Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

by Nikolai A. Berdyaev, 1927

#328a (1); translated by Fr. Michael Knechten
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The Church knows that it is by nature both orthodox and ecumenical. It confesses to be guardian of the right orthodox belief and to encompass all peoples and countries, the whole universe, the ecumene. The ideal consciousness of the Church cannot tolerate any impairment or deformation of the faith nor any particularistic limitation by space or time. The Eastern, the Orthodox Church esteems more its right-belief, the Catholic Church of the West estimates more its universality. This is to be seen in the very terms. But, of course, the Orthodox Church considers itself also as ecumenical, and the Catholic as the right-believing, too. Yet in spite of this there is not always a correlation between the ideal consciousness of the Church and its empirical existence. Orthodoxy and ecumenism can become impaired in their historical actualisation and appearance, they can see as fullness that, which is only a part, and even the pureness of the faith can become obscured. In the historical development an empirical fact may be given an absolute meaning which is not proper to it. First of all we have to point out the different meanings of "ecumenism" in Catholic and Orthodox consciousness. Catholicism understands ecumenism horizontally, external-spatially. The ecumenical Church is for the Catholic consciousness a homogeneous world organization, described in juristic concepts, international and encompassing the whole earth. Orthodoxy understands ecumenism is vertically, a going into the depths. Ecumenism herein is an attribute which may thus belong to every eparchy

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[= the Western word for diocese], to every parish. Ecumenism is not a spatial category and does not need a juristic world organization to express itself. That means: Orthodoxy understands ecumenism more in a spiritual sense. But we Orthodox must admit that the spirit of ecumenism has not been visible enough in the Orthodox Church and has not been actualized enough, the ecumenism has been so to say there only potentially. Ecumenical Christiandom assumes in history an individualised aspect, and that is in general a blessing. Yet neither individual persons nor individual peoples nor times can contain the fullness of the ecumenical Truth. Each earthly existence in fleshly form contains particularism. The existence of an Eastern and a Western Christian type, the existence of different rites is a beneficial individualisation which realizes pluriformity and fullness. Even without the disastrous separation of Churches there would exist still the individualised forms of an Eastern and Western Christianity, different agendas, different spiritual styles. The ecumenical Church would contain the whole pluriformity of individualised types. And in spite of this, there would still exist a Latinism which might appare strange to the Eastern, Greek Christianity. Man is a limited being, not able to comprehend much, and caught up in his own. The individualisation may transform itself into the pluriformity of ecumenism, but may also see itself as the pluriformity, i.e. may pass the particularism off for ecumenism. The individualistic spiritual styles may yield different meanings, according to the point of view. In the Western Christian world, Catholicism and Protestantism are opposite types. But from the point of view of Eastern Orthodoxy they appear to belong to the same Western spiritual style. Both have at their center the idea of the justification, but not of transfiguration; to both the cosmic conception of Christianity is strange; both have forgotten the Eastern teachers of the Church; and the traditions of Platonism are far remote for them. Equally foreign for official

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Catholicism and for official Protestantism are Origin, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maxim the Confessor. Blessed Augustine however stands equally high for both Catholicism and Protestantism. Dogmatically, Orthodoxy and Catholicism are nearer, than Orthodoxy and Protestantism, or Protestantism and Catholicism, but their relations are different from the point of view of spiritual styles. Luther worked and thundered against Catholicism, but he remained part of the Western-Catholic spiritual type, determined by the spirit of blessed Augustine, he sought more for justification than for transfiguration, and his conception of Christianity was more anthropological than cosmic. Dogmatically and ecclesiastically, the Catholics are nearer to the Orthodox than to the Protestants, but the Orthodox can work easier with Protestants than with Catholics. The reason for this is first of all that Protestants confess the freedom of conscience. That is the great and characteristic privilege of the Protestantism. Orthodoxy too has as principle the freedom of conscience, freedom of spirit, and this freedom belongs organically to our conception of Universality [Sobornost']. Protestantism however understands the freedom of conscience too individually. Orthodoxy sees itself organically linked with Universality, with the principle of Love. Catholicism officially condemns(2) freedom of conscience under the name of "liberalism", in spite of the fact that just this freedom produced in the Catholic world all that, which was the best in it. The individual forms of Christianity opened themselves these or those aspects of Truth in different form.

