February 5, 2017
In the past several months there have been two major events concerning the Orthodox world and its relations with the Catholic Church.
First, the “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church” took place on the island of Crete from June 19 to 26. More than 50 years in preparation, the plan was for the delegations of all 14 autocephalous churches to ratify a number of documents that had been previously approved by the primates of all the churches. At the last moment, however, two churches (Georgia and Bulgaria) raised new objections to the draft texts, and so decided not to attend. The Patriarchate of Antioch also announced it would be absent because of an unresolved dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem over the Orthodox community in Qatar (Antioch has in fact broken Eucharistic communion with Jerusalem). Consequently, the Moscow Patriarchate decided not to attend because there would be no possibility of unanimity regarding the draft texts. In the end, ten of the 14 churches were present. They proceeded to adopt six of the draft texts, and to issue both an encyclical and a message to the Orthodox faithful and all people of good will.
Perhaps the most important issue that precipitated the decision by Bulgaria and Georgia not to attend was the reference in the draft text “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” to Catholics and others as “churches.” There had been a strong reaction to this in more conservative Orthodox circles who insisted that only the Orthodox could be called “church” in the full sense of the word. In the end, the official English version of the final text states that in spite of the divisions, “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her…” It should be noted that in the original Greek the word translated here as “non-Orthodox” is actually “heterodox,” a more negative term.
Two schools of thought have now emerged regarding the authority of the texts approved by the council: those who attended maintain that the documents are binding on all Orthodox Churches including those who did not attend, while those who did not attend maintain that the documents are provisional, and await final ratification at a future council attended by all 14 of the autocephalous churches. In spite of these problems, I think it is fair to say that the Council held on Crete was an important step forward that has challenged Orthodox Christians to manifest more clearly their unity and common witness in the world today. The future is impossible to predict, but one can hope that the Crete Council will be only the first of many such encounters with fuller participation by the Orthodox Churches.
The other major event was the 14th plenary meeting of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It took place in Chieti, Italy, from September 16 to 21, 2016. It was able to finalize an agreed statement entitled, “Synodality and Primacy during the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church.” In its structure it resembles the 2007 “Ravenna Document” which examined the relationship between synodality and primacy at all levels of church life: in the diocese, a region and worldwide. This new document is historical in nature and examines those relationships as they played out before the schism in the 11th century. It includes an ample treatment of primacy at the universal level during that period, and concludes with a discussion of the fact that disputes in the east were often appealed to Rome, which might order a retrial in another place. “Appeals to the bishop of Rome from the East expressed the communion of the Church,” the text concludes, “but the bishop of Rome did not exercise canonical authority over the churches of the East.” All the Orthodox Churches except the Bulgarian Patriarchate were represented at Chieti, and only the Church of Georgia had reservations about the text as noted in the final communique. Two Catholic members of the dialogue are from the United States: Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, and Msgr. Paul McPartlan of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Taken together, these two developments show the evolving nature of Catholic-Orthodox relations today. The first was an important internal development among the Orthodox Churches that will improve their ability to speak with a single voice on the issues that Catholics and Orthodox face together. The second is an example of a common reading of history that must take place before authentic ecumenical dialogue can happen. We are moving away from a time when our churches held radically different interpretations of the same historical data, and towards a common understanding of the way our churches related to each other in the period before our division. The Chieti document has laid the groundwork for a common understanding of the role that the bishop of Rome played in the Church when we were still in full communion. These insights will prove useful as our churches continue to dialogue together on the exercise of primacy and synodality at all levels of the Church’s life.
Ron Roberson, CSP, is Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC. He specializes in relations with the Orthodox churches