A question above my pay grade

A question above my pay grade June 18, 2014

A reader writes:

I read the following passage in an article from 14 year ago. It was linked to in a recent article about the 2025 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew.

If, however, Rome were to downgrade that council—and the Council of Lyons, which in A.D. 1274 issued a similar decree including the filioque—from ecumenical to a regional council of the Patriarchate of the West; if the doctrinal statements produced by those councils and the five councils before Lyons and those after Ferrara/Florence were relegated to the status of theologoumenon (respectable theological opinion) instead ofdogma (revealed truth); if Rome were to remove the filioque from all translations of the Creed as a sign of universal doctrinal unity: the Orthodox Churches would have no compelling theological reason to perpetuate the schism between Rome and Orthodoxy. For then Rome would, with such confident humility and genuine servanthood, have demonstrated its true primacy among the Churches.

Lest this modest proposal sound far-fetched, I hasten to claim no less an advocate than Pope Paul VI himself. In 1974, on the 700th anniversary of the ill-fated Council of Lyons, the Roman pontiff described that assembly not as an ecumenical council but rather as “the sixth of the general synods held in the West.” The precedent is already set. If Pope John Paul II were to issue an official “clarification” of this matter, it would surely be the crowning achievement of his pontificate—and of the millennium.

Is this even possible? Wouldn’t that amount to changing doctrine? Or would it be more like an example of doctrine developing like you wrote about in a post last week? If it is possible, wouldn’t a downgrading a dogma (revealed truth) to a theologoumenon (respectable theological opinion), as the passage above suggests, open the flood-gates for people to justifiably to some degree say things like, “Well, if the Church was wrong about the filioque, then couldn’t it also be wrong about ________________.”

What are your thoughts?

I’m no expert on this stuff and think worrying about it is pointless. The Church has always been able to express the faith in more ancient forms while still retaining developed ideas. So it did not abolish the Apostles’ Creed after it promulgated the Nicene Creed and it did not abolish the Nicene Creed after it promulgated the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Similarly, the pope has celebrated liturgies with Eastern churchmen and has simply left out on the filioque in the recitation of the creed, with no harm to the faith.

I wouldn’t worry about such things if I were you. God is in charge.

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  • Marthe Lépine

    Would it be possible to tell me what this “filioque” means, please? I find it difficult to even understand the reader’s question…

    • Dan F.

      In english, roughly “and the son”

      • Bill

        yep, though it can easily be rendered as “through the Son” which appears to be acceptable to the Orthodox

        • Jared Clark

          That’s the ultimate meaning either way, since the Son is begotten by the Father.

        • Mariana Baca

          I think part of the issue is that in Latin, Filioque the “que” can be ambiguous. In Greek it would be very definite in meaning and not acceptable (while “through” would be acceptable, for example). That is why in the Catholic Church we say the Filioque in Latin but never in Greek. (This is *not* just in reference to it being optional for Eastern Churches, who don’t all celebrate in Greek)

          If you think of this in arrows, the Son “comes from” the Father through begetting (arrow from Father to Son, begetting implies parentage). The Holy Spirit “comes from” The Father through proceeding (or spiration — breathing out). But “goes through” the Son, too. It is an arrow from the Father to the Son, to the Holy Spirit (often described as the love of the Father to the Son, which he breathes out to the world). When we say “filioque” or “through the son” that is what is meant.

          What is absolutely not meant by Filioque, and what the Orthodox and Catholics consider heretical about the phrase is the idea of “double procession” that both the Father and Son separately proceed the Holy Spirit and they get merged. The Holy Spirit proceeds as a single principle.

          “Second Council of Lyon
          defined that the Holy Spirit “proceeds eternally from the Father and
          from the Son, not as from two principles but from a single principle,
          not by two spirations but by a single spiration””

          The council of Lyons also condemned “all who presume to deny that the
          Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, or rashly to
          assert that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as
          from two principles and not as from one.””

          Some Orthodox consider even the “through” formulation as heretical, too. But not all. I don’t know enough on the consensus of their position on this. But Catholics are willing to see the inclusion of the filioque as optional for historical reasons because the Nicene creed does not say “from the father *alone*” which would be heretical to us in the West.