But the individualisation of Christianity may produce the forms of a harsh ecclesiastical nationalism and the fusion of Church, state and nationality, a fusion which becomes an enslavement of the Church. An identification of the religious and national element is a sort of Judaism within Christianity. It cannot be denied that there has been an inclination of this kind in the Russian Church. The consciousness of ecumenism of the Ortho-

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doxy was adversely affected and weakened. After the fall of Byzantium, the Russian people felt itself the only representative of the right-belief . On this basis developed the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome. They began to call the Orthodox faith the "Russian", to identify the ecumenical Church with the Russian. The Church became nationalized through and through, and they began to ascribe an almost dogmatic significance to national peculiarities. They contrasted Russian faith and Russian Rites against not only  Latinism, but also against the Greek faith. They saw patriarch Nikon not as the representative of the Russian, but of the Greek faith. The true Orthodoxy however was the Russian, not the Greek faith. The extreme Russian traditionalism broke de facto with the older Greek Church. On this basis developed the schisms of the Old-Ritualists and the Old-Believers. The Old Ritualists defended the Russian faith against innovations, in spite of the fact, that these innovations were a return to older traditions. The errors in the liturgical books were seen as genuine tradition, associated with the essence of the Russian Orthodox faith. The consciousness of ecumenism was in a certain part of the Russian people weakened or identified with Russian messianism. The orientation of Russia to the West and Europeanizing began with Peter the Great, but the Church became even more national-particularistic than in the former Russian or with the Old-Ritualists. With Peter the Great came also Protestant influences. The Church was subordinated to the state, and the principle "cuius regio, eius religio" which was in this time triumphing in the West, began to penetrate. This was a process of secularisation.

The ecumenical consciousness was very weak in the period of Peter the Great. Orthodoxy was ecumenical in its depths, but the consciousness of this ecumenicism was weakened. The religious concept reawakened with us only in the 19th century, and Russian religious thinkers gave an extraordinary keenness of expression to the consciousness of the ecumenicism of Christianity. The Russian Orthodox idea had in the time of its maturity an ecumenical character, and Dostoevsky saw already in the ecumenicism, in the "All-

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humanity" a characteristic Russian trait. Chomiakov and the Slavianophiles recognized the ecumenical character of the right-belief, but they treated Catholicism unjustly and one-sidedly. Vladimir Soloviev has ecumenism as a central idea. He was its martyr and prophet. The weak point was his inclination to an external Unia. But his effort for the unity of the Christian world, for ecumenism, for fullness, was just and yet premature in comparison with his time. The defective relationship between Church and state in Russia before the revolution, the external oppression of the Church by the state, was disturbing to the consciousness of the ecumenicism of the Right-belief. The state did not want it and was afraid of it, and it upheld the particularism of the ecclesiastical consciousness. The break of the old relations between Church and state must prove to be advantageous for the ecumenical ecclesiastical consciousness, and lead at last to fulfillment of the great religious hopes of the Russian world of thought in the 19th century within the life of the Church.

The ecumenicism, the universal unity possesses for the Catholic Church the pathos for Right-belief. It is an actualizing of the ecumenicism, and demonstrates it in a fleshly form wherein we can perceive it. It possesses a visible and universal center and a visible, uniform and universal outlook which contains all peoples and countries. But in spite of this it is clear for us that the ecumenicism of the Catholic Church is not genuinely complete, that in it a part is passed off for the whole and that not all the whole potential has been actualized. In these times they tend to stress that Catholicism cannot be identified only with Latinism, that the Latin rite is only one of the Catholic rites, that the Eastern rite is equally and organically its own. But in fact the Catholic Church in history has been the Latin Church, the Latin rite, the Latin spirit. The whole classic style of Catholicism was created by a Latin spirit. Only the Latin mass and the Latin rite are organic in Catholicism and can be considered as a whole, in the sense of a work of art. St Thomas Aquinas, so central and influential for Catholicism, is a Latin spirit, a Latin genius. The Catholic Church is an artistically perfect masterpiece, one of the most perfect creations in world history, but it is a creation of the La-

