Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

the endangered Orthodox patriarchate of Constantinople

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 07, 2010

The Patriarch of Constantinople is the leading figure in the Orthodox world, the “first among equals” of the Orthodox patriarchs. So it is no small matter that the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, could be the last man to hold that title.

On the Get Religion site, Terry Mattingly calls attention to an unusually informative CNN story on the topic. As CNN reports, the Orthodox community in Constantinople (Istanbul) is dwindling, endangered by falling birth rates, an increasingly assertive (and sometimes violent) Muslim majority in the region, and the Turkish laws that place sharp restrictions on the Orthodox leadership.

But Mattingly observes that the otherwise excellent CNN story misses one other very crucial element. While discussing the Halki Orthodox seminary, which was closed by the government in 1971 and has not yet received permission to re-open, CNN notes that the Orthodox community is consequently suffering from a shortage of young priests. True, says Mattingly. But there’s more:

Yet without the seminary’s monastic community, the Orthodox have no monks and, thus, no bishops, since Eastern Orthodoxy follows the ancient tradition of electing only celibate monks and priests as bishops.

And if there are no Orthodox bishops who are from Turkey and trained in Turkey, this means that — according to Turkish law — there can be no new ecumenical patriarch, since this office must be held by a Turkish citizen.

So at some point in the foreseeable future, there may be no Patriarch of Constantinople. What would that mean for the unity of the Orthodox world? For the prospects of ecumenism? For the future of Christianity? We may find out.  

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.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 08, 2010 8:04 AM ET USA

    The Russian Patriarch Kiril would take over. The Russian Orthodox already think that Constantinople fell into heresy when it signed on to the Council of Constance in the 15th century and that they are the "Third Rome". I expect they would welcome the demise of their old rival.

  • Posted by: jimtotter - Sep. 08, 2010 1:38 AM ET USA

    There may be a solution to this problem of succession. Non-Turkish bishops may apply for and receive Turkish citizenship. See the following report from the American Orthodox Institute:

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Sep. 08, 2010 12:53 AM ET USA

    Perhaps it's time for Istanbul/Constantinople to find itself an Avignon? Excellent reportage, Phil.