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US Catholic, Orthodox prelates criticize Cardinal Kasper’s milestone Ravenna document

Catholic World News - November 05, 2009

Abandoning the diplomatic language typical of ecumenical pronouncements, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, chaired by Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, has issued a candid critique of the 2007 “Ravenna document,” a modest milestone in Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical relations.

The Ravenna document, while not purporting to be the Church’s official teaching, was issued by the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, chaired by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon. A month after the document was issued, Cardinal Kasper told other cardinals that “for the first time the Orthodox representatives recognized a universal level of the Church and admitted that at this level there also exists a Protos, a Primate, who can only be the Bishop of Rome according to the taxis [order] of the ancient Church. All the participants are aware that this is only a first step and that the journey toward full ecclesial communion will be long and difficult; yet, with this document we have set a base for future dialogue.”

After praising aspects of the Ravenna document, the North American Catholic and Orthodox participants in ecumenical dialogue issued their candid critique:

[O]ur Consultation also judges that some issues mentioned in the text are in need of further dialogue and clarification. Like any analogy between the eternal God and created beings, the analogy between the order (taxis) which exists among the three persons of the Holy Trinity and the order (taxis) which exists among local Churches requires further explanation and development. The Ravenna text does not make sufficiently clear the ecclesiological status of regional expressions of primacy and synodality. Even at regional levels, and not only at the universal level, the limits and exercise of authority by the “first” are also not made clear. The document’s historical treatment of apostolic succession and of ecumenical councils lacks precision and may occasion oversimplification and misunderstanding. The understanding of the local parish within the context of the modern diocese or local Church is in need of study.

Finally, we take exception to the contents of the Ravenna document’s sole footnote: “Orthodox participants felt it important to emphasize that the use of the terms ‘the Church’, ‘the universal Church’ and ‘the Body of Christ’ in this document and in similar documents produced by the Joint Commission in no way undermines the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks. From the Catholic point of view, the same self-awareness applies: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church ‘subsists in the Catholic Church’ (Lumen Gentium, 8); this does not exclude acknowledgement that elements of the true Church are present outside the Catholic communion.”

We find this footnote inaccurate. First, we think that its two assertions do not adequately represent the ecclesiology of either the Orthodox or the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church’s self-understanding as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not understood by all Orthodox in exclusivist terms. Throughout the centuries, significant currents within Orthodox ecclesiology have recognized the presence of the Church’s reality outside the canonical, visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Also, to assert that “from the Catholic point of view the same self-awareness applies” misrepresents Catholic ecclesiology at and since the Second Vatican Council, in spite of the Ravenna document’s reference to Lumen Gentium 8. Because of apostolic succession and the Eucharist, Vatican II did not hesitate to recognize that the Orthodox constitute “Churches,” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14) that they are “sister Churches,” and to assert that in their celebration of the Eucharist, the Church of God is being built up and growing.

The Ravenna document’s footnote, which the new North American Catholic-Orthodox statement criticized as “inaccurate,” appears to find ample grounding in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s definitive interpretation of the meaning of the words “subsists in.”

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