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tin genius. Latinism not only bears the seal of the Latin mass and the juristic edifice of the Catholic Church, but also of scholasticism, of Catholic theology and Catholic mysticism. German Catholicism was always specific and less Latin, and so it was less classic and not rarely came under suspicion. The German mystic was regarded as not really Catholic, in spite of the fact that he remained within the limits of the Catholic Church (Eckhardt, rehabilitated by Denifle (3), Tauler, Suso, Angelus Silesius), and he was not so highly esteemed as was the Spanish mystic (St John of the Cross, St Theresa). The best German Catholic theologians of the 19th century (not only Moehler, but also Scheeben) were in their outlook very different from the Latin: they are less rationalistic. Moehler, e.g. in his book "The Unity of the Church" is very near to Orthodoxy. (4) Without doubt, Latinism also lays claim to world supremacy, as did the Roman Empire. The idea of a forced universalism is a Roman idea. And Latinism passes itself off without scruples for ecumenism. Its potentiality is actualized by Latinism in abstractness. The center of the Catholic Church remained Latin, and that not by chance. But a contradiction for the Catholic consciousness is that for the ecumenical consciousness the Church of Christ should be only actualized in some of its elements, remaining therefore in a high degree potential and hidden. A total actualization of the ecumenicism would demand not only the abolition of the confessional schisms inside of the Christianity, but also the spreading of the Christianity to the non-Christian world, its being pervaded by the spirit of Christ: The Orthodox consciousness can entirely recognize that the ecumenical Church has been actualized only partially, being partly in a potential and hidden state. This does not mean that the ecumenical Church is not real and should be invisible. But this visibility and incarnation is not complete

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not yet perfectly accomplished. For the Catholic consciousness it is difficult to think in this way, in consequence of the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the relationship between potentiality and act [potentia et actus]. From this point of view potentiality bears always a minus in comparison with act, potentiality is to a high degree not-being. In God there is no potentiality, God is pure act [actus purus]. This point of view is very sceptical about potentiality, because out of its depths could come a new, not yet existing, creative development, destroying the system, which has become normative, and indeed the whole edifice. The Catholic consciousness thinks that ecumenicism has become a total reality, in the organisation of its Church. There is nothing new to await containing a greater fullness out of the hidden, not yet manifest, potentiality. But outside of the Thomistic system of thought it can be said that the potential ecumenism is deeper and broader, richer in possibilities than the actualised ecumenism. The Church of Christ is not a finished and completed edifice, there are always creative tasks in it, and enrichment of the life of the Church is possible. The ecumenicism of the Church is given in the depth of being and has in historic incarnations its task. But the ecumenicism of the Church can only become reality by its carried-out partial actualisation and bodily creation.

Protestantism in comparison with Catholicism represents the opposite type in its view on ecumenism. Visibly it exists in the Protestant Churches not at all. Ecumenism remains invisible and not revealed. The Protestant consciousness is comfortable with the existence of many Churches, i.e. essentially many Christian communities, and doesn't suffer for one visible ecumenic Church. Ecumenism is realised by a multiplicity of Churches, no one of which makes claims to ecumenicism. Protestantism is willing to acknowledge also the Orthodox Church with its peculiarities as but one of many Churches. But this consciousness comes at the price of a complete reduction of the value of the dogmas and sacraments in the Church, by a

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displacement of the center of gravity exclusively to the subjective world of the faith and the spiritual disposition. Protestants are aiming at unity, union of the Christian world, but not at unity of the Church, not at one ecumenical Church. This direction has in our days also a positive aspect, because it helps uniting Christians of all Confessions, helps their vital inter-mutual relations which is for Catholics always difficult. We see this in the many conferences and congresses which are organized by Protestants, and in the help for Christian movements of all countries by the Christian Young Men Association (YMCA) and the Universal Christian Federation.

