents to caricatures of themselves. These reductions and caricatures allow us to easily take the high ground, or, rather, to imagine ourselves as having the morally superior position. No political or religious institution – including my own communion, the Orthodox Church – is immune to this polarizing phenomenon.

In the Orthodox Church, we have similar divides over leading church personalities and public positions, with the same tendency to demonize those who have a different perspective. One can find more ‘traditionalist’ Orthodox, ‘more liberal’ Orthodox, and so on, with traditionalists often referring to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in terms similar to those used by traditionalist Catholics to describe Pope Francis, while some more liberal critics of the Russian Orthodox Church have taken to calling Patriarch Kirill and his supporters Pharisees, legalists, etc. In all these cases, the same thing occurs: false dichotomies abound, brotherly love evaporates, and mutual resentments build amidst an unnecessary reduction and caricaturing of one’s opponents which serves no productive purpose whatsoever.

In Shaun Kenney’s February 7 article “Francis, Bannon, and the Neopelagian Crisis”, he used neopelagian as a pejorative adjective to describe those who have criticized aspects of Pope Francis’ approach and who identify as being in the “traditionalist” or “conservative” camps, if you will, within the Catholic communion. It is exactly this kind of dismissive rhetoric and sweeping generalization which detracts from attempts to find common ground and greater understanding. Anyone familiar with the tenets of Pelagius and various forms of neo-Pelagianism must realize that Cardinal Burke and those supporting his challenges to Pope Francis are not espousing Pelagianism in any form. Likewise, to argue that Pope Francis is somehow entirely “liberal” in his approach and pronouncements is also to grossly mischaracterize him.

Confusion: An Orthodox perspective “looking in” on Francis’ papacy

I am not convinced that the Cardinal is a neopelagian Pharisee or that the Pope is a liberal modernist. Does one really have to accept either claim? I ask this as an Orthodox Christian who naturally agrees here with the Pope, who might explore the possibility of allowing civilly divorced-and-remarried men and women to have the use of their consciences in determining whether they should commune or not. Naturally, in recognizing that marriages can and sometimes tragically do end, my Church out of mercy has since time immemorial permitted conditional remarriage within its sacramental life.

In the instance of the Orthodox Church blessing a second marriage for two new spouses, some of the more exuberant, joyful wedding prayers used in the blessing of a first marriage will often be omitted. Everything is considered by the priest or bishop who will be marrying the couple with regard to the question of what is most salvific and spiritually beneficial for them, to help them grow together and strive toward theosis. The couple’s spiritual guide – a trusted priest or bishop, or sometimes a wise monk or nun – strives to prepare them beforehand, and convey to them in regular meetings the absolute centrality of the self-sacrificial nature of marriage, which is supposed to lead both husband and wife together to incarnate the Kingdom of Heaven in their home and their shared family life.

Some Catholic readers might ask: if the Orthodox allow for ecclesiastical divorce and conditional remarriage, do they really believe in the sacredness of marriage? We do – and our ideal is that marriage is not a bond that lasts “til death us do part”, but that the spiritual union between the two souls carries on “unto ages of ages”, as our doxologies close. Our magnificent, deeply theologically rich weddings celebrate marriage as a holy, grace-conveying, and transformative mystery (sacrament) by which husband and wife are joined as one spiritual unit, one earthly kingdom to image and imitate the heavenly.

My Church has always applied the principle of oikonomia (economia, lit. “good housekeeping” or “stewardship”), a theological approach designed to reconcile anything imperfect or lacking for the greater salvation of the person or persons involved. The Orthodox Church acknowledges the reality of sacramental divorce and remarriage not to allow for a married man or woman to selfishly forsake the covenantal bonds and abuse or abandon their spouse, but to mercifully grant the injured or abused party the most important thing for their salvation:  chance for the healing of soul and body.

