Bishop Richard Sklba

The Nicene Creed, which we recite each Sunday, is a precious legacy from the faith of ancient generations of Christians, sometimes developed amid much bitter controversy. Unfortunately, however, its phrases have often become so familiar to us that the words rattle off our tongues with hardly a thought.

So, each weekend we first experience the proclamation of the Sunday’s Gospel. Then we sit to listen to the homily, which is supposed to be another explanation of what God is now doing in our world to make that Gospel alive and effective. Sometimes, if truth be told, we feel inclined to work on our grocery list because of poor acoustics or the lack of any idea which catches our attention. Then we jump up, looking for the book if we’re not sure of the words, to recite the creed and pray for the heartaches of our world.

For the most part, we simply no longer have a clue as to the importance of some of the various phrases in that creed, which caused so much argument, violence and division.

The fact is that the words of the creed, which we recite so facilely each Sunday, were the fruit of the first Ecumenical Council held at the town of Nicea in 325 A.D. in western Turkey, not far from todayís great city of Istanbul (once known as Constantinople). The creedís wording was slightly edited and then definitively promulgated by the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. There remain two controversial phrases in the creed we say, however, one ancient and the other more modern.

After three centuries of effort, for example, the bishops of that council were trying to find just the precisely correct Trinitarian word to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father — same divine reality called “substance” in the language of the ancient philosophers — truly one God but distinct persons. They argued bitterly and finally found some level of agreement in the Greek word “homoousios.” Because that word was not found in the New Testament, however, a priest by the name of Arius refused to agree, and chose to march off in protest — and then be declared heretical by the rest of the council fathers. It was a painful moment and an argument which made permanent the division of that age.

Our English translation today asks us to say “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father,” but most folks haven’t a clue as to the painful history of the original word. A few years ago, a more modern and updated English translation of our creed suggested the phrase “one in being with the Father,” and that’s what we said for a while, correct though it was — but recent ecumenical dialogue with the Greek Orthodox Churches led to restoring the earlier English phrasing of “consubstantial.” Apparently, too much blood had been spent over that battle for correctness; so, the Catholic churches returned to the former English word as the more acceptable translation of the ancient text of our creed. That’s one argument woven into the text we recite so facilely each week.

The other argument is found buried further into our creed’s proclamation, namely the innocently sounding reference to the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father “and the Son (Filoque).” This is a phrase, which was simply not in the text originally approved by the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The word was first developed and added in the eighth-century Frankish Churches of the Emperor Charlemagne. Though initially resisted in Rome, the phrase was eventually added in the West sometime before the 11th century. It has become our common Western heritage ever since.

The most ancient formulation was always that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.” The wording may sound simple and innocent enough, but it was also a result of much argument and spilt blood, with actual martyrs on both sides of the question. Sometimes small things matter and might even matter very much.

The actual history of this phrase is briefly rehearsed in the 1994 edition of “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraphs 246-48. For more than a thousand years, the Orthodox Churches of the East have constantly complained about this addition because it was not authorized by any council of the entire Church and they have concluded for that reason that the Church of Rome is heretical. Serious and very detailed recent studies have shown conclusively, however, that the addition of “and the Son” does not in any way change the ancient faith we profess whenever we recite the creed in Catholic churches today.

The fact of the matter remains, however, that the addition was never officially sanctioned by a council of the whole Church. It remains a sort of verbal violation of the decrees of the early church. Whenever Pope Benedict XVI recited the creed with official representatives of Orthodox Churches, he simply omitted the added phrase of “Filioque” as a sign of respect for the most ancient traditions of the Church.

This is a very technical column, I know, but one, which I have been encouraged to write by national Catholic leaders in the ecumenical movement. My purpose is to introduce our people to the ancient arguments, and to offer a remote preparation should the Western Roman Catholic Church decide to offer (and perhaps even prefer) the shorter and more ancient version of our creed in the future. I believe that will happen one of these years and eventually serve as a subtext to the final reconciliation of our Eastern and Western Christian Churches.

As a matter of fact, the Holy Father and the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul have committed us to a solemn ecumenical meeting in 2035, the 1,700th anniversary of the first such gathering in Nicea which produced the creed we both recite so often. May God’s grace grant the reunion we desire, and may our hearts be open to the steps needed to prepare for that unity.