There are two polar opposite views of ecumenism. One view wants to come to universal unity with a maximum of the claimed Truth, holding on to a greatest quantity of definitions of their faith as much as possible. So thus is how Catholicism understands ecumenism. On another plane and in an opposite direction communism understands ecumenism in this way. This view of our concept finds its driving force in the pathos for the right-belief. The task is to claim all over the world the type of the right-belief, to unite the truly devoted and to set them apart against the rest of humankind. This is unity connected with separation. The other view wants to come to universal unity with a mimimum of the claimed Truth, adapting oneself to a lowest number of its articles of faith. Many Protestant tendencies understand ecumenism in this way; theosophy has the same principle also, seeing in all religions and doctrines one and the same Truth. This view of ecumenism lacks the pathos of strong belief and it distinguishes itself by tolerance, wants no separation for achieving unity. This kind of ecumenism does not push to be a "force", wanting to create an army for battle with the whole rest of the world.

Both views of ecumenism have advantages and disadvantages. As regards the second type of Christian ecumenism, its wish for the unity of all Christians and its tolerance are very attractive. But it is

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totally clear that on this basis only the aim of unifying as an abstract Christianity is possible, i.e. an Inter-Confessionalism, which is content with a treaty about a minimum of Truths of the faith, e.g. considering the divinity of Jesus Christ. But in Inter-Confessionalism is the selfsame lie as internationalism. "Inter" does not mean anything; "inter" has no real being behind it. Inter-Confessionalism is an abstraction and cannot make enthusiastic. In religious life, however,  must be the striving to have concrete fullness. Every decimation of the truths of faith means their weakening and reduction. Possible and right is the striving towards a Supra-Confessionalism, like towards Supra-Nationalism. Supra-Confessionalism in contrast with Inter-Confessionalism is not an abstract minimum, but on the contrary a moving in the direction towards a greater fullness and a fuller concrete state. Inter-Confessionalism is moving sidewards, in the direction to a so to say empty room between the realities of the Confessions. But Supra-Confessionalism is a movement on high and in depth. In height and depth there is a more important and concrete fullness than in the narrow minded middle, in which the so self-satisfied single Confessions stay. Confessionalism in itself and for itself is not yet an ecumenical faith, but rather always an individualisation which sets off apart. The ecumenical Truth of right-belief is higher and deeper than a strictly believing confessionalism. That fullness of Truth which can be won with the acquisition of Supra-Confessionalism is no abstract minimum of Christianity, but is in effect and on the contrary, a more concrete degree of definitions, a greater harmonic whole than in the historic Confessions. The concrete fullness of Supra-Confessionalism cannot be reached through Inter-Confessionalism, not by an unmooring from one's own Church, but instead by a turning to the innerness of the Church. I can strive at the supra-confessional unity of the Church of Christ, while remaining Orthodox and not separating from the basis of the right-believing Church. I can grow into ecumenism, deepening and raising myself.

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Ecumenism cannot be realized by Unias and treaties, by negotiation between governances of Churches. That is a wrong and obsolete way. Vladimir Soloviev had in his idea of ecumenism a great inner truth, but his inclination to an external Unia, to "treaties" was wrong. In religious life there are phenomena analogous to the political, politic blocs, quite out of place. Agreements should only be carried out on the basis of Truth, and nothing of it can be denied or taken away. Ecumenism calls for a striving towards the maximum, not the minimum, because the goal is the fullness and the concrete. In religious life it is not proper to want a minimum of Truth. I want more and more to grow into the endless Truth, and I do not want be hindered by reaching for a meaningless minimum. I cannot dissemble in the name of a unification with other Confessions as if I would only believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and would think all the rest to be irrelevant. I can only want that all should come to fullness and harmonic unity. I must desire that all Protestants come to feel at home venerating the Mother of God, or that the Mystery of the Trinity becomes the basis of the religious life of the whole Christian world. But Catholic maximalism is on the wrong path, if it leads to intolerance and exclusiveness, because of a compulsory (5) external organized unity, the Roman universalism. One must understand ecumenism in the maximum inwardly, spiritually, bound up with freedom. Growing into the ecumenical fullness of the Truth of Christ is an inner, hidden, organic process. And this  inner spiritual growing into the ecumenical fullness of Truth cannot be conceived without the freedom of the Spirit. Here compulsion is out of place. Peoples must enter freely into the elevated spiritual life, the life in the Truth, in the Holy Spirit. The working of the Holy Spirit is always a working from out of freedom, never compulsion and violence. Complicated and manifold are human paths to the

