A Russian Who Challenged Orthodoxy to Reconcile With Rome

Father Ray Ryland on How Alexander Soloviev Yearned to Unite East and West

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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, NOV. 19, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Instead of focusing on differences, Alexander Soloviev emphasized the faith Roman Catholics share with his fellow Russian Orthodox Christians: "Whatever is holy and sacred for us is also holy and sacred for them."



Soloviev failed to unite the two in his lifetime (1853-1900), but his efforts did not go unnoticed. John Paul II recently hailed him as "a pioneer and example of dialogue between Eastern and Western Christians."

Father Ray Ryland, an expert on Soloviev, shared with ZENIT how the pioneering Russian tried to appeal to others who desired to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Father Ryland, an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, recently edited a version of Soloviev's book, "The Russian Church and the Papacy" (Catholic Answers).

Q: Who was Vladimir Soloviev and why he is notable today?

Father Ryland: Vladimir Soloviev was a Russian philosopher, political thinker, theologian, literary critic, poet and mystic. His mind ranged far and wide among Western and even Eastern philosophies -- not to be eclectic, but to extract from many different systems of thought the truth they contained.

Hans Urs von Balthasar paid tribute to Soloviev's "skill in the technique of integrating all partial truths in one vision." Von Balthasar ranked Soloviev second to Thomas Aquinas as "the greatest artist of order and organization in the history of thought."

Pope John Paul called attention to Soloviev in 1998's "Fides et Ratio" as standing in a line of distinguished Christian philosophers. A couple of years later, the Holy Father declared that Soloviev's "prophetic" work makes him one of our era's great "witnesses of the faith and illustrious Christian thinkers."

Recently an international gathering of scholars from East and West met in the Ukraine to discuss Soloviev's book, "Russia and the Universal Church." Soloviev always referred to the Roman Catholic Church as "the universal Church." The first half of that book, which deals specifically with the relation of the Russian Church to the Roman Catholic Church, has been issued under the title, "The Russian Church and the Papacy."

Soloviev's distinguished career as a university professor was immediately terminated when he publicly pleaded with the czar to forgive a would-be assassin. During and after his academic career, Soloviev published many works of logic, metaphysics, philosophy, theology and theosophy, an integration of theology and philosophy.

Throughout his adult life he lived in Franciscan simplicity. He was almost always without funds because he routinely emptied his wallet to anyone who asked for help. When he had no money, if an indigent approached him he would give the man his coat. His premature death apparently was caused by overwork and by the physical effects of his life of stringent self-denial.

During the last two decades of his life, Soloviev became deeply interested in Christian unity. In 1886 he submitted to a Croatian Catholic archbishop his own proposal for bringing the Russian Orthodox Church back into communion with Rome. The archbishop arranged an audience with Pope Leo XIII in the spring of 1888. At that audience, the Pope gave Soloviev the papal benediction for his efforts at reconciling the Russian Church to Catholic communion.

In 1896, Soloviev made a profession of faith before an Eastern Catholic priest, and was received into Catholic communion. He did not regard this as abandoning his ties with the Russian Church, but rather as their fulfillment.

There is an unsubstantiated report that he received last rites from a Russian Orthodox priest, which would have been permissible had there been no Catholic priest available. But to the end of his life Soloviev recognized the Pope as "supreme judge in matters of religion."

Q: How did Soloviev, as an Orthodox Christian, understand the infallible teaching of the papacy to be a perpetual gift from Christ to his Church?

Father Ryland: Soloviev rejects attempts by Russian apologists and by all non-Catholic apologists to equate the power of the keys given to Peter with the power of binding and loosing given to all the apostles.

The latter power, he pointed out, concerns only individual cases -- personal problems of conscience. By contrast, the power of the keys conferred on Peter refers to the whole of the Church. He insists that Christ focused supreme authority and infallibility on St. Peter and his successors to guarantee the Church's unity in the truth.

He asks rhetorically: If the Russian Church can proclaim the truth apart from Peter and his successors, how can one explain "the remarkable silence of the Eastern episcopate" since the schism began? Soloviev does not hesitate to use the word "schism" to designate the Russian Church's separation from Rome.

