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Orthodox Ecumenism As A Divisive Force

by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

The following article, reproduced with the kind permission of the author, constitutes the second chapter in his superb, moderate, and eminently balanced commentary on the ecumenical movement, Ecumenism Examined, published by the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies in 1996. Professor Cavarnos, a Harvard-educated philosopher, is an eminent authority on Orthodox thought and his works have appeared throughout the world in a number of languages. In his excellent book on ecumenism, he points out that the Orthodox Church, in its claim to theological and ecclesiological primacy, has always considered religious tolerance an integral part of its spiritual and philosophical life. At the same time, philosophical and theological relativism being foreign to its spirit, it has held that deviations from its self-evident truths lead to division and a diminution of the precepts of the Faith—to a kind of theological and ecclesiological minimalism—and a corresponding erosion in the quality of the spiritual life of the Church. The following comments very aptly address the divisive force that Orthodox ecumenism has proved to be in the Church for almost eighty years now.

THE CALENDAR INNOVATION of Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis, made for uniting in a way the Orthodox with the heterodox of the West, had an exceedingly bad result for the Orthodox: it divided hem into the New Calendarists and the Old Calendarists, two mutually hostile parties. Initially, this division appeared among the Greeks. Then it spread to the Orthodox peoples of Rumania and Bulgaria. They all remain to this day divided. Thus, we have a clear instance of Orthodox Ecumenism as a divisive movement among the Orthodox.

Elsewhere, fortunately, this very sad division has not taken place, because the traditional, Old Calendar has been retained: in Russia, Serbia, Georgia, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and its flock, the Church of Mount Sinai, and the Holy Mountain of Athos.

Orthodox Ecumenism manifested itself again as a very divisive movement in 1963 by another occupant of the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople: Athenagoras. His initiatives involved the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement in ways clearly forbidden by the Holy Canons of our Church.

He removed the Pedalion, the Rudder, from the ship of Orthodoxy, and thus let this ship be blown hither and thither by the winds of heterodox groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, we have been witnessing joint prayers—called Ecumenical Prayers—with the heterodox, including the Pope himself, in which leading Orthodox churchmen, including the Patriarch of Constantinople, participate.

Concerning the Holy Canons disregarded by Athenagoras and other Orthodox ecumenists, let me quote the 45th and the 65th Apostolic Canons. The 45th says: Let a bishop, presbyter, or deacon who only joins in prayer with heretics be suspended; if he permits them to function as clergy, be deposed. This Canon is contained in the Rudder, which is, so to speak, the Constitution of the Orthodox Church. The 65th Canon, also contained in the Rudder, says: If any clergyman, or layman, enter a synagogue of Jews, or of heretics, to pray, let him be both deposed and excommunicated. What these canons say is quite clear and emphatic. Yet Athenagoras and his fellow Orthodox ecumenists have paid no attention to them.

The intent of these Canons is to protect the Orthodox Faith from any kind of relativistic misunderstanding. When we pray together with others, it is essentially presupposed that the others with whom we pray have precisely the same Faith that we have—the same beliefs regarding the nature of God, man's nature and destiny, the paths and means of attaining salvation. When we pray with persons whose Faith is different from ours, it means that we slight our Faith, that we do not consider it of any real consequence, that we have a relativistic view of truth, a view which is alien to the Orthodox Church. The Canons were formulated and instituted not out of hatred for non-Orthodox Christians or for the Jews. The true Orthodox, as true followers of Christ, love all men, they hate none. They are free both from the vice of religious intolerance, and from that of indifference to their Faith, the Truth.

The Holy Canons are the laws of the Church, and as such must be respected and obeyed. When they are not, many evils arise in the Church, causing its disintegration. In his brilliant book Science and the Modern World, the illustrious Anglo-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead makes some very pertinent remarks about law in the State and in the Church. He points out the great importance which legality played in the marvelous Orthodox Christian Empire, the Byzantine, under the Emperor Justinian the Great. It enabled both the State and the Church to flourish and to exert a very beneficent influence on Europe.1

Whitehead notes that the codification of Roman Law by Justinian established the ideal of legality, which dominated the sociological thought of Europe in the succeeding centuries. Law, remarks Whitehead, is both an engine for government and a condition restraining government.2 Civil Law, which prevailed in the Byzantine State, and Canon Law, which regulated the life of its Church, formed in the Byzantine mind the ideal that an authority should be at once lawful and law-enforcing.

This splendid and tremendously important ideal Patriarch Athenagoras came, through his Ecumenistic pronouncements and acts, to remove from the minds of the Orthodox, instilling a mentality of disrespect for law, for Canon Law in particular.

His Ecumenical initiatives began in the same anti-canonical manner as the calendar innovation by Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis. The latter introduced the New Calendar without any consultation with the other Orthodox Churches, such as the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Russia, Serbia, and so on. Such a consultation was imperative. It was necessary in order to find out what they thought regarding such a major innovation. Patriarch Athenagoras proceeded in the same fashion. Unexpectedly, without any preparation at the Patriarchate of Constantinople, without any related understanding with the various other Orthodox Churches, he arranged by means of personal messages to the Pope, to meet him at the Holy Land in September of 1963. Such a momentous meeting was arranged in such an offhand manner.