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fullness of Truth, to a higher life of the spirit. And the reason for our tolerance toward other Confessions cannot be that we are indifferent to the fullness of Truth and its exclusivity (Truth excludes lie), but that we conduct ourselves diligently and compassionately to the inner life of the human soul, to its way, difficulties, to its special fate, and that we have also the consciousness of our own limits. The idea of ecumenism must have connection to the idea of freedom. Only in this case will it be true and open the way to unification of the Christian world. Freedom of spirit, freedom of conscience is a great treasure and a sanctuary on the pathway of man to God and to the spiritual life. This cannot exist without freedom, without it God cannot reveal Himself to man and be accepted by him. Therefore a compulsory universalism is impossible.

The striving for unity and ecumenicity, which has to begin and is already taking root in all parts of the Christian world, must necessarily not have the forms of an aiming at unity of Churches, based on ecclesiastical treaties and Unias. This is most fruitless a method of unification, which in practice normally leads to becoming yet more deeply splintered. Here the intent for unification is not sincere. Secretly each faction understands union as entry to its own Church. There is only one Church, not several Churches. And de facto  the schism was not in the Church of Christ, but in sinful humankind, in the kingdom of this world, in the kingdom of Caesar. And the restoration of Christian unity does not consist in unifying the Churches, but rather in reunion of the splintered parts of Christian humankind. All parties are guilty of the schism between Christians. Even when I am convinced that the dogmatic Truth is with Orthodoxy, I must still however feel the guilt which is on us, Christians of the Orthodox East. Also with us there was a lack of love, self-assertion, aloofness, an aversion to engage a spiritual world which seems to be something strange, also with us there was the ecclesiastical nationalism and particularism, there was the recoursing to the typical confessionalism. Reunion and

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union of the Christian world must begin with community and unification of Christians of all Confessions, with mutual respect and love, with an inner universal spiritual attitude. All must begin with spiritual life, with spiritual unity, and it must work from inside outwards. Unification of the Churches can only be a work of the Holy Spirit. But we can prepare this work spiritually in our human part, we can create a favorable spiritual soil. Christian unity must not begin with negotiation of Church governances, but with a spiritual unification of Christians, with forming a Christian friendly association, which is possible while also remaining true to one's own creed. And such an association is even therein that case the more interesting and fruitful, when Christians remain true to their personal confessional spiritual type, without becoming abstract inter-confessionalists. Only on this way is a growing into an ecumenical Supra-Confessionality possible.

I believe that Orthodoxy is the best spiritual field for an ecumenical Christian unity. It may be that the historical differences between Catholicism and Protestantism have become weaker in our day, but in spite of this both represent opposite principles, and both are divided by important historical memories. But Orthodoxy has, in having overcome the slippery slide into particularism and old-believing [old-ritualism], the potential for ecumenism and fullness, which can serve to the reunion of the Christian world. In Orthodoxy there is a degree of spiritual freedom, lacking in Catholicism, in it there is the unity of Church, ecumenicism in its qualitative meaning. The Christian world has facing it truly the very task to reunite freedom and ecumenism. Protestantism is in a crisis, and inwardly in its community there is to be seen a striving for the fullness of the Church, for the sacraments. Papal authority hinders Protestantism from returning to Catholicism, because the Protestant world does not want to give up that religious freedom in whose name it protested formerly. But the Orthodox Church acknowledges in principle religious free-

