WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic and Orthodox church representatives have offered their vision of what the unity of both churches might look like in two statements approved during a recent meeting at Georgetown University.
Developed by the 24 members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation during a three-day meeting in Washington that ended Oct. 2, the statements acknowledge common beliefs and history.
Released Oct. 7, the statements also identified areas where the churches diverge in leadership and other practices that must be reconciled before the nearly 1,000-year separation between the churches can end.
One statement addresses issues of disagreement such as the role of the pope and how leadership on behalf of the church by the bishop of Rome can be carried out. The second statement discusses the importance of developing a specific set of criteria for determining the date of Easter so that both churches can proclaim the resurrection of Christ to the world with a unified voice.
Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and a consultation member, called the statements “unprecedented.”
He said no other such consultative bodies have offered suggestions on what unity will entail or how it might look in the future.
“The whole point is we’re at a point in our dialogue that we can start to talk … about what we dimly perceive what a united church would look like,” Father Roberson told Catholic News Service Oct. 8. “Obviously for that to happen, Catholics would have to adjust and Orthodox would have to adjust.”
The first statement, “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future,” offers a vision of the shape of a reunited Catholic and Orthodox church resulting from the re-establishment of full communion.
The second statement, “Celebrating Easter/Pascha Together,” focuses on the importance of a unified celebration of Christ’s resurrection by using the most accurate scientific instruments and astronomical data available to determine the date of Easter.
Father Roberson said Orthodox and Catholics understand that major disagreements still must be overcome but that the statements acknowledge “that we have so much in common.”
The role of the papacy in the worldwide Catholic communion is “the root obstacle” to unity, the first statement acknowledged. It reviewed how the Catholic Church believes in the primacy of the pope and his teaching authority and how the Orthodox Church has a different understanding of the church as described in New Testament passages.
“Clearly, (unity) cannot be achieved without new, better harmonized structures of leadership on both sides: new conceptions of both synodality and primacy in the universal church, new approaches to the way primacy and authority are exercised in both our communions,” the statement said.
Despite the disagreement on the role of the papacy, the Catholic and Orthodox churches share much that “significantly overshadows our differences,” the document said. It cited the liturgy and the shared sacraments, particularly baptism, the anointing with chrism and reception of the Eucharist.
The document offered suggestions to Orthodox and Catholic leaders around the world upon which to build a “worldwide ecclesial communion” including:
— Mutual recognition that both churches are “authentic embodiments of the one church of Christ, founded by the apostles.”
— Acceptance of each church’s diversity without the need to forego their own traditions and practices.
— Reception of the sacraments by all members in both churches.
&mash Continuing each church’s practices in the selection or election of bishops; those chosen would notify appropriate parties of their new church standing.
The document also offered a series of what it described as preparatory steps that church leaders could take that would lead to unity. They included meetings between Orthodox and Catholic bishops in a nation or region to discuss pastoral issues; special liturgies, common prayer services and joint social ministries; and having the pope and Orthodox primates invite the faithful under their jurisdictions to “recognize each other’s churches as ‘sister churches.’”
The second statement on the celebration of Easter reaffirmed the consultation’s 1998 document that also called for a common date for the celebration of Easter, or what the Orthodox Church calls Pascha. It cited numerous statements by worldwide Christian bodies and individual Christian leaders since 1971 that have called for the development of one formula to determine the annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Specifically, the consultation echoed recent proposals that would recalculate of the date of Easter based strictly on the teaching of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. The council determined that Easter be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox from the Jerusalem meridian.
“We are convinced that the time is at hand for a permanent resolution to this issue,” the consultation said.
“For the mission of the church, a common celebration would support the unity we already share and help to build it further in the future,” the statement said.
Father Roberson said the statements do not mean that the North American consultation is providing the needed answers to the unity of both churches.
“We don’t speak with the authority for either church,” he said. “It’s for the leadership of our churches to consider. But we don’t speak on their behalf.”
The full texts of the statements can be found online at www.usccb.org/seia/steps-towards-reunited-church.shtml (old/broken link: https://www.usccb.org/seia/steps-towards-reunited-church.shtml) and www.usccb.org/seia/easter.shtml (old/broken link: https://www.usccb.org/seia/easter.shtml).