ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Upon This Rock

A discussion of the controversial yet possible unity for the churches of East and West.

On 7 December 1965, Bishop Jan Willebrands read to the fathers of Vatican II the declaration of Pope Paul VI lifting the excommunication that the ambassadors of Pope Leo IX had imposed on the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, in 1054. At the same time, in the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint George in Constantinople, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate lifted the anathemas imposed on the papal ambassadors in 1054 by Patriarch Michael Cerularius and the patriarchal synod of Constantinople.

It is usually said that the rift between the churches of Rome and Constantinople was caused by these 11th-century mutual ex-communications. Therefore it would seem that the mutual lifting of the 900-year-old censures had finally healed the rupture of communion. Lamentably, this was not to be the case; the churches that parted ways at the beginning of the millennium remain apart as the millennium draws to a close.

The reason why the lifting of the censures did not result in the reestablishment of full communion between the two churches was that the separation was not a result of any one event, but of the gradual erosion between them. Surprisingly, 11th century observers did not consider the churches separated. Rather, the mutual excommunications were regarded more as disputes between the heads of the two churches – one of whom, Pope Leo IX, died before the excommunications had been declared.

One of the causes of the estrangement of these churches has to do with the different understandings of “church” that had evolved in the churches of the West and the East.

Universal Church. The Church of Rome had come to view the church as the universal communion of Christians presided over by the Bishop of Rome. While the Bishop of Rome had always enjoyed a primacy of honor among all the bishops, this primacy was not always understood as a superior authority over all the bishops. In the West the barbarian invasions had eroded the effectiveness of the secular authority. To fill this vacuum of authority, the Bishop of Rome assumed many powers that had traditionally been exercised by the Roman emperor.

From the fifth-century pontificate of Leo I, the Church of Rome described the primacy of the Bishop of Rome – the “Successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles” – as authority over all the bishops and faithful.

The scriptural basis for this concept of primacy is the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16:18-20. This is the only occasion in which the Gospels record the word “church” on the lips of Jesus. He addresses these words to Simon: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)

In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the phrase is a play on words: kepa means both “rock” and “Peter,” hence, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” As the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome was given the keys of the Kingdom; whatever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).

Sister churches. A different understanding of the church evolved in the East. In 321, Emperor Constantine the Great established an imperial capital in the East in an insignificant city, Byzantium. Later to be named after its founder, Constantinople was to be a magnificent city that would style itself as the “Younger Rome” or the “New Rome.” In fact, the imperial government of Constantinople was to outlive that of Rome by almost 1,000 years.

Soon after the establishment of the imperial capital in the East, the see of Constantinople began to rival the patriarchal churches of Alexandria, Antioch and even Rome. Two ecumenical councils held in the region, Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451), both declared that the Bishop of Constantinople, as bishop of the imperial capital, was second only to the Bishop of Rome.

Because there were multiple patriarchates in the East (the West had only one), the idea developed there that the church in the East was governed by a pentarchy, the five patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Rather than conceiving of the church as a universal communion, the East conceived of the church as a communion of local churches, with the Church of Rome holding the primacy among them.

Gradual estrangement of East and West. It was in the context of these different understandings of the church as universal and local (both of which are today accepted by Catholic and Orthodox theologians) that the rivalry between the East and West arose.

One of the disputes between them concerned the inclusion of the phrase “and the Son” (filioque) in the profession of faith formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325, a practice that started in Spain and eventually moved to Rome. The Church of Constantinople challenged the authority of any one church – even the Church of Rome – to change the creed adopted by an ecumenical council.

The Western Church had also introduced the using of unleavened bread for the celebration of the Eucharist, while the East retained the traditional practice of using leavened bread and was suspicious of the Western innovation in the liturgy.

The Crusades brought the West and the East into more frequent contact with each other, but this only aggravated the situation. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade led to centuries of hostility between the two churches.

The theological question of whether to include the phrase “and the Son” in the creed has been resolved in recent times in a manner acceptable to both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches. Modern Christians would deem the dispute of leavened or unleavened bread as hardly “church-shattering”; one might ask, therefore, why the estrangement between the two churches remains.

