Action Alert!

Troubles facing the Pan-Orthodox Council confirm the need for the Petrine office

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 10, 2016

In preparations for the Pan-Orthodox Council that is scheduled to open in Crete on June 19, Orthodox leaders have underlined the importance of the event by saying that such a meeting has not been held for over 1,000 years. Yes, and something else has been true about the Orthodox churches for the past 1,000 years.

In his book, Russia and the Universal Church, the great Russian theologian Vladimir Soloviev argued—to the consternation of his Orthodox confreres—that the Christian world needs the unifying power of the papacy. Among his arguments was the observation that since breaking with the Holy See, the Orthodox churches have been unable to hold a general council. A successful council in Crete would refute that argument. But as the days wind down toward the meeting, the prospects of a successful Pan-Orthodox Council are more and more remote.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church will not participate. The Patriarchate of Antioch will not participate. The Serbian Orthodox Church does not feel comfortable about participating. Today there is a report that the Georgian Orthodox Church has opted out. The Greek Orthodox Church is unlikely to attend. And the Russian Orthodox Church—the largest by far of the Orthodox bodies involved in the effort—is pleading for postponement and weighing its options. So barring some dramatic development, 6 of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches will not be represented in Crete. It that is the case, the meeting really cannot be called a Pan-Orthodox Council.

From a Catholic perspective, the failure—or even the postponement—of the Pan-Orthodox Council would be a setback for ecumenical efforts, for several reasons:

  • because disunity among believers always represents a failure of Christian charity and a source of scandal;
  • because dialogue with the Orthodox would be much simpler if the Orthodox were unified among themselves;
  • because one important cause of the current friction is the strong resistance in some Orthodox churches against any closer approach to Rome; and
  • because the last-minute squabbling and the seemingly intractable jurisdictional dispute illustrate the centrifugal tendencies of the national Orthodox churches, and thus the difficulties that still block the road to a restoration of full communion.

Catholics should pray, then, that last-minute solutions are found, and the Pan-Orthodox Council proceeds. Failing that, we should pray that our Orthodox brothers recognize what they need to bring them together: the office of Peter to “strengthen 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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