Source of the week: Schmemann on Vatican II

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in 1963

Fr. Alexander Schmemann was one of the observers at Vatican II, the landmark 1960s council of the Roman Catholic Church. His reaction to the event is priceless — Schmemann took the “opportunity to thank God” that he was Orthodox. Here’s the story, from the New York Times (11/16/1963):

A Russian Orthodox theologian-observer at the second session of the Vatican Council said Thursday that the gathering in Rome was “sobering from the Orthodox point of view.”

The Rev. Dr. Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in Tuckahoe, N.Y., said that he had “no doubt the actions of the council thus far are good for the Roman Church itself.” But, he added, “the reality, unfortunately, is that they are far from ecumenity.”

Dr. Schmemann delivered his report on the council at the quadrennial sobor, or convocation, of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America. The sobor, at the Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral, 59 East Second Street, ended yesterday.

Dr. Schmemann, who was also vice chairman of the sobor, emphasized that he had not gone to Rome as an official delegate for his denomination but rather as a special guest.

He explained that the Moscow Patriarchate of Russian Orthodoxy had several official delegates at the council, as had the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church severed administrative relations with the Moscow Patriarchate in 1924 and regarded the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia as a splinter group.

In his report to his denomination, Dr. Schmemann said he did not bear “any bad will” to Roman Catholicism. But, he said, considering the actions of the council in their ecumenical aspect, he had “opportunity to thank God” that he was Orthodox.

Dr. Schmemann’s objections to the council’s discussions were based on the Roman Catholic view of the papacy. “What builds a wall between the Roman Church and Eastern Orthodoxy is the doctrine of papal infallibility,” he said.

“There may be democritization going on,” the theologian added, “but so much of the Catholic Church is built on reverence of the Pope.”

He said that even the collegiality of the bishops was defined purely in its relationship with the papacy.

“In 17 lines of definition of the bishop in the schema on the church,” he went on, “the word ‘pope’ appears four or five times.

“In Eastern Orthodoxy it is our understanding that teaching about the Pope should be balanced with teachings about the bishops.”

Now, I’m no expert on Vatican II or Orthodox-Roman Catholic relations in general, so I don’t really have any commentary to add. But I stumbled upon this article in my collection and thought it might be of interest to others, so I figured I’d publish it here.