The Orthodox position is that the end goal of marriage is, and must be, the ever-deepening love and unity of both husband and wife together expressed in the shared undertaking toward salvation. No marriage is perfect, but the ideal, the expectation, is that married life will help the husband and wife to become more like God. A marriage in which either the husband or wife, or both partners, have refused to honor their commitments and invest themselves fully, and refused to do the work necessary to restore trust and heal any wounds, is one in which the true purpose of the marriage as a grace-conveying, salvific process has ceased to exist. In these tragic cases, following attempts to urge genuine repentance and reconciliation, the Church will, for the good of the injured spouse, acknowledge that the marriage has ended. The injured party is then free to eventually remarry in the life of the Church should he or she wish to do so.

Some Catholic readers might point to Matthew 19 or Mark 10 and object; the simple reality is that the Orthodox position does not interpret these verses the way that Catholic tradition or canons do. This means that, prior to the Great Schism, the Christian West and East had developed different approaches to the theology of marriage, with the East recognizing that sometimes, in certain tragic situations, a marriage can and does cease to exist as a sacramental reality.

Along with Kenney, I disagree with Cardinal Burke’s opposition to allowing sacramental divorce and the communing of the civilly remarried, but I do so for different reasons. Burke opposes these because he has a theological understanding of marriage which fundamentally differs from my Church’s, but this does not mean I see any benefit in calling him a neo-pelagian or a Pharisee.

As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that Rome would be well served to consider what my Church has always done, and mercifully address situations in which, tragically, a marriage ceases to exist, and – the couple having exhausted all attempts at reconciliation -- acknowledge the end of that union for the healing of both parties.

Kenney writes of the Pope wanting to “bridge the divide with our Eastern Orthodox cousins”, and those of us who follow the ecumenical discussions are well aware of what these discussions have entailed in the last five decades. While it is naturally valuable to talk with each other, my chief concern is that so much of the Catholic intellectual world is trapped in this polemical language. How can the Catholic Church hope to draw closer to the Orthodox when its leading thinkers are engaged in a seemingly unrestrained war of words and ideas among themselves, when its leading figure and prelate, the Pope, is himself constantly at the center of controversy, using words such as “pharisaical”, “pelagian”, and “rigid”?

A question of audience: How focus on neo-Thomism excludes non-Western Catholics

Kenney helpfully points out that many lay Catholics in America “have no other conception of an authentic Catholicism among the laity apart from one seen through the neo-Thomistic lens.” This is definitely a problem. One potentially alienating aspect of the dominant role the neo-Thomistic approach continues to hold within Catholic theological or moral discussions is that operating or focusing primarily within this intellectual and theological framework risks eliminating Eastern Catholics from the conversation. These communities variously consider themselves either Catholics of Eastern rite, Orthodox who happen to be in communion with Rome (a term most Orthodox tend to cringe at), or somewhere nebulous in between.

Thomism itself was never adapted by Eastern Catholics as a way of thinking or writing, as it stands squarely in the Western systematic approach to theology. The continued dominance of neo-Thomistic thought in these discussions may serve to remind Eastern readers of the often Western centric nature of most Catholic discourse. While this Western-focused norm is hardly objectionable – the vast majority of Catholics belong to the Latin, Western rites rather than any of the Eastern – it still makes for a rather uncomfortable silence for Catholics who belong to any of the sui iuris Eastern churches in communion with Rome.

Kenney rightly points out that we should all strive to avoid the polarizing and often political “isms” that became normal in the last century, but his employment of polarizing caricatures to describe the Pope’s critics falls into a similar pitfall of a different nature. Such an uncharitable approach is best avoided if actual dialogue and improved mutual understanding is the desired outcome. Pope Francis and those pushing for reforms are not ipso facto “modernist heretics”, Marxists, or part of a dark “international left” any more than Cardinal Burke and those offering criticism of the pope are somehow neo-Pelagians, Pharisees, or part of some dark “international right”. As long as these ongoing discussions remain steeped in such animosity, non-Catholics will continue to be scandalized by their tone.

If true caritas is to prevail, one of the necessary first steps is to realize that most people disagreeing with our position are not the caricatures we like to reduce them to – but actually have motivations and ideas as multifaceted and complex as our own. This doesn’t mean one has to concede to a kind of relativist “both are right” position – clearly, on the issue of sacramental participation by divorced and remarried couples, any Orthodox person would be obliged to defend the Pope’s position – but simply that one should refrain from needlessly stoking the fire with polemics.