The Catholic-Orthodox theological dialog
is on the right path
by Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
the 10/26-10/27/09 issue of
In Cyprus, in the historic city of Paphos, where St. Paul once preached, the 11th plenary session was held last week of the Mixed International Commission for Theological Dialog between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
The new phase of this dialog, initiated with the ninth session in Belgrade in 2006, is proceeding slowly towards a steep uphill effort on the decisive issue in this phase concerning 'The ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental nature of the Church: Catholicity and authority in the Church'. [I wish they could devise simpler, shorter and less ponderous formulation of the themes for these Church meetings! The Synodal themes, for instance, are always quite a mouthful.]
Based on the document which was published in Ravenna after the tenth plenary session in 2007, and according to its mandate, the session in Paphos (Oct. 16-23) started to consider the topic of "The Bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church during the first millennium".
Thus the Commission has started to discuss the central question of the historic confrontation between the Eastern and Western Churches. Right now, the discussants are seeking to find an objective identification of the problem to arrive at a common hermeneutic which will allow us to reach substantial convergence on its doctrinal consequences.
[Whew! What does that mean, in effect? They want to agree on how to interpret objective historical fact [about the primacy of the Pope in the undivided Church] so that they can determine its doctrinal consequences. Consequences for the Orthodox churches, obviously - since the Roman Catholic Church has kept its doctrine on the papacy unchanged, other than the 19th century addendum on papal infallibility.]
In Cyprus, the Commission worked according to a plan elaborated after Ravenna, which in its turn followed the method agreed upon when the Commission first met (Patmos-Rhodes, 1980).
In early 2008, two subcommissions put together the relevant historical elements from the first millennium. Then, the mixed committee for coordination met in Elounda, Crete, on Sept. 17-Oct. 4, 2008, and, based on the research provided, formulated an organic synthesis as the basis for the discussion by the plenary in Paphos.
Both the subcommittee research and the coordinating committee's synthesis took into account the orientation provided at Ravenna that "conciliarity and authority are interdependent", and that at the diocesan level as well as at the universal level, there is a protos
(the bishop, the metropolitan or patriarch, the Bishop of Rome).
The discussion paper, entering more directly into the question of the protos
at the universal level, states that "both sides (Catholic and Orthodox) agree on the fact that Rome, as the Church that presides in charity, occupied first place in the taxis
(classification) and that the Bishop of Rome was, therefore, the protos
among the patriarchs" (Ravenna, No, 41).
The conclusion of the working document underscores the importance of this agreement reached: the members of the Commission express their conviction that the document "provides a solid base for future discussions on the primacy at the universal level" (Ravenna, No. 46).
The 11th session (in Paphos) on the specific topic "The role of the Bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church during the first millennium" focused on examining some significant historical testimonies on the role of the Bishop of Rome in that period.
These elements were actually the basis for the Ravenna document and concern various topics such as: the Church of Rome itself in the communion of the Church, the relationship of the Bishop of Rome to St. Peter, the role exercised by the Bishop of Rome in times of crisis (Arianism, Monophysism, Monotheism, Iconoclasm), but also some decisions made by the ecumenical councils, with regard to the Church of Rome as with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Also to be considered are non-theological factors which influenced ecclesial mentality and structures like the Roman empire, the transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople, the decline of the Roman empire in the West, the difficulties of communication created by Islam between the Eastern and Western halves, the creation of Charlemagne's empire [Holy Roman Empire], the progressive reciprocal ignorance between the Eastern and Western Churches, their mutual growing apart in practice, and various controversies between East and West [all this before the Great Schism of 1054].
Examination of all this material will require a long period of study. In Paphos, the Commission began by considering the very early Church, starting with what Peter and Paul preached, their martyrdom and their burial places, then proceeding to the Apostolic Fathers.
Important testimonials examined were the Letter from the Church of Rome to the Christians of Corinth, a letter attributed to Pope Clement I aimed at reconciling the faithful of Corinth with their priests, the Letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch which called Rome the Church that 'presides in charity' over all the others, the statement by St. Irenaeus that every other church should be in accord (con-venire, come together) with the Church of Rome, because of her origin and great authority (propter potentiorem principalitatem), the dispute over the date for Easter between Anicetus and Polycarp, Victor and the bishops of Asia, Cyprian's thinking, etc.
For all the elements referring to the role of the Bishop of Rome, the commission members have to agree on an exact identification as well as a possible common interpretation. All this is demanding and delicate work, which will be resumed at the plenary session next year. It is hoped that the discussions begun in Cyprus will facilitate faster progress at the next session.