Q: Why did Soloviev believe that union with Rome was the only way the separated Eastern Churches could become truly Catholic?

Father Ryland: Repeatedly, Soloviev pointed out once the Russian Church abandoned the jurisdiction of Rome it had inevitably fallen under the control of the government. That, he said, is the fate of all purely national churches.

The only way a national church -- like the Russian Church -- can avoid being subject to the authority of the state is to have a center of unity outside the state. That supranational center of unity can only be Rome.

Apart from Rome, the Russian Church's concept of the universal church is purely a logical concept. "Its parts are real, but the whole is nothing but a subjective abstraction," Soloviev said. Eastern Orthodoxy is only a loose federation of like-minded traditions. In the East, said Soloviev, there are only isolated national churches. Only if they return to the divinely appointed center of unity can they be truly catholic.

Q: What did Soloviev propose as the proper relationship between the Pope and the Eastern patriarchs?

Father Ryland: In the centuries before the split between East and West, the popes consistently recognized the authority of the patriarchs with their own jurisdictions.

Soloviev reminds his readers, however, that repeatedly in the early centuries Easterners created heresies that they could not handle. Heretics consistently enlisted the power of the emperor in their behalf. The patriarchs were able successfully to combat the heresies only when they appealed to the Pope for his resolution. They thereby clearly acknowledged his supreme authority.

Q: Did Soloviev think that the Roman Catholic Church should be able to evangelize in Russia?

Father Ryland: Soloviev does not explicitly discuss this issue in his writings. Yet one can assume that he would not have opposed the Catholic Church's evangelistic efforts in Russia. He did recognize the importance of the Eastern Catholic churches by personally seeking out one of their priests to make his act of submission to the teaching and authority of Rome.

Q: How would Soloviev approach the particular issues facing Catholic-Orthodox relations today?

Father Ryland: Soloviev insists that with regard to their relation to Rome, anti-Catholic Eastern apologists deal mainly in negations. Your religion, he said to them, consists in denying the "filioque," the Immaculate Conception -- despite the affirmation of that doctrine in Eastern liturgies -- and the universal jurisdiction and authority of the bishop of Rome.

Let's face it, he said: "It is the last point that you are chiefly concerned with. The others, you know well, are only pretexts; the Sovereign Pontiff is your real bugbear." Soloviev would agree with those Eastern Orthodox theologians who concede that the underlying issue between themselves and Rome is the issue of authority.

He challenges the Eastern opponents of the papacy to offer some alternative, positive principle of authority for the Church. He scoffs at the Eastern insistence on conciliarism as the proper form of church structure. Ecumenical councils for them constitute the final authority in doctrinal matters. But, he said, the East had never convoked an ecumenical council and today still cannot convoke such a council.

Soloviev could have added that no ecumenical council has ever decreed that ecumenical councils shall be the ultimate authority for the Church. Indeed, he says, if the proper structure for the Church is conciliar, then the Eastern Orthodox do not have either "a true church constitution or a regular church government," since they cannot convene an ecumenical council.

The conciliarism urged by the Eastern Orthodox is incomplete, Soloviev says. Jesus Christ did found his Church on the council of the apostles, but he also established the papacy to enable the conciliar structure to properly to function.

In many ways Soloviev challenges his fellow Russian Orthodox Christians to be reconciled with Rome. He emphasizes the fact that the Orthodox churches hold much the same faith as does the Catholic Church: "Whatever is holy and sacred for us [the Russian Orthodox] is also holy and sacred for them [the Catholics]."

There should be no division because the Orthodox churches' piety is essentially contemplative, while that of the Catholic Church is more active. The fact that these pieties are complementary should be a force for unity, not division. If the Eastern churches were to be reunited with Rome, they would not have to sacrifice anything of their unique heritage.

Soloviev speaks to those who, like himself, yearn for establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. Those persons must also yearn for the papacy and the universal Church, which is God's appointed means for bringing about his Kingdom on earth.