Those of us who thought we were well informed about 1054 and all that were stung by the viscerally hostile reaction of many Orthodox Christians to John Paul II’s recent Pauline pilgrimage to Greece, Syria, and Malta. Whereas ecumenism in the West seems to have succeeded in muting anti-papal rhetoric among most Protestants, the East is still quite capable of hurling public insults at the Bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church itself.
It would be folly to understate the abounding historical reasons for this disdain and presumption to think that any brief chronicle is explanation enough. From the filioque controversy in the Nicene Creed to Eastern perceptions of papal overreach; from the Latin Crusaders’ incomprehensible sack of Constantinople in 1204 to Western impotence against the Ottoman capture of that “Second Rome” in 1453—there are numerous sources of suspicion and animosity. Nor have Catholic incursions into Russian Orthodox provenance in more recent times endeared Rome to the East. Father Willard Francis Jabusch was right in reminding us in Commonweal of Alexander Nevsky’s mythic heroism in saving Russia for Orthodoxy against the invading Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century and, in the seventeenth, the Polish massacre of monks, women, and children at the Russian monastery of Optina Pustin. Recent overzealous proselytizing, especially in Ukraine, has also left the Orthodox wary of Catholic intentions.
Notwithstanding these and countless other reasons for friction, there are no two forms of Christianity that are at their base more theologically compatible than Catholicism and Orthodoxy because—need it be said?—the doctrines they share were already in place long before the schism in 1054. To name only a few: God as a Trinity of Persons (despite the filioque flap); Christ the Redeemer as the Incarnate Son of God (no mere ethicist he); the centrality of the sacraments to divine worship, especially the Eucharist; the claim of ecclesial authority through apostolic succession (despite Orthodox refusals to accept Petrine authority); and the veneration of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. Also instructive is Catholicism’s own perception of its separation from Orthodoxy on the one hand and Protestantism on the other. Catholic catechetics before Vatican II, for example, would routinely distinguish between Orthodox and Protestant Christianity by declaring the former to be only in schism from Rome while describing the latter as heretically separated.
It is thus probably right to say that, despite the official state of schism and mutual excommunication (the latter not lifted until 1967 by Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athanegoras), Catholics still thought of Orthodox believers as spiritual kin with whom they had considerably more in common than with Protestants. And they also assumed, gratuitously as it now seems, a semi-benign reciprocity of Orthodox feelings towards them. After all, if France and Germany could forgive each other for two world wars in the twentieth century (with a carnage much bloodier than Constantinople in 1204), couldn’t Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, whose raison d’être is forgiveness itself, do the same? How surprising and disappointing, then, to hear the Pope slandered as “the two-horned grotesque monster of Rome” when he landed in Athens. I was living in Switzerland in 1969 when Paul VI made a first-ever papal visit to Geneva, and I can attest to the fact that he was received more hospitably in that gray civitas dei of John Calvin than John Paul was in Orthodox Athens.
On second thought, though, my disappointment at anti-Catholic Orthodox ire is not entirely surprising, for I have routinely been forced to abide it while reading my favorite nineteenth-century novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Now, obviously, Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox, not Greek, but the depth of his hostility to Rome belongs to a species that might be called pan-Orthodox. Perhaps if we can begin to understand the depth of Dostoevsky’s disdain we can extrapolate from it to understand how, over a century after his death, much of Eastern Christianity is still not on speaking terms with its Western cousins.
Even the cursory reader of Dostoevsky must know that he was on the side of the angels in the great Christian/Secularist psychomachia that has been waged since the Enlightenment. Having taught some of his novels in my Western Civilization classes, I can say that he has touched my students and me in a manner that no other Christian apologist (Pascal, say, or Kierkegaard, or his contemporary John Henry Newman) has quite succeeded in doing. As the most prophetic writer of the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky saw the coming triumph of secularism with an extraordinary clarity: whether by way of the dyspeptic narrator of Notes from Underground railing against the invasive “anthill” culture of the secularized West; or the impoverished student Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment experimenting with utilitarian ethics in order to rationalize his murder of the money lender; or the roster of abusive characters in The Idiot deprecating the holiness of Prince Myshkin; or the demonic Stavrogin and Peter Stepanovich in The Devils, with their pitiful cell of Russian Nihilists, plotting to overthrow all that is holy to Christian Russia; or Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, so converted to Western atheism that he could easily overwhelm his saintly brother, Alyosha, in dialectic. Against what he acknowledged to be compelling arguments for the culture of disbelief, Dostoevsky did not offer philosophical counterarguments but instead, in the spirit of the Gospels, Christian parables: the Magdalene-like redemptive love of fallen women—Liza, Sonia, Nastasya, and Grushenka—who illuminate his major novels; the kenotic love of the “holy fool,” Prince Myshkin, the greatest Christ figure in literature since Don Quixote; the lover of children, Alyosha Karamazov, who transforms the pathos of the illness and death of the consumptive youngster Ilyusha into an occasion for belief in the Resurrection.