          ETA: The reason we don’t use “through” but “and” in Latin is because it allows freedom of belief as to whether the procession came from both together or from one to the other — which is not precisely defined in Latin Churches.

    • a sinner

      @ Marthe Lepine
      Essentially, as I understand it- there is an argument between East and West about whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, or primarily (exclusively?) from the Father. And then there is the smaller argument about whether or not drawing the distinction should have happened in the first place, and whether or not Rome had the right/prudence to define the filioque as dogma- especially since one can certainly leave it out of the Creed without being a heretic- something Rome itself recognizes since it no longer imposes the filioque on the eastern Catholic churches. On such matters the foundation of division lies…sadly. 🙁

    • Mariana Baca

      See my reply slightly below to Bill.

  • Torquemada Tequila

    I know several members of the joint dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. They are theology professors under who I have studied. They spend decades learning this stuff and are internationally respected experts in the area of East-West ecumenism. And even then it now seems to be rising about their pay grade to the personal relationship evolving between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

    The best thing we can do as simple laity is to pray for a restoration of full communion communion between our Churches, and for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and a a spirit of Christian charity in reconciling our theological and historical differences.

    With regards to the Filioque, part of the problem is language. That is, the Filioque makes perfect sense in Latin and in this Western tongue provides a safeguard against the heresy of Arianism.

    However, the Filioque does not translate perfectly into Greek, and worse, any possible translations (I am told by experts both Catholic and Orthodox) are actually heretical.

    The second problem with the Filioque is that of ecumenical bad manners. That is, the original Nicean Creed agreed to between East and West and recognized by the universal Church was without the Filioque. The clause was later added by the Frankish barbarians, who then pressured Rome for several centuries to add it. (In fact, Pope Leo III, who believed in Filioque and was under pressure to recognize it in the Creed, nevertheless intentionally had two shields made with the Creed engraved without the Filioque, stressing what was universally agreed to between East and West). When Rome finally succumbed and recognized the Filioque around 1018 if I recall correctly, the Franks would then turn around and accuse the East of heresy for having “removed” the Filioque from the Creed.

    So needless to say, this has created some ill will between East and West since. I am in total agreement with recent Popes leading the Church back to the universal creed agreed to.

    • HornOrSilk

      We probably had some of the same professors.

      But yes, a part of the problem is Greek and Latin words imply different things when read in context of the Creed in their respective languages. On the whole, the East and West have the same understanding, when looking beyond words, though a slightly different emphasis — the East prefers to deal with the “monarchy” of the Trinity via the Father. Yet, all it takes is a reading of St Basil’s on the Holy Spirit to see the West is justified as well. The filioque is not needed in the creed (as a Byzantine, it isn’t in mine), but I think the East should accept a proper interpretation of it instead of forcing a false interpretation (in other words, the East, in polemics, uses a strawman argument), but of course, the West has a history of doing that too (as can be seen in the schoolmen as they replied to the East).

  • I think the original reason for the filoque is rather esoteric and perhaps temporal discipline, rather than doctrine or dogma. But oddly enough, a class on Evangelii Gaudium I attended last night, referenced it indirectly- labeling the Holy Spirit as “the love between the Father and the Son”.

  • I suppose I take an “ecumenical council” to be a canonical category rather than a theological one.

    It is obvious from Acts that councils (such as the apostolic council in Jerusalem) are a theologically proper way to discern doctrine and/or behavior; but then, so is election by lots. So I wonder if a statement about the doctrinal force of councils might not be in order, just as Vatican I issued a statement about the doctrinal force of papal infallibility?

    Meanwhile, whether a council is “ecumenical” or not strikes me as a matter of law and discipline, and a council’s infallibility in defining (i.e., prescribing or proscribing) doctrine is based on the universal magisterium, not on some magical power of a council or the name “ecumenical.”

    However, these are only my private reflections on the matter based on a shotgun sort of theological and historical education. I am open to correction by those who know more than I, and certainly I submit my opinion to any magisterial statements on the subject. As Mark says, above my pay grade.

