It was not what we have come to expectwhen John Paul II arrives in a Christian country—or in any country, for that matter. In place of adoring crowds lining the streets along which the popemobile made its stately progress, there were scattered groups of demonstrators hurling imprecations both angry and somewhat bizarre: “arch-heretic, two-horned, grotesque monster of Rome.” Was something lost in the translation?

These words, often quoted in the Western media, were those of a parish priest, presumably more moderate than the monastic zealots who constituted the core of the antipapal reaction to John Paul’s historic pilgrimage to Greece. Some Roman Catholics—particularly conservatives who, like John Paul himself, are generally favorable toward the Orthodox East—were at least as puzzled as they were offended. All right, they figured, we could understand protests from the usual bunch of communists, feminists, and sodomites. But monks? And he even apologized! What more do you people want?

To begin with, let’s get the part about the apology out of the way. Frankly, I wish he hadn’t extended it, and not only because apologies to every group with an ax to grind have become the order of the day, with Bill Clinton the universally recognized master emeritus. (By contrast, John Paul, we can be sure, was sincere.) Saying “I’m sorry” for something he did not personally do not only is beneath his pontifical dignify, but serves to evoke a sappy emotional response on the part of some Orthodox that obscures the real points of division. (While we’re on the apology issue, let me add a footnote: If Rome really is sorry for 1204 and all that, how about giving us back some of the loot—notably, the relics those sticky-fingered Frangoi grabbed and which now hallow virtually every major cathedral in Western Europe. If you break into my house, trash the place, steal all my stuff, and then apologize, isn’t it reasonable for me to reply: “OK, but how about giving me back my VCR and my toaster?” Dibs on the Shroud of Turin!)

The more profound significance of the Greek reaction is that it is finally beginning to dawn on those decent Roman Catholics who see the Orthodox as natural allies in an immoral, neopagan world that sacramental union between Eastern and Western Christianity is not in the cards anytime soon—even if they do not fully understand why. As one commentator describing himself as “a Roman Catholic admirer of Orthodoxy” lamented:

Isn’t working closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause? The pope knows that the key question in the era of postmodernism and globalization is not what brand of Christianity the world will follow; it is whether the world will follow Christianity at all.

Well, setting aside Orthodox suspicions that papal supremacy is likely to remain less negotiable than other differences, and that any prospective union would mean, as it always has in the past. Orthodox subordination to Rome, and therefore precisely a question of what brand of Christianity the union produces, this seeming indifference to dogmatic questions is indicative of how little the West understands the East. Some of the over-the-top Greek rhetoric obscured the fact that, for many Orthodox, “Filioque” (not to mention “Vicar of Christ”) is still fightin’ words. Catholic ecumenists may prefer to think the vehement anti-Romanism of doctrinally and morally conservative Orthodox is simply the mark of retrogrades and obscurantists (oh, flatterers!), and they are entitled to their opinion. They may console themselves with the notion that the Orthodox simply have not come to terms with modernism or, as has been suggested by some (both Catholic and Orthodox), have not even noticed it. To which I reply: Oh, we’ve noticed modernism all right; it’s just that we don’t like it very much. In fact, Orthodoxy in the last century alone has suffered at its hands to an extent the Western confessions can scarcely imagine. But it is hard for conservative Roman Catholics to understand that, from our perspective, Rome (and not just post-Vatican II) is not an antidote to modernism but part of it, John Paul’s own moral witness on some important issues notwithstanding. (One very important distinction should be noted here. Some Roman Catholics who pass for moral “conservatives” nowadays, mostly because they are pro-life, have long since made their peace with modernism up to Vatican II and beyond. Some of the “conservatives” who make a point of hailing John Paul II, perhaps mistakenly, as one of their own barely conceal their underlying disdain for what they see as Orthodox backwardness. Their interest in the East does not, I believe, extend much beyond an urge to devour us. More tragic, at least from the Orthodox perspective, are those truly conservative exemplars of the best of the Roman Catholic tradition who, like some of their Protestant counterparts, desire reconciliation with East precisely because they see our backwardness for what it is: loyalty to the ancient traditions. But they are caught in a circle that cannot be squared: If they think Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov is just about socialism, they had better read it again.)

Part of the reason for Catholic ecumenists’ incomprehension is that their understanding of Orthodoxy is derived almost exclusively from contacts with Orthodox ecumenists, too many of whom are exactly the type of Eastern-rite Episcopalians (in the Bishop Spong sense) that Rome would end up with if there were a union. Any foreseeable union would cause a schism in our Church, and Rome would mostly find itself in communion with people who, as much or more than Catholic modernists, want nothing so much as the approval of a godless world. There are exceptions, of course, but Catholics should ask themselves: If these Orthodox are willing to unite with Catholics professing views on authority in the Church, the Filioque, etc., that run counter to their own tradition, how pro-life would they turn out to be? Those Catholics who see union as a means to reinforce the best elements in their own confession might find that it leads to the exact opposite.

In sum, the Greek trip was a big setback for John Paul II’s well-known desire to go to Russia, and prospects for union during his pontificate are virtually dead. Even as far as his own agenda is concerned, it was almost entirely counterproductive. Try to see it from the perspective of real Orthodox Greeks: the Church of Greece, which knew he wanted to advance his ecumenical agenda, did not want him to come. So the socialist government (pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, pro-“Europe”) preempts the Greek Church by inviting John Paul as a head of state. And then he doesn’t expect to be received as a political figure? When you sincerely court someone and the answer is “no,” why force your attentions? Isn’t this just asking for things to get ugly, notwithstanding efforts by the Greek hierarchy to strike a note of civility during the visit itself? On this Rome—probably not the Pope himself but his diplomats—has made an unfortunate blunder.

From the Orthodox perspective, we can unite with Roman Catholicism when, and only when, what we sincerely regard as the latter’s errors of the past millennium are rejected, and the former patriarchate of the old imperial capital returns to Orthodoxy. No one expects that to happen anytime soon. “Frying to force the issue by dismissing the disagreements as so much fussing, and by placing unity above truth, is an insult to faithful Catholics and Orthodox alike. Better that we accept that we fundamentally disagree on important matters of faith but can still—and must—cooperate on moral and cultural issues.

The primate of the Greek Church, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, made that appeal in his meeting with John Paul II, stating that

the time has come for us to co-ordinate our efforts to assure that Europe remains a Christian land, away from the apparent tendency to transform her nations into atheist states, denying their Christian identity.

Likewise, there is little for any Roman Catholic or Protestant worthy of his own tradition to disagree within the social concept published by the Moscow patriarchate in August 2000. Serious Christians of various confessions have plenty of reasons to view one another as friends and comrades in the twilight struggle against the modern social pathologies and their effects, exemplified by the demographic crisis that threatens all of Christian Europe. If moral alliance, not Eucharistic unity, were the focus of the Pope’s eastern policy, even many Orthodox zealots would be receptive. But his Greek pilgrimage, however well-intentioned, was not the way to go about it.