No salvation outside the church. Just as the breakdown of relations was the result of the diverging understandings of church that evolved in East and West, the estrangement was prolonged by developments in the theology of church.

There is an ancient axiom that states, “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” This theological position, supported by such church fathers as Augustine and Cyprian, became problematic during the 13th century when Pope Boniface VIII asserted that the church comprised only believers obedient to the pope.

This papal teaching was later incorporated into the 15th-century ecumenical council of Florence: “The Holy Roman Church…believes, confesses and proclaims that outside the Catholic Church, no one…will have a share in salvation.”

Saint Robert Bellarmine, in response to the Reformation overly accentuating the spiritual dimensions of the church, defined the church as an organization with tangible requirements for membership: According to Bellarmine, the church is a community of believers joined by the same faith, sacraments and allegiance to the Roman Pontiff. In effect, obedience to the pope became a requirement for salvation.

During most of the second millennium, when this model of church was dominant, insufficient attention was paid by the Catholic Church to the status of Christians baptized outside the Catholic Church. Since these persons were not subject to the authority of the pope, technically they were not considered as members of the church. Despite the fact that the Orthodox Church had apostolic succession, priesthood, Eucharist and the other sacraments, Catholics could not regard them as “church” because of these definitions.

For example, the document proclaiming the 16th-century union of some Ruthenian bishops with the Catholic Church included the reference that the Ruthenian bishops “had not been members of the Body of Christ which is the church, because they lacked bonds with the visible head of the church, the Supreme Roman Pontiff.”

This denial of legitimacy to the non-Catholic churches excluded Catholic participation in any endeavor to reunite the churches. In 1864 Catholics were prohibited from being members in the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, a group established by Anglicans and Catholics to pray for the corporate reunion of the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Catholics could only carry out an apostolate that would seek to convert baptized individuals and communities to full union with the Catholic Church. The creation of most of the 21 Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with the Roman Pontiff testifies to the well- meaning overtures of zealous Catholic missionaries in this spirit.

Unfortunately, these Eastern Catholic churches are often viewed as traitors by their Orthodox counterparts and are little known in the Catholic Church, which is commonly and incorrectly presumed to be exclusively Latin Catholic.

A new vision of church. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the fathers of Vatican Council II (1962-1965) redefined the boundaries of the church as a communion of all those baptized in Christ. All churches and ecclesial communions that administer baptism through the pouring of water and the invocation of the Trinity belong to the Body of Christ. By refining its understanding of church, the Catholic Church could accept that the gifts of truth and sanctification are found outside its boundaries.

Today, the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Orthodox churches are churches in the full sense of the word. It no longer seeks the “conversion” of these churches and has energetically participated in the ecumenical movement, an endeavor to reunite the churches of Christ.

Dialogues of charity and truth. Catholic ecumenical endeavors with the Orthodox churches are twofold. The first is a dialogue of charity. A millennium of estrangement requires that the churches become re-acquainted and that a mutual trust be re-established. Through God grace, much has been accomplished in this area. Contacts between the pope and the ecumenical patriarch occur frequently with an exchange of greetings on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul and the Feast of Saint Andrew.

CNEWA has been privileged to participate in this dialogue through assistance to Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches alike in their pastoral work, humanitarian projects and ecumenical efforts.

The second, the dialogue of truth, is an exchange between the theologians of each church to resolve existing theological differences. Again, a great deal has been accomplished. The authorities of both churches have signed agreements resolving ancient doctrinal disputes and the liturgical practices of both East and West have been judged to be legitimate. One major obstacle remains: the exercise of the papal office.

The papacy and church unity. “The Pope – as we all know – is undoubtedly the gravest obstacle in the path of ecumenism.” This statement is disconcerting and perhaps offensive to Catholics. It is even more shocking to hear that a pope, Paul VI, uttered these words. Apparently Pope John Paul II perceives the same difficulty, because in 1995 the Holy Father published “That They May Be One,” (Ut Unum Sint), an encyclical letter which included a call for all the pastors and theologians of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to seek together new forms in which the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome “may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.”

Renewal is difficult because change is painful. It is always difficult for an institution to renew itself spontaneously and willingly. There is also the danger of destroying the good with the bad. In addition, some may take this as an opportunity to attack the papacy. Nevertheless, it behooves all Christians to understand and heed the challenge of this pope.

