~by George Weigel in Catholic Exchange
Last December's visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople revived speculation that the millennium-long division between Rome and the Christian East might soon end.
It was a noble vision, but it may not have accurately measured the depth of the chasm between Catholicism and some parts of the worlds-within-worlds of Orthodoxy. Recent comments on Benedict's December pilgrimage by the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos suggest that the division is deep and wide indeed.
Mount Athos, a craggy peninsula in northern Greece, is home to twenty self-governing Orthodox monasteries. In fact, Mount Athos is virtually a country unto itself; its formal designation in Greece is the "Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain." No women or female animals are allowed on Mount Athos; visitors are strictly limited; only male members of the Orthodox Church may become monks. And, while Mount Athos comes under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Athonite monks, who regard their monasticism as what they term "the non-negotiable guardian of the Holy Tradition," were very unhappy with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the way he treated his Roman guest in December.
Why? Because, the monks complained, "the Pope was received as though he were the canonical bishop of Rome." There were other complaints, but that was the first listed in a statement released last December 30 by the Assembly of Representatives and Superiors of the twenty monasteries: Why was Bartholomew treating Benedict as though the latter were, in fact, the bishop of Rome?
Well, if we can't agree on that, we do have, as Jim Lovell told Mission Control, a problem.
To be sure, Athonite monasticism, "the non-negotiable guardian of the Holy Tradition," is a particularly stringent form of Orthodoxy. And if the monks of Mount Athos have their dubieties about the ecumenical openness of Patriarch Bartholomew, it is, perhaps, not surprising that they imagine Benedict XVI as a usurper and a teacher of heresies. Yet this Athonite intransigence reflects a hard truth about Catholic-Orthodox relations after a millennium of division: namely, that, for many Orthodox Christians, the statement "I am not in communion with the Bishop of Rome" has become an integral part of the statement, "I am an Orthodox Christian."