Dostoevsky’s was an authentic Christian voice that said “no!” to the new secular world order that sought to uproot Christianity, both Western and Eastern, from what was left of Christendom in his time. Its shibboleth had been voiced by Voltaire: écrasez l’infame! The rational eighteenth-century Enlightenment assumed that a benevolent deism would supplant its superstitious predecessor and usher in a novus ordo saeculorum free of all traces of supernaturalism and superstition—something like El Dorado in Candide or Monticello at Charlottesville. Dostoevsky knew better and saw that what deism had become in the nineteenth century was a half-way house, as Jonathan Swift had predicted, to atheism.
Thus do I gratefully admire Dostoevsky’s profound insights into the mysteries of the Christian faith, while at the same time admitting bewilderment that these epiphanies should be accompanied by a crude anti-Catholicism that seems wholly unworthy of a giant of world literature. If I as a Catholic reader can revere him so, I mutter to myself, especially in consequence of his Russian Orthodox spirituality, should he not have tolerated my Catholicism, or at least muted his disrespect for it? East is East and West is West, but to my unsophisticated American eye the spiritual respect of the West for the East has gone cruelly unrequited.
The most obvious example of this in Dostoevsky’s fiction, as we all know, is the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of the greatest Christian novel ever written, The Brothers Karamazov. Even when I am reminded that the narrator of that episode is Ivan, the brother tormented into atheism by post-Enlightenment Western ideologies, Dostoevsky nevertheless seems to have gone out of his way to describe Catholic Christianity as not only having abandoned Christ, but literally sent him packing. In the grim person of the aged and bloodless Spanish cardinal Inquisitor, Dostoevsky has reduced the Catholic Church to a Christless institution that delivers bread to its faithful only in exchange for a surrender of their freedom. I confess to moments, in exegetical desperation, when I have tried to mitigate Dostoevsky’s Catholic-baiting by suggesting to my students that perhaps what he was really doing with the Grand Inquisitor was typologically describing, by way of a sixteenth-century antetype, nineteenth-century liberalism captivated by atheistic socialism or communism. In short, maybe he was literally describing Spanish Catholicism, but with the proleptic intention of warning against some rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching towards Moscow to be born.
But I have come to the conclusion that such apologetics are more than a little naive. Of course, in Dostoevsky’s mature novels, we must take care in determining which character might speak for Dostoevsky himself. Certainly, there are some parallels with Fr. Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov just as there are with his disciple, Alyosha Karamazov. But above all others is the voice of the one character whom Dostoevsky deliberately created as a Christ figure, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. To read anti-Catholic fulmination coming from him (as opposed to, say, Ivan Karamazov) is to hear the anti-Catholicism of Dostoevsky himself.
Consider this rather long passage from Chapter 7 of Part 4, near the end of the novel, which describes the Epanchins’ engagement party at which Myshkin’s admiration of his beloved Aglaya is interrupted by news that a certain Pavlishchev has been converted to Catholicism.
“Pavlishchev was a clear-headed man and a Christian, a true Christian,” the prince declared suddenly. “How could he submit to a faith that is unchristian? Catholicism . . . is no more than an unchristian faith . . . even worse than atheism. . . . Atheism only preaches nullity, but Catholicism goes further; it preaches a distorted Christ, a Christ it has calumnied and defamed, the opposite of Christ! It preaches the Antichrist. . . . Roman Catholicism believes the Church cannot remain on earth without universal temporal power. . . . [It] is not even a religion but very definitely the continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subservient to that idea, beginning with faith. The Pope usurped the earth, an earthly throne, and took up the sword, and since then everything has been going on that way, except that to the sword they have added craft, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, villainy. . . . They have bartered everything, everything for money, for base earthly power. And isn’t that the teaching of Antichrist? How could they fail to create atheism? Atheism has come from them, directly from Roman Catholicism! . . . Among us only exceptional classes of people don’t believe, those . . . who have lost their roots. But there, in Europe, awesome masses of the people themselves are beginning to lose their faith—first from darkness and lies, and now from fanaticism, from hatred of the Church and Christianity . . . .
