What Divides Catholics and Orthodox?

An article by the late Jesuit Father John Long discusses the current state of ecumenism between Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians reserve today to commemorate the apostle Andrew, “the first-called.” On this feast, the successor of St. Peter sends a delegation to the Turkish city of Istanbul — the former imperial city of Constantinople — where they honor the memory of Peter’s brother with the ecumenical patriarch, who according to tradition is the successor of St. Andrew. This shared celebration between the churches of Rome and Constantinople reminds us of how much Catholics and Orthodox share.

But what divides us?

A few years ago I asked the esteemed ecumenist, Jesuit Father John Long, that very question. His response generated an article for our magazine that launched our “issues” series. In “A Century of Catholic-Orthodox Relations,” Father Long, now sadly deceased, looked back on what had been accomplished between these sister churches in the recent past. He writes:

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.

To read more, see A Century of Catholic-Orthodox Relations.

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