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A Century of Catholic-Orthodox Relations

In the spring of 1962, while a graduate student, I visited Mount Athos, the famous monastic mountain in Greece. Though kindly received by the Orthodox monks, I was shown a painting depicting the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus and a Roman pontiff presiding over the execution of a group of Orthodox monks who had refused to accept the “union” of the Greek and Roman churches proclaimed at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.

That incident never occurred. But it was a sign of the historical memory of real or fanciful grievances that have colored Catholic and Orthodox relations for centuries.

In 1956, a priest from Fordham University took a group of undergraduate students to an Orthodox church. The Orthodox priest welcomed the group graciously and explained the arrangement and appearance of the church. Pointing to the iconostasis (a screen of icons dividing the sanctuary from the nave of a church) he told them that the eucharistic sacrament for the sick was kept behind it. After leaving the church a student asked the Catholic priest whether the Orthodox had the Eucharist as did Catholics. When the priest said yes, the student rejoined, “I didn’t notice you making any sign of reverence. Is Christ really present?” “Yes,” said the Catholic priest, “but he doesn’t want to be.”

Since the earliest days of the church, followers of Jesus Christ have been divided as to how to interpret and practice his teachings.

Long before the Protestant Reformation divided the Christian West in the 16th century, no less than six movements – described often as economic, linguistic, philosophical, political or theological – divided the early church, principally the Christian East. In just four decades, we have traveled far from when these stories were the norm. Little divides us today, however, except for the custom of being divided.

But lately there have been a fair number of statements about an “ecumenical winter” and the “faltering dialogue” between the churches of the Christian East and the Christian West. As we move into this new millennium, we need to reflect on our past and trace the considerable advances made thus far in our search for reconciliation and the restoration of full communion.

The first half of the 20th century. The lack of ecclesial communion between the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions is the result of a centuries-old growth of estrangement tempered, and at times exacerbated, by efforts to re-establish full communion.

For centuries, Eastern and Western Christians had been able to maintain fundamental ecclesial communion despite diversities. But estrangement moved into separation as each tradition insisted more and more on its vision of God’s revelation in his Son and the Church as the only correct vision. Re-establishing full communion, therefore, meant a “return” of one community to the other. Attempts at global union were a failure as clergy and laity in both communities did not recognize the legitimacy of diversity in unity or the possibility that, fundamentally, communion among churches already existed.

This policy of return and uniformity was predominant in the Catholic and Orthodox churches until the middle of the 20th century. In the Catholic Church return and uniformity were emphasized particularly after the Protestant Reformation. Unity was simply full communion with the church presided over by the bishop of Rome, outside of which there was no church and little chance of salvation. Thus full communion with Rome, individual or national, was encouraged, even as the ideal of universal communion began to be considered unattainable.

The actions of three early 20th-century popes – Leo XIII, who encouraged the Eastern Catholic churches to restore and renew their own traditions while taking a more determined role in the life of the entire Catholic Church; Benedict XV, who established the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Churches (both in 1917); and Pius XI, who encouraged the formation of Eastern Catholic communities with their proper hierarchies – while genuine in their respect for the Orthodox were nevertheless based on the notion that the Orthodox had to “return” to Catholic communion. This remained the official policy of the Catholic Church under Pius XII.

In 1896, Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos VII replied harshly to a letter on unity by Leo XIII, reiterating an Orthodox theme that to effect unity the popes must renounce the papacy and all the innovations of the second millennium (the introduction of the filioque – “and the son” in the Nicene Creed – papal infallibility and the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). Even as the Orthodox began to participate in the ecumenical movement in the 1920’s, this did not include dialogue with the Church of Rome. Public protests continued against the activities – even the existence – of the Eastern Catholic churches, dubbed “uniates.” Old-style polemical books continued to be printed or reprinted and, in some Orthodox churches, rebaptism of Catholics continued.

Nonetheless, certain openings took place during this time. The Benedictine abbeyof Amay, now Chevetogne in Belgium, was a pioneer. Theologians from Germany and France developed contacts with Orthodox theologians in Greece, Romania and Western Europe. And Catholic postwar social programs in Europe for the large number of Soviet-bloc Orthodox refugees slowly created a climate of trust and willingness. Ground was being prepared for a flowering of ideas that would lead to the renewed and reformed ecclesiology of Vatican II (1962-65).

A new ecumenical mentality. A distinct change between Catholics and Orthodox began with the pontificate of John XXIII and his calling of a council. One of the declared objectives of Vatican II was to seek ways toward the unity of Christians. Not many people, however, understood what the pope meant; even his understanding of Christian unity developed as preparations for the council went forward.