“For socialism too is an offspring of Catholicism and the essential Catholic ideal. It, too, like its brother atheism, springs from despair in opposition to Catholicism as a moral presence, to replace the lost moral power of religion, to quench the spiritual thirst of parched humanity, and to save it not through Christ but also through violence! . . . Our Christ, whom we have preserved and they have not even known, must shine forth in opposition to the West! Not by falling like slaves into Jesuit traps but by carrying our Russian civilization to them; we must now stand before them.”
Prince Myshkin’s harangue is the most withering attack on Catholicism in the entire Dostoevsky canon. What makes the timing of it especially odd is that it was written in 1867-68 while Dostoevsky and his wife were residing for short periods in Dresden, Geneva, Vevey, Milan, and Florence. They must have been aware of the progress of Italian unification, which by the time Dostoevsky was writing The Idiot had stripped the papacy of everything in the Papal States, except a tenuous control of Rome itself, and which, three years later, would make a de-papalized Rome the capital of a united Italy. The Pope would retire to the papal precincts, refuse Italian indemnification, and eventually declare himself a prisoner in the Vatican. It seems a strange time for Dostoevsky to have raised such a polemic over the pitiful remains of papal temporal power, which had not presumed to inject itself seriously into European politics since the Thirty Years War, some two and a half centuries earlier. To see Catholicism in 1867 as “the continuation of the Holy Roman Empire,” or the Pope as “a usurper of the earth,” would, in the words of Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank, “be looked on by the majority of his compatriots with the same rather frightened and pitying incredulity as that displayed by the Epanchins’ guests” in the novel.
One might even entertain the thought, though it may seem bizarre at first, that there was as much for Dostoevsky to approve of as to condemn in Pope Pius IX. True, Ultramontanism was cresting and by 1870 would culminate in Vatican I and the definition of papal infallibility (at the very time that the Pope was politically deposed by Victor Emmanuel). But Pius’ whole career since the revolutions of 1848 had been directed against the same dominations and powers at which Dostoevsky, too, took aim. Shortly before the publication of The Idiot, the Pope had issued the encyclical Quanta Cura, to which was attached the Syllabus of Errors. Eamon Duffy has described it as a “now familiar Vatican Jeremiad” against the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism, and recent civilizations.”
Many of the syllabus’ eighty condemnations—in Duffy’s words, of “Indifferentism, Freemasonry, Socialism, Gallicanism, Rationalism”—concerned developments that equally disturbed Dostoevsky. Doesn’t his condemnation of the “nihilist” characters in The Devils —Stavrogin, Peter Stepanovich, et al.—constitute his own syllabus of errors? Are any of Pius’ diatribes more withering than Dostoevsky’s denunciation of these figures, whom he compares to the legion of devils (from Luke 8:32-35) cast out of the possessed man and permitted to enter a herd of swine that plunge into the sea? Considering the furor caused by the Syllabus of Errors throughout liberal Europe, it is hard to believe that Dostoevsky, who read French fluently and devoured daily newspapers both at home and abroad, would not have known of its existence and would not have been grudgingly forced to admit, if only to himself, that he and the Pope were facing the same implacable enemy. Is not the enemy of my enemy my friend?
Not, apparently, with Orthodox true believers, then and now. Yet in our own time should one not expect more of the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexei II, when considering the prospect of a papal visit to Moscow? Of course, as Fr. Jabusch has made clear, Alexei has his own reasons for foot dragging. All politics, even Russian Orthodox politics, is local. Still, should he not acknowledge that this is a pope whom many have credited as having contributed enormously to the fall of atheistic communism—and in his own country? Pope Leo, who faced down Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome fifteen centuries earlier, confronted a less dangerous foe. But now, thanks in part to the efforts of the Pope and Polish Solidarity, the Soviet Union is no more; the Russian Orthodox Church has been restored; persecutions of Eastern Christians have ceased; individual churches and seminaries have been reopened; ex-Communists may be seen ceremoniously crossing themselves—and the Pope has apologized to the Orthodox for the sins of Catholics in the past.