Initially, Catholics were hesitant to respond to the Pope invitation on the presumption that it was addressed principally to the churches outside the Catholic Church. However, the Holy Father subsequently invited the six Eastern Catholic patriarchs to participate in this renewal process and later ex-tended the call to all Eastern Catholic patriarchs and bishops during their recent special assembly in the Middle East.

The Orthodox have expressed their opinions, but a new formulation of the Petrine ministry can come only from within the Catholic Church itself. Church leaders, theologians and canonists need to participate in the process. No hierarchical institution or established procedure can be exempt from the discernment process, for we are seeking to fulfill a direct mandate of Christ, the unity of Christians.

Petrine ministry. The two crucial aspects in the discussion of the papal office are primacy and infallibility.

Primacy refers to the full power of governance over the entire church. According to Catholic doctrine, this supreme power can be exercised collectively by the bishops in union with the pope or individually by the pope.

Infallibility refers to the power of the pope to teach without error when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals, ex cathedra.

The Catholic position regarding papal primacy can be historically explained and justified (despite the fact that absolute monarchies have generally passed away in the secular spheres of government). On the other hand, the Orthodox cannot accept the form of governance that has evolved in the Catholic Church. Despite the apparent impasse, it would be a cynical act of desperation to declare the problem unsolvable.

When Vatican II took a creative approach in formulating a new vision of the church, the traditional doctrine was upheld and the church freed itself from unnecessary fetters. The solution to this presumed unsolvable dilemma has already borne much fruit. Cannot the same be done with the Petrine ministry?

Some have proposed that the pope bind himself and his successors to legal restraints that would not permit them to act in certain cases independently of the college of bishops. However, such a proposal is questionable and might prove to be only a “quick fix” that would not provide for a lasting Christian unity.

Perhaps the greatest defect in such a proposal is that it seeks to establish Christian unity by starting at the top. Similar attempts were made during the 13th and 15th centuries, but, even though agreements between the churches were signed, true unity was never realized.

Lasting unity will likely be achieved only by beginning at the grassroots level. Only after an atmosphere of serenity and trust has been created can institutional questions such as the renewal of the papacy be addressed.

Unity of Christians. Perhaps the issues of reunion of churches should be postponed to a time when Catholics and Orthodox have become accustomed to living together. Instead, attention should be given to the unity of Christians. Such an approach requires the conversion of individual Christians to the quest for unity. Individual acts of love, generosity and self-sacrifice without expectation of reciprocity or immediate results will contribute more to the ecumenical movement than any official agreements.

A painful question concerns the sharing of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Catholic Church has already approved of sacramental sharing on an individual level in certain situations: Catholics are, under certain circumstances, permitted to receive the Eucharist from an Orthodox priest. Likewise, Catholics permit Orthodox to receive the Eucharist from a Catholic priest when an Orthodox priest is unavailable. (The Orthodox Church has not yet made comparable provisions regarding its faithful nor does it permit Catholics to receive the Eucharist from an Orthodox priest.)

The current arrangement regarding sacramental sharing is a pastoral accommodation to the circumstances of particular individuals that could well be generalized. Further, since Catholic and Orthodox faithful are permitted to receive communion in both churches, perhaps someday Catholic and Orthodox priests could be permitted to concelebrate the Eucharist in both churches. Decisions regarding matters of such importance would naturally rest with the appropriate authorities of both churches.

A sacramental sharing might well result in a higher level of charity and understanding. Hopefully, just as the Orthodox and Catholic churches one day realized that they had gradually parted ways at the beginning of the second millennium, so too will they discover a blessed unity has reappeared among them at the beginning of the third millennium. Perhaps forgiveness for our sinful divisions will be given in the form of a solution to the complex problems involving the papacy.

We must be patient. After all, Catholics entered the arena of ecumenism only 35 years ago in an attempt to heal 1,000 years of estrangement. It is a paradox that the Successor of Peter, declared to be the greatest obstacle to ecumenism, is perhaps the key figure in the Church of Christ with the necessary authority and resources to effect such a radical change in the unity of Christians.

Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris is CNEWA’s Assistant Secretary General.

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