The Orthodox churches were divided when they first heard of the council. Most considered the council an internal affair of the Catholic Church. Some in Greece and the Middle East showed cautious interest while the Russians were hostile. Attitudes among the Orthodox churches of the Byzantine tradition changed, however, after Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I called the first Pan-Orthodox conference in September 1961.

For Catholics, preparations for the council included the question of non-Catholic observers. The newly created Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, after overcoming internal difficulties in Rome, issued invitations to various churches. Initially, the secretariat decided to invite the heads of the various autocephalous (or independent) Byzantine Orthodox churches through the ecumenical patriarch. It soon became clear, however, that each church wished to decide the question of attendance for itself, resulting in confusion anduncertainty. Paradoxically, only the Moscow Patriarchate had two observers present for the opening session of the council.

This changed as the council fathers grew more open to the idea of observers and their roles were better defined. The Orthodox also determined that their church as a whole must decide on the opportuneness of theological dialogue with the Catholic Church and the structure and subjects that would characterize it. Each autocephalous church, however, was free to enter into whatever type of relationship it wished, as long as it did not imply that it spoke for all of Orthodoxy.

Serious dialogue with those Orthodox churches not in communion with Rome or Constantinople, better known as the “Oriental Orthodox”– the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian (and now Eritrean), Malankara and Syriac Orthodox – date to this period. Though Catholic relations with these communities had not always been friendly, they nevertheless sent observers to various sessions of Vatican II.

The election of Pope Paul VI in June 1963 sparked a whole series of events that led to a change in climate. The exchange of gifts, letters and delegations between Rome, Constantinople and Moscow (Paul and Athenagoras consigning to oblivion the events of 1054, the year that the Catholic and Orthodox churches symbolically separated, comes to mind) were more than just diplomatic courtesies. They symbolized a deeper reality: the Catholic recognition of the sacramental life of these churches, the ecclesial reality and pastoral authority of their bishops and priests and the mission these churches had to their own people and to the world.

This reality was pronounced in the council’s Unitatis Redintegratio, or Decree on Ecumenism, published on 21 November 1964. The basis for modern Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, the decree established the principle of real, if imperfect, communion between Christians and their churches and communities. But the council identified the “special position of the Eastern churches,” recognizing the apostolic origins of many of the beliefs and practices of these churches, the possession of true sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the legitimacy of diversity in discipline and customs, “since these are better suited to the character of their faithful and better adapted to foster the good of souls.

“The perfect observance of this traditional principle – which indeed has not always been observed – is a prerequisite for any restoration of union.”The council further said that legitimate diversity applies to differences in theological expressions of doctrine, which are “often complementary rather than conflicting.”

An event that characterized the thoughts expressed in the decree was Paul VI’s visit to Athenagoras in Istanbul in July 1967. The pope took the initiative, cutting through the prevailing thought among Catholics at the time that any visit of this type would bring patriarch to pope, who was the head of the pre-eminent see and therefore the church. By taking the initiative, Paul demonstrated that authority in the church did not always mean standing on protocol, but service; his visit showed his readiness to serve his Orthodox brothers and sisters. The pope used the visit to focus on the unity that existed between Catholics and Orthodox, despite the real differences that remained. The pope cited the communion of the early church fathers, who accepted each other despite differences in customs and theological expressions of the one truth.

Dialogue of charity. As contacts intensified between Catholics and Orthodox, so too did an understanding of what divided the two: the lack of charity and mutual misunderstanding. “The true dialogue of charity,” declared Pope Paul and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in a common declaration in October 1967, “must be rooted in total fidelity to the one Lord Jesus Christ and in mutual respect for each one’s traditions. Every element that can strengthen the bonds of charity, of communion and of common action is a cause for spiritual rejoicing and should be promoted; anything that can harm this charity, communion and common action is to be eliminated with the grace of God and the creative strength of the Holy Spirit.”

They stated further that “the dialogue of charity …must bear fruits of a cooperation that would not be self-seeking, in the field of common action at the pastoral, social and intellectual levels, with mutual respect for each one’s fidelity to his own church … [and we] hope for better cooperation in works of charity, in aid to refugees and those who are suffering and in the promotion of justice and peace in the world.”

With these words, Paul and Athenagoras laid a blueprint for the dialogue of charity. There is nothing sentimental or emotional here; it is by building according to this blueprint that one may arrive at a serious theological dialogue that can effectively tackle the questions of faith and practice that still separate us and prevent full sacramental and canonical communion.