For those of us with long enough memories, all this seems miraculous, the kind of miracle prayed for at every pre-Vatican II Latin Mass which ended with the so-called Last Gospel. How many remember that the reading of the opening verses of John’s Gospel was directed at “the conversion of Russia”? How many have noticed that something resembling that conversion has actually happened and that it would not have been done without the ministrations of a Polish pope? Under the circumstances why should we not expect Alexei to welcome his brother Patriarch, and brother Slav, to Moscow to sing a Slavonic Te Deum in thanksgiving?
The old reason—fear of Roman Catholic domination—can explain only some of the hostility. Maybe examining Dostoevsky’s phobias can help, one of which was, in fact, Poland. When reading Dostoevsky, one cannot help but notice that the Polish character is always in the wrong, especially when he is identified as a Catholic. Grushenka’s former lover in The Brothers Karamazov, for example, who comes back to her only when he learns that she has acquired a small fortune, is a Pole caught by Dimitri cheating at cards. In The Idiot, the faithless Aglaya’s beloved, whom she marries instead of Prince Myshkin, is a Polish emigré count (a fake one, as it turns out), who succeeds in luring Aglaya into the confessional “of a certain celebrated Catholic priest” and thus “gain[ing] complete ascendancy over her mind.” With minor, unnamed Polish characters, Dostoevsky’s favorite epithet is “obsequious.” The disdain is also present in his correspondence: in a letter from Geneva to his friend Maikov in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky defends himself against bureaucratic questioning of his loyalty to the Czar by “ask[ing] him to free me of the suspicion of betraying the Fatherland and in having relation with the Polacks. . . . I hate the Polacks and love my Fatherland.” Finally, in what must be the most petulant example of ethnic pique on record, Joseph Frank tells us that Dostoevsky loved classical music, especially Mozart and Beethoven, but not Chopin, because he was a Pole.
Maybe Dostoevsky’s habitual dismissal of all things Polish is a consequence of the seventeenth-century horrors at Optina Pustin, or the more recent Polish rebellion of 1863, which he deplored. Still, with all deference to Fr. Jabusch’s reading of Polish culpabilities, it may be argued that Russia was more sinning than sinned against in its relations with its Slavic cousin to the west. A century after Optina Pustin, Russia cynically colluded in a series of three partitions, with Austria and Prussia, that resulted in the complete disappearance of Poland from the map of Europe. Chopin did not compose his Polonaises in Paris of the 1830s and ’40s merely as romantic folk celebrations but in commemoration of the failed rebellion of 1830 which provoked a stream of Polish refugees to Paris fleeing Russian oppression in their homeland. Indeed, Chopin’s last concert before his premature death was a benefit for these refugees, who at his funeral in Paris in 1849 sprinkled Polish earth over his grave. When we add to these political causes of strife the un-Orthodox phenomenon of Poland’s historic Catholic loyalties, we can better understand Dostoevsky’s Polish phobia, and perhaps the phobias of the current Orthodox churchmen. Ironically, Dostoevsky may have explained some of this in a memorable line from The Brothers Karamazov: “I did him dirt and forever after did I hate him.”
I have not meant, of course, to disparage Dostoevsky’s greatness or Orthodox holiness. As a great writer and a good man, he understood Christianity de profundis and was able to transmit that understanding with an unmatched power. He has warned us, with a prescience that would have terrified even him had he seen it played out in history, especially on his native soil, that “without God all is permitted.” Malcolm Muggeridge once said that Stalin’s great mistake was denying his people access to the Gospels while permitting them to read their Dostoevsky—and Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s literary presence in our time has kept the votive candle to Christian faith lighted. His fiction, I make bold to say, can be, and has been, a channel of grace. Some of my students have confided to me that The Brothers Karamazov actually converted them away from the novus ordo saeculorum—insidiously present in every corner of their lives, even on their dollar bills—to a renewed belief in Christ.
Nevertheless, Dostoevsky, like Homer, also nods—and in that nodding reveals some disturbing reasons for the continued enmity between Eastern and Western Christianity. Certainly, his notion that the future of Christianity would be exclusively connected to the Christ of Russian Orthodoxy—him “whom we have preserved and they have not even known” (to quote Prince Myshkin)—was exploded in October 1917. And Dostoevsky’s fantasy that this Russian Christ “must shine forth in opposition to the West”—that the East must not “fall like slaves into Jesuit traps but carry our Russian civilization to them” to have gotten it backwards. Were he alive today, would he have recognized the great irony that, had it not been for the providential nexus of two scorned adversaries, Catholicism and Poles, Ivan Karamazov might have had the last word?
Rodney Delasanta, a new contributor, is professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.