The Catholic side had 20 members attending, with some absences of members who were attending the Synodal assembly on Africa. Twenty-four Orthodox delegates represented all the Orthodox Churches except the Patriarchate of Bulgaria.
The communique issued at the end of the plenary session presents the list of Orthodox delegates in the order of Orthodox precedence: the Ecumenical Patriarchate (of Constantinople) followed by the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Georgia; and the autocephalous churches of Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech lands and Slovakia.
The completeness of the Orthodox delegation was substantially re-composed with the participation of the Patriarchate of Moscow. whose delegates had walked out of the Ravenna session to protest the presence of representatives from the Church of Estonia, which was invited by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as an autonomous Church, which, however, Moscow does not recognize as such.
The dispute was resolved in the meeting among the primates of the Orthodox Church invited to Constantinople by Patriarch Bartholomew in October 2008, at which it was decided that only the autocephalous churches would be invited to Paphos.
The sessions in Paphos were chaired by the two co-presidents, Cardinal Walter Kasper and Metropolitan Ioannis Zizoulias of Pergamon.
On Oct. 17, the Catholic delegation concelebrated Mass with the Apostolic Nuncio to Cyprus, Mons. Paolo Borgia, at the Catholic Church of the Holy Cross in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. The entire Orthodox delegation attended.
Cardinal Kasper, who presided, delivered the homily, during which he thanked the Orthodox Church of Cyprus for its hospitality to the Commission, and asked for prayers for the work of the Commission, saying: "In the last document published by our Commission two years ago, we stated that there can be a primus
, a protos
, as you say in Greek, at every level of the life of the Church. Primacy is not prohibited nor improper in the Church. At this meeting, we shall ask ourselves what this means for the Bishop of Rome".
The church of the Holy Cross is at the frontier between the Greek part of the island and the part occupied by the Turkish military (37% of the island). The need to remedy the division of the island has been stated again and again by the authorities of the Orthodox Church, and in a particularly forceful way by Archbishop Chrysostomos, primate of the Church of Cyprus.
On Sunday, the 18th, it was the turn of the Orthodox delegation to concelebrate the divine liturgy. This was held at the church of
Phaneromèni, also in Nicosia, and presided by Archbishop Chrysostomos.
In his homily, he said it was with "a sense of responsibility towards the Christian world that the Church of Cyprus, the oldest in Europe" was hosting the plenary session: "This theological dialog is the most important among the official theological dialogs that the Orthodox Church is having with other Christians under the coordination of the Ecumenical Patriarchate".
He pointed out the importance of prayer for dialog, and directly disputed "that small segment among the Orthodox' who, wrongly basing their decision on canons that they read out of context, reject praying in common. He invoked the Holy Spirit on the work of the Commission.
The session closed with vespers for the Feast of St. James the Apostle at the Cathedral of Paphos, with Archbishop Chrysostomos presiding.
The Commission was hosted with great generosity and warm fraternal spirit by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. Archbishop Chrysostomos held a reception at the Archbishop's Palace and and also hosted them for a luncheon. The participants visited the archdiocesan museum with its treasury of precious icons. A delegation was received by the President of Cyprus. The participants were also taken to visit some monasteries with ancient icons and historic Byzantine frescoes.
There was a small episode involving protesters. On the first day of the meeting, about a dozen persons stood outside the hotel with streamers protesting the meeting as a betrayal by the Orthodox delegates whom they accused of yielding to Catholic claims.
Orthodox authorities, the Archbishop of Cyprus, and the Metropolitan of Paphos, all condemned the protest and threatened canonical sanctions for the monks who took part.
The final statement from the Commission says that the Orthodox delegates on the first day "discussed the negative reaction to the dialog by some Orthodox fringe groups, and unanimously considered the protests totally unfounded and unacceptable, by giving false and deceitful information. All the Orthodox members of the Commission reaffirm that the dialog continues with the decision of all the Orthodox Churches, and will be continued in faithfulness to Truth and the Tradition of the Church".
Almost simulatneously, the Church of Greece also expressed its disapproval of the fringe which is critical of ecumenism. The assembly of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy, in a meeting on October 16, said: "The dialog must continue, within ecclesiological norms and Orthodox canon law, in agreement with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as has been laid down by a pan-Orthodox decision. The representatives of our Church to this dialog have clear knowledge of Orthodox theology, ecclesiology and the ecclesiastical tradition".
The discussion of the draft document from the coordinating committee will be resumed at the plenary session next year. This will take place on Sept. 20-27 in Vienna, with Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn as host.
And so, this important dialog continues slowly, but consistently aimed at the goal of full communion between the tow Churches.