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Developments in the Orthodox world bear great ecumenical promise

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 06, 2014

Pay close attention to the latest news about the effort to convene a meeting of all the patriarchs of the world’s Orthodox churches. This could be a truly historic development.

”The All-Orthodox Council has not convened for more than 1,000 years,” remarks the Interfax news service. Exactly. And what happened 1,000 years ago? The Great Schism.

The great Orthodox theologian Vladimir Soloviev, in his book The Russian Church and the Papacy argues that the failure of Orthodox leaders to convene an ecumenical council is a sign that something is seriously wrong—something missing from the Orthodox world. The Catholic Church has held councils; the Orthodox churches have not. This, Soloviev concludes, is a powerful argument for reunion with the Holy See.

For years, Catholic theologians have observed that the Orthodox do not recognize the true need for the Petrine authority, while the Orthodox have complained that Catholics fail to appreciate the role of the Synod. Now, in preparation for the “All-Orthodox Council,” leaders of the Eastern churches have studied the question of primacy, and their conclusions have drawn them closer to the Catholic position. Meanwhile Pope Francis has set out to augment the authority of the Synod. Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas of Pergamon, perhaps the most influential Orthodox theologian alive today, has welcomed this development, saying that it matches the ancient Christian understanding that “in the Church there is never a Primus without the Synod and there is never a Synod without the Primus.”

Does all this suggest the possibility of some genuine ecumenical progress, and even—dare we hope?—eventual reunion? Possibly. But bear in mind that the All-Orthodox Council has not yet occurred, and although the preparations are now well advanced, the fractures within the Orthodox world could still scuttle the venture, and the history of similar efforts does not inspire confidence.

More ominously, the Russian Orthodox Church has withheld its support from the All-Orthodox Council. The Moscow patriarchate also dissented from the pan-Orthodox statement on primacy. So it’s quite possible that the “All-Orthodox Council” could be held without any representation from the world’s largest Orthodox body. The suspicions, rivalries, disputes, and fiefdoms that have built up over 1,000 years are not likely to disappear overnight. Isn’t that yet another illustration of the need for a universal primate, to bring unity among the brethren?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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