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Catholic-Orthodox talks on papacy: officials optimistic, while Moscow denies breakthrough

September 28, 2010

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which met in Vienna last week, failed to produce any breakthrough in its dialogue of the papal primacy, according to Metropolitan Hilarion, the Russian Orthodox Church’s leading ecumenical officer.

Metropolitan Hilarion’s assessment strikes a different tone from the optimism on display at a September 24 press conference in Vienna.

“Contrary to media reports, no ‘breakthroughs’ were accomplished,” Metropolitan Hilarion said. “The entire meeting was devoted to the role of the Bishop of Rome in the first millennium.”

At the September 24 press conference, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, who co-chaired the dialogue, said:

There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches. Our predecessors and especially the leaders of our churches both on the Catholic and the Orthodox side have prepared a way for a friendly and brotherly discussion. I must assure you that this spirit prevailed in our discussions. And therefore I wish to assure that if we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain, and bring our two churches – the most ancient churches, the churches that share the same ecumenical past, the same traditions, the same sense of the Church — to bring us to full community [communion].

Archbishop Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and co-chair of the dialogue, said in turn:

Pope Benedict XVI already said in his famous lecture in Graz in 1976 that we cannot expect more from the Orthodox than what was practiced in the first millennium. So the basic discussion is about how these churches lived in the first millennium and how we can find a new (common) path today. This discussion needs the necessary free space (‘Freiraum’) and it needs patience. .. I know some people can be impatient but patience is an expression of love. People know from personal experience what it means when two people in a marriage drift apart — we have 1,000 years to work through. We must and we want to take new paths because Jesus gave us the mission to live together.

The Vienna meeting was the twelfth session of the dialogue, which first met in 1980. The tenth session, which took place in Ravenna in 2007, produced the “Ravenna document,” which was hailed as a breakthrough by Cardinal Walter Kasper (then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) but criticized by Catholic and Orthodox officials engaged in ecumenical dialogue in the US, including Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

At the eleventh session, which took place in Cyprus in 2009, participants in the dialogue discussed “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium,” a joint Orthodox-Catholic committee document drafted in 2008 in Crete. This document examines the role of the Pope in the first millennium; its emphasis is on the history (rather than on the theology) of papal primacy.

At the twelfth session in Vienna, dialogue participants again examined the committee document. Referring to the Ravenna document, Archbishop Koch said:

I think there is certainly a recognition that in the early days of the Church, there was a practice or an order of things in which Rome had a special role, a primary role. We still have to speak about what that meant and implied. Ravenna was the great recognition that there must be a protos, a first one, at all levels — at the level of the local church, of the region and on the universal level. Now we are at the universal level and we’re looking more closely what this protos at this level looked like at that time. This is something new.

Referring to the Ravenna document and the committee document, Metropolitan Zizioulas added:

We are still studying the first millennium, we have not reached a conclusion yet. But the main and most important thing we have discovered in the discussions is that what we decided in Ravenna seems to be confirmed by the history of the first millennium. In other words in the first millennium there was a recognition of the special role that the Bishop of Rome played in the Church. There was also the fact that the Bishop of Rome did not operate without consultation with other bishops in his own area as well as universal. So we are discovering that in history and this is an important aspect.

Metropolitan Hilarion, on the other hand, expressed displeasure with the committee document because it “carries no clear assertion that the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome in the first millennium did not extend to the East,” in the words of the Russian news agency Interfax.

Even though Eastern church leaders would turn to the Pope as an arbiter in theological disputes during the first millennium, said Metropolitan Hilarion, this fact “cannot in any way suggest that the Bishop of Rome was seen in the East as the possessor of supreme authority over the universal Church.”

Referring to tensions with the Russian Orthodox over the committee document, Metropolitan Zizioulas said, “The Church of Russia was absent from Ravenna for reasons that had nothing to do with our dialogue. [They] didn’t leave Ravenna because of the dialogue. What we decided in Ravenna was already prepared by previous meetings in which the Russian Church participated also. Therefore essentially there is no problem … On the whole the basic ideas of Ravenna are accepted by all the Orthodox churches.”

The international commission will meet in two years to discuss the committee document again. The commission will also discuss papal primacy from a theological point of view. In the meantime, both Archbishop Koch and Metropolitan Zizioulas outlined what they see as the steps ahead.

Archbishop Koch said:

First we started with each church describing its vision on unity. The Catholic and the Orthodox visions probably won’t be the same. We saw the questions we will have to discuss — papal primacy and synodality. The Catholic Church has a strong primacy (of the pope) but probably has not developed synodality as much as the Orthodox Church. The strength of the Orthodox Church is its synodality, but the doctrine of primacy is not that strong. We will be able to enrich each other. The basic principle of ecumenism is the exchange of gifts. The first step is to tell each other individually how we imagine unity would look like. For the Catholic Church, of course, unity without the Bishop of Rome is unimaginable. That’s because the issue of the Bishop of Rome is not just an organizational question, but also a theological one. The dialogue about just how this unity should be shaped must be continued intensively. Unity means that we see each other fully as sister churches. Just like the (Catholic) church in Vienna is the sister church of the church in Basel, the Orthodox church will be a sister church for us.

I think the pope himself is thinking in this direction. He’s said to the Anglicans who want to come back that they would be able to keep their tradition and celebrate their liturgy. So he’s said himself that there should be diversity. That will be the second step. It’s far too early to ask each other how we can do this together

Metropolitan Zizioulas added:

I’m in full agreement with what Archbishop Koch said. The model will emerge in the future. We don’t operate with a preconceived model. It will be the result of a certain … I would say — I won’t call it reformation , that is too strong — but adaptation from both sides. What the Orthodox must strengthen is their universal unity and also their conception of primacy. And perhaps the Catholic side must strengthen more the dimension of synodality. If those two things happen the result will come close to a conception of a church which is united in its basic structure in the right way.

Of course we have to be united in faith too. There are certain fundamental things which have to be clarified in maters of faith. The rest can be left to diversity. There are customs, liturgical customs and other customs, that can be left to each church freely to arrange. As far as the Orthdox council is concerned we recognize that autocephaly is a problem, especially when it is associated with nationalistic aspects. But I am glad to say that we’re making good progress towards a pan-Orthodox council and we hope that very soon we will be able to invoke such a council…

The next meeting will depend on the progress we make on this subject that we are discussing now. It looks as if we are going to have a slight change of our subject, namely to make the historical material focus on theological questions more. This will require another period of preparation by subcommittees and debate — that is probably a period of one year. We hope that in two years’ time we can convene again as a plenary commission. But this will depend on the progress we make.


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