Following this meeting, the Patriarchate of Constantinople convoked a Pan-Orthodox Synod in Rhodes, to work out a unified line with regard to questions that would arise concerning inter-Christian affairs. The Patriarchate wanted this Synod to vote to send official observers to the Vatican Council at Rome. However, this Synod at Rhodes, under the Presidency of the Blessed Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, Chrysostomos, unanimously concluded that the Orthodox Church not participate in the Council of Rome, even through observers only. This decision greatly displeased Athenagoras. So he had the Patriarchate convoke again a Synod in Rhodes, headed not by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Greece, but by a bishop of the Patriarchate itself. This Synod, which the Church of Greece refused to attend, decided that the Orthodox Church proceed to have dialogues of a theological nature with heterodox Churches, both Western and Eastern (Anti-Chalcedonian). The decision which prevailed was that the Orthodox Church proceed united to dialogues with the heterodox, through representatives of all the Orthodox Churches, having a single well-defined line.

The Ecumenical initiatives of Patriarch Athenagoras that I have mentioned, at once evoked strong reactions against them, and soon divided the Orthodox into two opposed camps: the Ecumenists and the Anti-ecumenists. The two groups continue to strive one against the other. Regarding this split, a great Confessor of the Orthodox Faith, Photios Kontoglou, wrote in a letter to Metropolitan Iakovos of Derkon—a ranking member of the Synod of Constantinople—that the attempt of Athenagoras to approach the Vatican has served as a signal for the separation of the sheep from the goats,3 the believers from the unbelievers—persons of little faith or individuals who only pretend to be believers.

Kontoglou characterized the first as constituting the camp (stratpedon) of the faithful defenders of the Orthodox Faith, and cites the following as belonging to this camp: Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Augoustinos Kantiotis; Panagiotis Trembelas, University Professor of Theology; Philotheos Zervakis, Abbot of the famous Monastery of Longovarda on the island of Paros; Archimandrite Gabriel, Abbot of the Monastery of Dionysiou on the Holy Mountain of Athos; Archimandrite Christophoros Kalyvas, popular itinerant preacher; Constantine Cavarnos, University Professor; Theocletos Dionysiatis, learned monk and writer of the Monastery of Dionysiou; Chrysostomos, Metropolitan of Argolis; Alexander Kalomoiros, noted medical doctor and lay theologian; Pantelis Paschos, prominent theological writer and now Professor of Theology at the University of Athens; Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos, founder of the Pan-Hellenic Orthodox Union and its organ Orthodoxos Typos; and Ourania Lampakou, religious writer.4

In a letter to me dated February 1, 1965—a few months before he reposed in the Lord—Kontoglou added to his list of faithful defenders of the Orthodox Faith the Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece Chrysostomos, and Professor Ioannis Karmiris, one of the foremost twentieth century Orthodox theologians and Member of the Academy of Athens.

Among the members of the opposed camp, the Pro-Ecumenists, Kontoglou cited in other letters to me Athenagoras Kokkinakis, who was at that time Archbishop of Thyateira in England; bishops of Patriarch Athenagoras entourage; and Professor Nikos Nissiotis. To my knowledge, Athenagoras Kokkinakis and Nissiotis were the masterminds of the Orthodox Churchs new type of involvement in the Ecumenical Movement that was inaugurated in 1963 by Patriarch Athenagoras. They directed his Ecumenical initiatives, pronouncements and acts. Both died untimely deaths, Nissiotis in an automobile accident. Since then, Greek Orthodox Ecumenists, most notably the Patriarchs of Constantinople Demetrios and Bartholomew, have been following the directives conceived by Kokkinakis and Nissiotis, and executed by Patriarch Athenagoras.

In citing the Anti-ecumenists, Kontoglou mentions a representative anti-Ecumenical work written by each of the figures he mentions. The totality of these works and their quality is quite impressive. Nothing comparable has been produced by the opposed camp, the Ecumenistic.

To bring the list of Anti-ecumenists up to date—Kontoglou, as we noted died in 1965—we must add such names as the late Archimandrite Justin Popovich of Serbia; the present Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece Seraphim; Diodoros, Patriarch of Jerusalem;5 Professor Konstantinos Mouratidis, Archimandrite George Kapsanis, Abbot of the Monastery of Hosou Gregorou at the Holy Mountain; Archimandrite Spyridon Bilalis; the theologian and preacher Nikolaos Soteropoulos; Metropolitan Kyprianos, founder and Abbot of the Monastery of Kypriano and Ioustni at Phyli, Attica; and Father Niketas Palassis of Seattle, editor of the periodical Orthodox Christian Witness.

Part of Father Popovichs critique of Ecumenism has appeared in English translation in the book Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, which was compiled by Father Asterios Gerostergios and others, and published in Belmont in 1994 by the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. Father George Kapsanis most recent book on the subject is Orthodoxa kai Oumanisms, Orthodoxa kai Papisms (Orthodoxy and Humanism, Orthodoxy and Papism), published by the Monastery of Hosou Gregorou in 1995. This Elder is today the leading, most articulate critic of Ecumenism dwelling at the Holy Mountain.

We must note also that all the Old Calendarist Greeks have been steadfastly opposed to the Orthodox Churchs participation in the Ecumenical Movement.


1. Science and the Modern World, Chapter 1.

2. Ibid.

3. Matthew 23: 33.

4. See Antipapika by Photios Kontoglou, Athens, 1993, pp. 91-95.

5. See my book The Question of Union, Etna, California [Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies], 1992, pp. 39-40.

From Orthodox Tradition, Volume XVIII (2001), Number 2, pp. 22-26. For more works by Dr. Cavarnos, see the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.