On Ecumenoclasm: Who Is a Heretic?

by Paul Ladouceur

One of the preferred weapons of Orthodox opponents of ecumenism is to call ecumenism a heresy and to refer to non-Orthodox, and indeed often Orthodox who support ecumenism, as heretics. Examples abound, for example in documents emanating from the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia (ROCOR) and in the writings of St. Justin Popovich. For ROCOR’s Metropolitan Philaret, Catholics and Protestants are “modern preachers of heresy” and the World Council of Churches, the union “of all possible heresies.” In a 1974 letter, Justin Popovich refers to all non-Orthodox Christians as “heretics.” But the ultimate weapon of Orthodox anti-ecumenists is to describe ecumenism as “the heresy of heresies.”

“Heresy” and “heretic” are the Kalashnikovs of anti-ecumenists, aimed at both non-Orthodox Christians and fellow Orthodox.

In the Orthodox tradition, “heresy” and “heretic” have very precise and long-standing historical meanings. A heresy is an erroneous doctrine held and expounded by a Christian, while a heretic is the person who holds and expounds such a teaching. For a doctrine to be considered heretical, it must be proclaimed such by the Church, not simply by an individual, be he bishop, priest or monk, who thinks that his brother or sister in the Church is wrong about something or another. The essential criterion for heresy is thus a formal finding and denunciation of an erroneous doctrine by an ecumenical council of the Church which has been received by the body of the Church herself. Few teachings of the Orthodox Church have been proclaimed formal dogmas by an ecumenical council or other major council of the Orthodox Church, and only a limited number of erroneous teachings have been declared heretical.

Some modern-day teachings held by non-Orthodox Christians can be found to be heretical on the basis of the criteria set out above. Most obvious are teachings of groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and others which reject the Nicene faith in the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. But no ecumenical or local council of the Orthodox Church has ever declared ecumenism a heresy. On the contrary, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church held in Crete in June 2016 strongly endorsed the continued participation of the local Orthodox Churches in both bilateral and multilateral ecumenical undertakings,“with the aim of seeking the unity of all Christians on the basis of the truth of the faith and tradition of the ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.”

Even Fr. Seraphim Rose, otherwise a strong opponent of ecumenism, takes a subtle approach to ecumenism as a heresy. “‘Ecumenism’ is a heresy,” he writes, “only if it actually involves the denial that Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ. […] One cannot call [Orthodox who participate in the ecumenical movement] ‘heretics,’ nor can one affirm that any but a few Orthodox representatives have actually taught ecumenism as a heresy.” Unfortunately, many contemporary Orthodox anti-ecumenists are not as nuanced as Seraphim Rose.

Despite the existence of heretical teachings in certain non-Orthodox Christian communities, it is nonetheless necessary to distinguish between a heresy and the heretic. Are certain non-Orthodox Christians “heretics” in the historical sense of the word? To condemn other Christians as heretics is to pass judgement on them. Jesus warns us against hypocrisy in judging others (cf. Mt 7:1-5). A theological examination of card-carrying members of the Orthodox Church would undoubtedly reveal that many Orthodox hold beliefs which would be deemed heretical by those who freely accuse non-Orthodox Christians of heresy.

True heretics are those who possessed the proclaimed Truth of the Church of Christ and willfully put it aside in favor of another teaching not consistent with the Truth of the Church. Few modern-day non-Orthodox Christians meet the criterion of willfully putting aside doctrines held by the Orthodox Church. By and large they have inherited these doctrines from those who preceded them in their churches, typically parents, pastors, teachers, who in turn inherited these teachings from their predecessors etc. – just like “cradle Orthodox” who inherit and accept the teachings of their predecessors. Yes, at some point, the buck stops somewhere. Those who knowingly put aside the Truth of the Church to follow a teaching that the Church declares erroneous are true heretics, not their descendants.

To call the descendants of those who deliberately broke away from the Church “heretics” is to visit the sins of the parents on the children. The Orthodox tradition consistently rejects this doctrine. Rather, the Orthodox Church teaches that sin is personal, not inherited. In this the Orthodox teaching on original sin – perhaps more properly the ancestral sin – differs radically from the notion of original sin retained in many non-Orthodox Christian denominations. Ancient and modern Fathers of the Church constantly defend human freedom against all comers, including Orthodox who promote deterministic doctrines of all sorts, such as inherited guilt.

Let us not call fellow Christians heretics but instead consider them in our minds, our hearts, our prayers and on our lips, true but estranged brothers and sisters in Christ. The rejoinder to the Kalashnikov is not another Kalashnikov, but rather “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:9).

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto), and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Quebec).