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dom, and this religious freedom in Orthodoxy does not lead to the corrosion of ecclesiastical dogmas and sacraments. Tyrrell (6), the most distinct "modernist", in his book "Am I Catholic?", which is in reply to Cardinal Mercier, considers the Church from a point of view, which is in no way Catholic, but is also not Protestant, in contrast with the declarations of the official Catholicism. The approach of Tyrrell is Orthodox in spite of the fact that he himself does not know this (though at times he refers to the Orthodox Church). He does not set Protestant individualism against the Catholic authoritative doctrine of the Church, but sets forth rather a peculiar spiritual collectivism, what we Orthodox call "Catholicity", "Sobornost'" (7).  Also the position of Doellinger was Orthodox. There is a dilemma for the official and genuine Catholic consciousness: a matter either of the authority of the pope or the authority of each single Christian, i.e. papism or individualism. But there is also a third point of view: the authority (the inner, but not the external) of the whole Church as an organic whole, a spiritually collective concept, i.e. a Catholicity which has not at all an adequate juristic expression. Catholicity is chiefly even the ecclesiastical consciousness. From the Orthodox point of view, papism also is a form of individualism, and it detracts from the organic ecclesiastical consciousness. Orthodoxy presents most clearly the spiritual-organic view of the Church as the Body of Christ, Who is the source of Truth.

Orthodoxy, first of all the Russian, has also another chacteristic which is favorable for Christian unification. Orthodoxy is that form of Christianity which most has an eschatological, apocalyptic character, which is most ardently oriented to the Second Coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God. The manifestation of the ecumenical unity of the Christian Churches and of the Christian world is in the end only possible in an eschatological atmosphere, only in concentrated meditation about the Second Coming, about the Coming Christ. Only in a metahistoric apocalypsis will the historic discords be removed. The unification of Churches is a supra-historical fact, a fact of an eschatological order. Escha-

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tologism, of course, has a place also in other Christian Confessions (I refer to Leon Bloy in Catholicism and Karl Barth in Protestantism), but in Orthodoxy it is firmer and more intense. The consciousness that Orthodoxy has the advantage to Christian unification, to actualisation of ecumenism, should not hide for ourselves our sins, our negative aspects. The Truth of the Orthodoxy was hidden under a basket [cf Mt 5:15], not developed and realized in life, it was closed off and we remained complacent. The Western Christians were more active, and their Christianity was more productive. But in spite of this, we are entering an epoch of a new actualization of Christianity, an epoch of transformation of Christian Truth in life. And Christian unification in itself, the embodiment of ecumenism per se, is a transferring of Christian Truth into life. The Russian Orthodox Church has at this time the advantage, to be a Church of martyrs and sufferers. The veils of mundane and human lies are dropping from it. The spiritual forces to unification of the Christian world are engaged in a fight against the formation and amassing of anti-Christian powers. It is the rationalistic and juristic aspect of the Church that divides us. Genuine spiritual life unites us.


(1) The Eastern Church ("Die Ostkirche"), Una Sancta, Stuttgart, 1927, Frommanns, 3-16. The Russian original (Klepinine #328) was not published. Translated from Russian into German by W.A.Unkrig.

(2) This cannot be said about Roman Catholicism in general. That was proved impressively in "Una Sancta" II (1926), p. 317-318 note. (The editors [Nicolas von Arseniev and Alfred von Martin]).

(3) And in our times by Otto Karrer. (The editors)

(4) Cf in this booklet p. 89 ff. (The editors)

(5) Also here (cf. note 2) it cannot be generalized in an inadmissible way. This is shown by the "Patres Unionis" of the Belgian abbey Amay sur Meuse (and their journal "Irenikon"). (The editors)

(6) George Tyrrell (1861-1909), originally Anglican, after his conversion a Jesuit, finally excommunicated. He was fighting against an externalism of religion and against intellectualism. According to him, the mystery is revealed to persons which meet Christ personally. Only the authority of the whole spirit of a Church, which as it appears in its belief, not in its dogmas, can be guiding principle of the faith. Cardinal D.Mercier sees in Tyrrell one of the leading exponents of "modernism". (Fr. Michael Knechten)

(7) In Russian useage is the distinction: "kafolicheskaia (= vselenskaia, sobornaia) cerkov'", the Church as "catholic", in contrast to "katolicheskaia (= rimskaia, papskaia) cerkov'", the "Roman Catholic" Church. The difference consists in the letter "f" (the extinct "th" from Church Slavonic), instead of "t". (Fr. Michael Knechten)


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