"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
Should a Catholic read Eastern Orthodox writings? In my humble opinion, that really depends.
Anyone who reads this blog at all, even in passing, will no doubt see that I have a great interest in the Christian East. Exploring the practices, traditions, and saints of the Eastern Catholic Churches has been a great privilege for me, and I hold fast to the principle that they are the key to unity between us and the Orthodox. And I often quote figures in Eastern Orthodoxy in my posts. I read Theophan the Recluse's writings from The Path to Salvation to prepare for my baptism; The Way of a Pilgrim was a book that changed my life; Seraphim of Sarov is one of my favorite figures in Christendom; and G.P. Fedotov's A Treasury of Russian Spirituality is one of my most beloved books.
Since I do quote from specifically Eastern Orthodox saints and writings a fair amount on this blog, and I often read material in this field of study, I thought I might offer some clarifications and tips on how to read Eastern Orthodox writings if one is a Catholic. Is it dangerous to one's Catholic faith to do so? Should a Catholic read anything of the kind at all? I'll do my best to offer my views on the subject, but I won't please everybody; it's a sore area for many, and accusations of false ecumenism, relativism, schism, heresy, and all the rest often fly through the air (a very tiring thing indeed).
"But wait a minute Jason - weren't you just baptized in April this year? How can you offer any advice on such things when you are so new?"
Good question - I am no authority, to be sure. But I was raised Christian, and have studied all kinds of things related to the religion for years. My conversion period was very long, and in it, I read and studied a lot. And I do read very much Eastern Christian material, including Eastern Orthodox. So I thought it might be meet to offer some bits of advice I have learned along the way. Take it or leave it as you wish, I mean no harm to either side. Now:
The Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols writes:
"For the Orthodox churches are churches in the apostolic succession; they are bearers of the apostolic Tradition, witnesses to apostolic faith, worship and order – even though they are also, and at the same time, unhappily sundered from the prima sedes, the first see. Their Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers, their liturgical texts and practices, their iconographic tradition, these remain loci theologici – authoritative sources – to which the Catholic theologian can and must turn in his or her intellectual construal of Catholic Christianity. And that cannot possibly be said of the monuments of Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed or any other kind of Protestantism.
To put the same point in another way: the separated Western communities have Christian traditions – in the plural, with a small 't' – which may well be worthy of the Catholic theologian's interest and respect. But only the Orthodox are, along with the Catholic Church, bearers of Holy Tradition – in the singular, with a capital 'T', that is, of the Gospel in its plenary organic transmission through the entirety of the life – credal, doxological, ethical – of Christ's Church."1
I think this is an excellent statement - pretty darn close to how I feel about it.
Firstly, I think that one's rootedness in their faith is something to consider before reading anything non-Catholic in nature. If one's faith is weak or easily rattled, then I would strongly suggest not reading anything that might cause any kind of damage to one's Catholic faith. For instance, some Eastern Orthodox writers sadly delve into some harsh polemics against the Catholic Church, and this might cause some upset for a Catholic reader. But this can be balanced by the fact that both sides have engaged in fiery tirades against each other (I think of St. Bonaventure here in his Commentary on the Sentences) - it is simply a sad reality. Therefore, in reading figures such as John of Kronstadt, for instance, I skip over the polemical writings and read his spiritual works instead - My Life in Christ is a very edifying and worthy work from what I have read ot it. Would I recommend reading him to every Catholic? Definitely not, given some of his anti-Catholic statements. Would I recommend reading him to some? Maybe. It all depends.
Second, I remember reading a post on the Orthodox forum Monachos on the subject, wherein a forum member asked whether it was alright for an Orthodox Christian to read someone like St. John of the Cross - a priest replied, asking why one would want to read a Catholic saint when there are other Orthodox saints to read. In a sense, one could ask the same thing here - with so very many of our own saints to read, with so very many faithful Catholic writings out there, why would one waste time reading the writings of Eastern Orthodox anything? I think this raises a good point, and to be sure, I think we Catholics should always give a certain primacy to reading the writings of saints canonized by the Church.
But there is much wisdom out there in the Christian world outside of Catholic Christianity. One of my favorite works of all time, The Pilgrim's Progress, was written by a rabidly anti-Catholic Puritan (John Bunyan) - does this mean I should not have read it, or shouldn't read it again? I wouldn't think so - it's a fantastic work with much truth and spiritual inspiration in it. It's just that now I can pick out the Calvinistic errors in the work for what they are. The same thing applies to any other work, Orthodox or Protestant - St. Thomas Aquinas, we must remember, was greatly influenced by non-Christian thinkers from Judaism, Islam, and classical paganism. Just because they happened to be of a different paradigm does not mean that they did not espouse some truths. Likewise with non-Catholic Christian writings. Just make sure you know your own faith and are firmly rooted in it before reading them - that's the key.
Thirdly, I think it is prudent to know the differences and areas of disagreement first before reading a non-Catholic writer. Eastern Orthodox theology has some marked differences from ours, and Protestantism is almost a different world entirely. Know the key differences so that you will be able to pick them out, and contrast and compare them with your own. The Eastern Orthodox do not hold to the doctrine of Purgatory, dispute the meaning of papal primacy, reject the filioque ("and the Son"), amongst other things - Catholics might find that their rejections of such things actually line up sometimes with the same objections made by Protestants (Nectarios of Aegina's rejection of Purgatory is identical to Protestantism's, for instance). Again, remain grounded in your faith, but be willing to learn from others too, without sacrificing what you hold to.
Fourthly (and this is linked with the first point), avoid the polemics and mudslinging. Unfortunately, there is a lot of this out there, from both sides, and none of it is healthy I think. Don't expose yourself to the rhetorical attacks - it's just unhealthy. Though I am against false ecumenism, I am for reconciliation and re-union - this might be a good thing to study before reading Eastern Orthodox writings if you wish to do so, so as to again, remain grounded and firm in your own Catholic faith.
Fifthly, remember that not all Catholic authors are automatically in fidelity to the Church or are free from error from the get-go. Many nowadays seem to have latched on to the heretical tendencies in some Catholic authors such as Jeanne Guyon, Marguerite Porete, Miguel de Molinos, and that whole host of post-Vatican II dissidents that include Chittister, Kung, and all the rest - the "spirit of Vatican II" crowd's perennial favorites. Be selective - there's always a wolf hiding among the sheep somewhere.
All in all, I would say this - just be careful, and exercise prudence. I am certain that our Orthodox brothers and sisters would advise the same when it comes to reading our saints and writings. But at the same time, I feel that it is good to know our respective outlooks and traditions. We are working towards unity, and I think we should remember that when we read the writings of the Orthodox.
In sum, the good aspects about reading Eastern Orthodox writings:
- Broadening one's spiritual understanding and perspectives within Christianity.
- The strong emphasis on the prayer life, and the mystical theology surrounding it.
- Getting to know our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches as we work towards re-union.
- Some Eastern Orthodox writings are very anti-Catholic in nature - avoid these.
- If one is not grounded firmly in their Catholic faith, they could be rattled or damaged by reading some of the above. Think about a Catholic who barely knows what they believe being handed an evangelical tract about how the Catholic Church is evil and suddenly going "Hey! Maybe they're right!" I am not saying that their attacks on the Catholic Church are necessarily convincing, but someone who is easily swayed might be.