    • Jared Clark

      I think you’re correct. The Eastern Rites only recognize a few councils as ecumenical (because most of them were solely Latin Rite issues and the Eastern Churches weren’t involved), and they are in full union. They believe the dogmatic teachings without calling them “ecumenical councils”, so it must be true that the label for a particular council is a canonical issue and not a dogmatic one.

      • Lawrence King

        What Roki says with regard to terminology makes sense. The term “ecumenical”, in Greek, connotes the idea of “worldwide”, and using it in this sense the medieval councils weren’t “ecumenical”. (Although if the Greeks were consistent on this point, they would have to admit that councils 2 through 7 weren’t fully ecumenical, as the Arian bishops weren’t invited after council 1, the Nestorian bishops after council 3, nor the Monosphysite bishops after council 4.) This is why the synonym “general council” is also used.

        However, the test of whether a council is truly general — that is, it can teach authoritatively and even when it chooses to infallibly — is whether all the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome are invited. It is they who are the episcopal college, and they who, along with the pope who is head of the college, can teach and legislate for the universal Church. There are wonderful treasures in the churches and ecclesial communites not in communion with Rome, and we must pray for a full and complete communion to be achieved through God’s grace, but in the meantime the four marks of the Church of Christ are still present in the Catholic Church, and the bishops of the Catholic Church gathered in council do not lack the same authority that all the bishops gathered at Nicaea possessed.

  • Tom

    Wait, is the meeting in 2025? That’s just a typo, right?

    • Jared Clark

      It’s 2025. They gave themselves plenty of time to properly prepare

    • The first council of Nicaea was held in 325, and is generally regarded as the first “ecumenical” council. So (calendar issues aside) this meeting intends to mark the 1700th anniversary of Nicaea I.

    • tz1

      Ask me in 11 years.

    • Mariana Baca

      It might take that long to convince the ROC to show up.

  • Silly Interloper

    Hey, Torquemada Tequila, (or anyone else who might know), I’ve been trying to find out what compelled them to put the filioque in the creed for some time now. Things like this never happened unless there was a particular threat to doctrine. Wasn’t Arianism already condemned by then? Do you happen to know what historically lead to the need for filioque?

    • Lawrence King

      Arianism had long been condemned, and had totally died out in the East. But many of the Germanic tribes had converted to Arian Christianity, and therefore when Charlemagne became emperor, Arianism was still a relatively recent thing in some parts of Spain and northern Italy, so it was still a concern.

      The eastern Fathers often referred to the Holy Spirit as proceeding “from the Father through the Son.” Paul, of course, often refers to the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ”, and many Western Fathers including Augustine used the phrasing “from the Father and the Son.” While the East didn’t use the latter phrasing, nobody from the East called this phrasing heretical berfore Patriarch Photius in 867 AD.

      Much of the problem is misunderstanding. Photius, and many Greek theologians since him, believe that when Catholics say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we mean that the Holy Spirit proceeds twice: once from the Father, and once from the Son. They say this is nonsense, becuase then the Holy Spirit would have two origins. However, that’s not the Western belief. At the attempted reunion council of Florence, it was clarified that Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds only once, and this procession is from the Father and the Son together. This is why the Greek visitors at the Council accepted this doctrine, but sadly after the council ended the Byzantine Church rejected it… not merely becuase of theology, but also because of the great agony caused by the Italian sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the West’s failure to help the Greeks against the Ottomans at the time of the Council of Florence. (Let this be a lesson — correct theology is not enough if our deeds do not show our love!)

      • Silly Interloper

        Thanks. Anyone have any historical resources that follow things leading up to the filioque council with any depth and detail?