Catholic - Byzantine Orthodox relations. Since the end of Vatican II, one may discern two distinct periods in Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox relations and perhaps the beginning of a third. The first, which begins with the end of the council in 1965 and ends roughly with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, saw several significant advances toward reconciliation, including:

  • Russian Orthodox recognition of mixed marriages before a Catholic priest (1967)
  • Permission to admit Catholics to Communion in Russian Orthodox churches when no Catholic church is available (1969)
  • Theological discussions in Leningrad (1967), Bari (1970), Zagorsk (1973), Trent (1975), Odessa (1980) and Venice (1987) tackled a variety of topics, including the social doctrine of the church, religious formation, the church in the world, secularization, evangelization and inculturation and the role of women.
  • The creation of a Catholic-Orthodox joint commission in 1978 delineated the objectives and methodology for dialogue, the purpose of which would be to re-establish full communion between the two churches.
  • “The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity,” produced in the second plenary held in Munich in 1982, was the first agreed statement by the commission.
  • “Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church,” after lengthy discussions in Crete (1984) and Bari (1986 and 1987), was the second agreed statement of the commission.
  • A third statement, which examined the sacramental structure of the church, while agreed upon by the commission in New Valamo, Finland (1988), nevertheless revealed the growing tensions between Catholics and Orthodox over the revival of the Eastern Catholic churches in the Gorbachev era. This resulted in the creation of a special sub-commission to study the question of “uniatism.”
  • This era culminated with the celebrations marking the 1,000 anniversary of the baptism of the Rus’, at which 16 officials of the Holy See, including 9 cardinals and this author, participated. Pope John Paul II published two remarkable letters commemorating the anniversary, reiterating the principles and objectives of dialogue and the need for Eastern Catholics to participate in sincere ecumenical activity.

The second period, or “ecumenical winter,” coincides with the revival of the Eastern Catholic churches of post-Communist Europe.

At the fifth plenary session of the Catholic-Orthodox joint commission held in Freising, Germany, in 1990, it was hoped the thorny issues of authority and primacy, including the special primacy of the bishop of Rome, would be addressed, but these hopes were dashed when the Orthodox members insisted that full consideration be given to the problem of “uniatism.”

The commission acknowledged that uniatism – the creation of an Eastern Catholic Church drawn from a parallel Orthodox Church – was perceived as a method of seeking unity among Catholics and Orthodox without taking into account that the Orthodox Church is a sister church offering means of grace and salvation. Commission members called for the drafting of papers to examine the problem, but in a sense they had already rejected “uniatism,”which opposed the common tradition of both churches.

Ultimately a working paper formed the basis of the commission’s fourth agreed statement, “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past and the Present Search for Full Communion,”published in Balamand, Lebanon, in 1993.

Balamand emphasized “communion” and “sister churches,” rejected church exclusivism (uniformity) and reaffirmed that Catholic missionary expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church can no longer be accepted as a method of unity. Yet the commission acknowledged the right of the Eastern Catholic churches to exist and to answer the spiritual needs of their faithful. Obligated by their communion with the Church of Rome, their attitudes toward the Orthodox, however, should be guided by the principles outlined by Vatican II and the clarifying declarations of the popes. The Balamand statement also declared that the Eastern Catholic churches are to take a rightful place, locally and internationally, in the dialogues of charity and theology.

Reaction to Balamand in both Catholic and Orthodox circles has been mixed. And despite the efforts of Pope John Paul II to remove dialogue obstacles and his numerous gestures – visits to the Orthodox churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Jerusalem, Romania and Ukraine; the return of relics taken by medieval Crusaders; designating churches for the liturgical use of various Orthodox communities in Rome – differences loom large. The Joint International Commission, even at its meeting in June 2000 in Emmitsburg, Md., has not been able to produce a statement since 1993.

The death last April of Pope John Paul II and the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI may mark the end of the “ecumenical winter” and the beginning of a thaw. Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus’ (who, while recognizing the overtures and gestures of John Paul II, has repeatedly accused the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of proselytizing at the expense of the Russian Orthodox Church), for example, said, in a statement broadcast on Vatican Radio, that one of the “crucial” challenges that Catholics and Orthodox must address together is to bring Christian values back to Europe. He counted very much on Benedict to work together “against violence, egoism and moral relativism.”

Catholic – Oriental Orthodox relations. Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox differences with the Oriental Orthodox family of churches (Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara and Syrian) date to the great Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries. Each of these churches possesses liturgical, monastic and pastoral traditions that are not easily grasped by Latin (Roman) or even Byzantine theologians.

Observers from all these churches exerted an active presence at Vatican II. The greatest of developments between Catholics and Oriental Orthodox, however, were initiated by a series of unofficial theological consultations established in 1964 by Franz Cardinal König, Archbishop of Vienna.

The Pro Oriente foundation brought together Catholic theologians and bishops and theologians of the various Oriental Orthodox churches who studied common problems, many of them pastoral, in depth.

