How Is Eastern Christianity Affecting
Pope Francis’s Priorities?
Introduction: Easter with the Easterns?
The Christmas season hadn’t even begun when Pope Francis announced a potential change to future Easters: if Eastern Christians unite around a single date for celebrating the holiday, he said, Catholics will adjust their calendars accordingly. This might be mistaken for a minor scheduling matter, but it reflects a key policy of the Francis papacy that has often gone unnoticed: adjustments that bring Catholic and Eastern Christian communions (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Armenian, and others) closer together.
The Pope’s interest in this conciliatory project likely began a long time ago. When he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, he served as the ecclesiastical supervisor for many of Argentina’s Eastern Catholics. These believers are subject to the pope and in full communion with Roman Catholics, but also share histories, liturgical practices, and spiritual traditions with non-Catholic Eastern Christians. I suspect that Francis’s experience working with them was more formative than many Western commentators have appreciated. Now, as the leader of the Catholic Church, Francis has helped reduce major differences between Catholics and Eastern Christians in three areas: (1) spirituality; (2) sacraments; and (3) ecclesiastical governance.
Changing the date Catholics celebrate Easter would reunite commemorations of the most important Christian holiday for the first time in over four centuries. Easter dates fell out of alignment when the Catholic Church (and, in time, most of the Western world) adopted the Gregorian calendar in place of the Julian, which continues to hold pride of place for most Eastern Christians. Celebrating the holiday together would remove a highly visible (and theologically dispensable) sign of division. Indeed, Pope Francis jokingly asked the head of the Assyrian Church of the East, “When does your Christ rise again?” Agreeing to a common date would bring Western and Eastern Christian spiritual practices closer together; believers of both backgrounds would send out paschal joy into the world at the same time.
If the Easter change could be Francis’s next big ecumenical move, one of his earliest came in 2015, when he named an unprecedented “doctor” of the Church. The Catholic Church recognizes 36 saints with this title, marking them as its most important teachers. 35, unsurprisingly, lived in direct communion with the papacy. But not Gregory of Narek, the doctor Pope Francis named in 2015, who was a medieval member of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
At the very liturgy where Francis bestowed this honor, he recognized the many Christians martyred a century ago during the Armenian genocide. He did not distinguish between Catholic and other martyrs, the great majority of whom belonged to other Eastern Christian communions (especially the Armenian Apostolic Church). On another occasion, he observed that those who martyr Christians “make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong,” so Christians themselves should also think in terms of an “ecumenism of blood.” In his policies concerning both theologians and martyrs, Pope Francis is pushing an ecumenical notion of sainthood.
A change Francis made to the Catholic canonization process may also show his ecumenical ideals in action. The Catholic Church has long recognized two categories of saints: martyrs, who died for the faith, and confessors, who displayed uncommon closeness to Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has added a third: life-offerers, who willingly undergo premature death for a charitable purpose. This class does not perfectly mirror the Eastern Orthodox notion of passion-bearers, who face non-religiously-based murder with extraordinary Christian peacefulness and virtue. But there are similarities, and Francis’s reform narrows the gap between the Catholic and Orthodox spiritual traditions.
A final move favoring the Christian East can be found in Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’. This document has received much attention for articulating a deep Christian environmental ethic (a theme also of great importance to reigning Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “the Green Patriarch”). Its spiritual reflections on nature are also a landmark of “sophiology,” the tradition of reflecting on the Divine Wisdom’s presence in creation. Francis’s sophiology echoes that of the influential Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. While some other Eastern Christians reject Fr. Bulgakov’s thought, Laudato si’ is another place where Francis shows awareness of the Christian East’s spirituality.
For both Catholics and Eastern Christians, spirituality is fulfilled in the sacraments. But the way several of them interact — especially marriage and Eucharistic communion — is understood differently by the various communities. The most well-known difference surrounding marriage might actually have the least significance. Eastern Christians ordain married men as priests, while Roman Catholics maintain a celibate priesthood. But the Catholic Church does not insist on celibate priests as a matter of faith: it insists on priestly celibacy only as a matter of Roman canon law and ecclesial discipline. Eastern Catholics ordain married men as priests. And even among the Romans, celibacy has been a matter of ongoing deliberation, both during Francis’s papacy and before it.
The major ecumenical differences center on remarriage after divorce. The Catholic Church allows only for the annulment of marriages that were invalid at the outset and forbids marriage after divorce. What is more, Catholicism long treated remarriage following divorce as a strict bar to receiving Eucharistic communion. Eastern Orthodox Christians share the Catholic opposition to divorce, but allow for second and even third remarriages as a matter of pastoral flexibility.
Pope Francis has not changed Catholic teaching regarding remarriage. But he has authorized remarried people to receive Eucharistic communion as part of a discrete and organized process of pastoral accompaniment. In this most important spiritual setting for Catholics and Eastern Christians, the Pope has softened a significant contrast.
3. Church Governance
The greatest division of all may be the status of Pope Francis himself as a (or the) leader of the Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church considers many Eastern Christian communions to be separated from it more by leadership than faith or morals. On the Eastern Orthodox side, there is openness to seeing the pope as the “first among equal” hierarchs, but not as a leader who holds supreme jurisdiction over every Christian church.
Francis has lessened the difference by reforming the Catholic Church in favor of “collegiality” and “synodality.” He has given national bishops’ conferences much more authority over the translation of liturgical texts. He has transformed the Synod of Bishops into a permanent, quasi-legislative body. He sees bishops as having a significant role in governing the worldwide Church. This is nearer to Eastern Christian views than are many more monarchical models of the papacy.
There are limits to Francis’s campaign. German Catholics’ national “Synodal Way” has called into question Catholic teachings ranging from the nature of marriage to the role of women in the Church. Pope Francis recently quipped in response: “Germany has a great Protestant Church, but I don’t want another one, because it won’t be as good.” Still, Francis’s coupling of measured decentralization with the conservation of key Church teachings may appeal to Eastern Christians. After all, their own communions believe in collaborative leadership, but not in German-style sexual revolutions. Pope Francis’s understanding of leadership has much in common with Eastern Christians’ structural and moral commitments alike.
Rapprochement is not the same as full reconciliation. There are areas where Pope Francis’s actions may have increased tensions with Eastern Christians, such as his top-down efforts at promoting modern liturgy against the old Latin Mass. Additionally, his comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which has itself caused schism among Eastern Orthodox Christians) have swung from partly blaming NATO for the conflict, which angered many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, to warning Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill not to become Vladimir Putin’s “altar boy.” Both approaches cost him some sympathy among rival Eastern Christian blocs. And of course, many of the changes I described above have multiple inspirations and objectives.
Still, the number of directly Eastern-facing initiatives Pope Francis has undertaken, and the number of others that address Eastern concerns, reveal drawing nearer to Eastern Christians to be a major papal priority. Eastern Christianity may be foreign to many commentators on Western Christianity, but Catholicism’s leader can be better understood with reference to it. ♦
Matthew P. Cavedon is the Robert Pool Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and a senior lecturer in law, at Emory University. He is a former public defender and was a law clerk for a United States district court and the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Cavedon, Matthew. “How Is Eastern Christianity Affecting Pope Francis’s Priorities?” Canopy Forum, January 26, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/01/26/how-is-eastern-christianity-affecting-pope-franciss-priorities/