  • Mark R

    This is a delicate issue. According to an Orthodox theologian whose interpretation of history can be untrustworthy, the popes for a very long time stood guard against the introduction of the Filioque. The Church of Rome and the Churches of the East which were once in the Roman or Byzantine Empire saw themselves as equally Roman. The Filioque (added as an oversafeguard against Arianism among the Goths)was seen as a kind of Germanic incursion, which was reified in Charlemagne’s claim to be emperor. He and his party insisted on referring to Romans of the Eastern Empire as Greeks. At the time, that was an insult, since that was a term for pagans. These developments germinated in the western mind the idea that Greek speakers were somehow different not just in terms of liturgy and language. Eventually, parties sympathetic to the Germanic way gained the ascendant in Rome and elected a Pope to put forth the Filioque.
    Some of this nuance rings true when we consider how history was interpreted after the Renaissance and during the Enlightenment. Scholars seemed to be embarrased to consider that Romans were ever Christian with what we would call now a Byzantine flavor or that Greeks were Christian in a Roman State, the pagan stuff is what interested them. I guess it was more picturesque and accepting of immorality. Of course, modern scholarship in the XX cent. started to take an interest in late antiquity and things have changed. But once East and West were pretty much the same, diversity was acknowledged, differnces were debated, whether or not they were in the changing confines of the Roman empire, they were Romans.

    • Catholic Fast Food Worker

      The Eastern Church even gave Constantinople (the city previously known as Byzantium, before the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion of that city’s name into his own namesake) the title of the “New Rome.” Many Easterns view themselves as the pure Greeks while the Catholic Church (even in its Eastern Rites) being viewed as “Roman” (with all its supposed impure & negative connotations). Greeks vs. Romans. But in truth, even the Eastern Orthodox (“Greeks”) are historically as much Roman as the Western Christians (in the sense of the Easterns being as much part in the Roman Empire & its inheritance as Westerns and also their Constantinople being the “New Rome”).

  • Lawrence King

    To your reader’s original question: Despite the good intentions of those folks who speak of “downgrading” an ecumenical council, such a thing is not possible. You are correct that if it were possible, then there could be no infallible church teaching authority: we could disbelieve in the divinity of Christ by “downgrading” Nicaea to a mere regional council, we could disbelieve in the Immaculate Conception by “downgrading” Pope Pius IX to a well-meaning non-pope; and we could disbelieve in all sorts of things by “downgrading” the canon of scripture to just a few books.

    This is why, in Catholic doctrine, the charism of infallibility extends not only to doctrines of faith and morals that have been revealed by God, but also to non-revealed truths that are logically necessary to defend revelation. In other words, “Jesus is God,”, “Mary was immaculately conceived,” and “God made a covenant with Abraham” are revealed truths, but in our human epistemology they are logically dependent on the NON-revealed truths that “Nicaea was an ecumenical council,” “Pius IX was pope”, and “the book of Genesis is divinely inspired”.

    More details for the curious: This is why Vatican I and Vatican II both used the participle “tenendam” rather than “credendam” when describing infallibly taught doctrines, because “credendam” applies only to revealed doctrines. You can find more details in the 1973 CDF document Mysterium Ecclesiae chapter 3 paragraph 3, the 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis section 23, and the 1998 Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei (scroll halfway down) written by the CDF’s Prefect Joseph Ratzinger and Secretary Tarcisio Bertone. The last of these directly addresses your question, noting that the Church can teach infallibly “the legitimacy of the election of
    the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council”. And clearly nobody can “downgrade” a council, rendering it “not ecumenical”, if its ecumenicity has been taught infallibly and definitively!

  • Catholic Fast Food Worker

    If we (both Catholics & Eastern Orthodox) simply say “the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father THROUGH the Son” as opposed to the current “from the Father AND the Son” in the West, the Eastern Orthodox would not object. I’ve seen this theologically sound form (“from the Father THROUGH the Son”) being proposed as solution by both Eastern & Western Christian circles- with little to none objections. I support this very much (instead of simply dropping the Filioque from the Creed); this form respects the doctrinal integrity of both East & West while being truthful. Also, besides recent popes already reciting the Creed without the Filioque, keep in mind that in many of the Eastern Catholic Churches (in full Communion with the Bishop of Rome, pope), they say (& have been saying for many years now) the Creed without the Filioque in their liturgies. So it’s already canonical to say the Creed without the Filioque within the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox (especially the Russians), sadly, are the ones preventing Christ’s desire “that all may be one, Father” from becoming reality.