There is agreement that the Christology expressed by these churches, which separated them from Rome and Constantinople, should not be considered a separating factor. We do not differ substantially in our understanding of Jesus Christ; in fact our different theological formulas seek to express the same reality:

“We confess that our Lord and God and Savior and King of us all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God with respect to his divinity, perfect man with respect to his humanity,” stated Pope Paul VI and Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III in May 1973.

“In him his divinity is united with his humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commix ion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation. His divinity did not separate from his humanity for an instant, not for the twinkling of an eye. He who is God eternal and invisible became visible in the flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant. In him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.”

While wordy, there are some very significant words missing – person, nature, hypostasis or substance – words around which the controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries swirled; words that led to bitterness, fratricide and separation that lasted almost 15 centuries. This common declaration was produced by getting to the reality of faith long hidden behind words and formulas.

To reconcile and restore full communion, the popes called for a joint commission to guide common study of tradition, patristic, liturgy, theology, history and practical pastoral problems, “so that by cooperation in common we may seek to resolve, in a spirit of mutual respect, the differences existing between our churches and be able to proclaim together the Gospel in ways that correspond to the authentic message of the Lord and to the needs and hopes of today’s world.

&#148:With sincerity and urgency,“ the popes declared, “we recall that true charity, rooted in total fidelity to the one Lord Jesus Christ and in mutual respect for each ones’ traditions, is an essential element of this search for perfect communion.

“In the name of this charity, we reject all forms of proselytism, in the sense of acts by which persons seek to disturb each others’ communities by recruiting new members from each other through methods, or because of attitudes of mind, that are opposed to the exigencies of Christian love or to what should characterize the relationships between churches. “Let it cease, where it may exist.”

While the joint Catholic and Coptic Orthodox commission has accomplished some important work, particularly in its early years, the dialogue has not progressed. There are several reasons:

  • Concerns for the position of the Copts in Egypt and the diasporas
  • Fears of Coptic Catholic proselytism, which do not seem well founded
  • Traditionalism among some Coptic Orthodox monastic and academic circles
  • Ambiguous Coptic Orthodox practices, such as the practice of “rebaptism” of Catholics who enter the Coptic Orthodox Church, usually through marriage.

Contacts with the Copts continue only occasionally. Relations with the Armenians, Malankara and Syrian Orthodox, however, continue to develop, opening avenues of theological understanding and pastoral collaboration, especially in education, charitable work and family life. In 2003 a joint Catholic-Oriental Orthodox international commission was established to provide a forum to further dialogue.

A new millennium - light and shadow. For those of us who have participated in the dialogue of the Catholic and Orthodox churches these past 40 years, it has been an exhilarating experience. Sometimes a healthy dose of realism is needed to remind us that, in order to achieve reconciliation and restore full communion, we must overcome a millennium of tension, discord, prejudice and hatred.

We have learned to define ourselves by what we are not. This attitude remains common in the world at large and among Christians in particular.

The events of the last 20 years – the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the decline of its allies, the increase of violence in the Middle East and the resurrection of nationalism in the Balkans for example – have thrown this into relief by liberating many of the sentiments and feelings held in check for at least 50 years.

The Christians affected by these changes, particularly those who had once lived with some limited freedoms and those who now rise from the well of oppression, have to recognize that relations between the Christian East and the Christian West have evolved.

In Europe, the vast majority, clergy and laity alike, have been asked by their leaders (many of whom, rightly or wrongly, were perceived as collaborators with oppressive regimes) to accept ideas and participate in activities they understand as unfaithful to their traditions and faith. They fear for their national, cultural and spiritual identities, which seem threatened. And some comfortable institutions, structures that have withstood many tests over the centuries, may in fact have to be dismantled.

Daunted by the magnitude of Christian renewal and re-evangelization, and strapped for resources and personnel, some in positions of leadership have no time for ecumenism.

Catholics and Orthodox have a strong sense of the ecclesial and religious life anchored in tradition. We recognize that it is a living tradition in which the Holy Spirit is constantly at work, both in word and sacrament. The core of our disappointments in these last 15 years is our struggle to maintain the tension between “the revelation given once and for all to the saints” and to the Spirit who continues to speak. Since the end of the 19th century that Spirit has been at work as Catholics and Orthodox have progressed from estrangement to reconciliation.

The events of the past decades cannot be undone. The documents published cannot be unwritten. They challenge and inspire and, as we continue in this new millennium, they will stand in judgment upon us if we avoid them.

Jesuit Father John Long served as staff member of the Secretariat (now the Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity from 1963 until 1980 and remains as an official consultant.

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