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On the Way to a New Orthodox-Catholic Ecumenism


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 2/2010, P. 25 et sequ. and 3/2010 P. 33 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Do Catholic and Orthodox Church approach each other? Such messages inspire some people with hope that also in the West a more decided testimony of faith will be the result. Others fear that the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue strengthens traditionalist trends. First, it is necessary to appreciate the diversity of the Orthodox and Catholic churches and to enumerate the major differences and common challenges. A second part then deals with the chances of the dialogue.


There are many and diverse ecumenical contacts between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. It is noticeable that many Western Christians admire the Eastern liturgy and spirituality, whereas Orthodox hierarchs often criticize the liberalism and moral relativism of the Western Christendom. Are Western Christians prone to an idealization of the Orthodox Christianity? Is there on the Orthodox side a tendency of giving oneself a clearer image in comparison with the Western Christianity? Although the media often so one-sidedly characterize the relationship between churches of East and West, the contrasting of idealization and image cultivation is an inadmissible simplification that does not justice to the diverse reality.


Living Church Diversity

First, one cannot simply speak of "the Orthodoxy." Because from the perspective of denominational studies the Orthodox Christianity is divided into three groups that have been separated for centuries and are not in communion with each other. There is first the Assyrian Church of the East, an originally in Mesopotamia-based Church of the East Syrian rite, which during the Middle Ages spread from India over Central Asia to China. Today, only a few hundred thousand believers belong to it in Iraq and Iran, and in the North American Diaspora. The second group comprises the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 separated from the imperial church. This church family today includes the Copts, Syrians, Armenians, Ethiopians, Eritreans and the Malankara Church [Saint Thomas Christians] in India. Third, there is the group of Orthodox Christians. Together with the Western Churches it accepted the decisions of Chalcedon. Its ritual and canon law were largely influenced by the Capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. These Churches of the Byzantine Rite, which are known in English as "Eastern Orthodox" and in German usually called simply "Orthodox", form after their conviction a single church, albeit in different national variants. It includes the Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Georgia, to mention only the largest. The following is confined to the ecumenical dialogue with these churches.

Also the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians who live now in the states of Western Europe and North America make up the diversity on the Orthodox side. The Orthodox Church today is like the Catholic Church a globally spread church. By the fact that the Orthodox Christians live and work in the vicinity to the Western culture, they can become a driving force of the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

Also a closer look at the Catholic Church reveals a greater diversity than commonly noticed. There has to be pointed, first and foremost, to the necessary distinction between the Catholic Church of Latin rite and the with Rome (united) churches of the various Eastern rites. Because of meanwhile outdated conceptions of unity in the early modern times, today almost every Orthodox local church has in parallel a with Rome united Eastern church. These churches, which were once conceived as nucleus of unity between Orthodox and Catholic churches, are nowadays often a stumbling block in the dialogue. But this only applies to the Eastern European context. In the Greater Middle East, however, often a good cooperation between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics can be seen, up to jointly built churches. That's why in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue should not be sweepingly spoken of "the Uniate Churches". Even in Eastern Europe, there are clear differences, for example between the united "national churches" [Volkskirchen] in Ukraine or Romania and very small Greek-Catholic communities in Albania and Croatia.

But also the Roman Catholic Church of Latin rite is by no means such a uniform and thus such a threatening entity as it is seen sometimes by Orthodox Christians. There are great differences between the Catholic Church in Norway, Germany and Italy - to choose three examples along a north-south axis -, where not only the denominational conditions but also the cultural context differ.

If that diversity is seen, it also means to give attention to the different areas where the dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Catholics takes place. First, and foremost, the official committees are to be mentioned. In the eighties the International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has worked out three basic documents on the understanding of the church and the sacraments. After 1990, the revival of the with Rome united churches in Eastern Europe caused a time of crisis. Three years ago the Commission resumed its work. In 2007, with the document of Ravenna a first text was presented. It deals with the relationship between primacy and conciliarity in the church - i.e. with the relationship between the community of bishops and the primacy of the Patriarch or Pope. With it one of the key points of dispute between Orthodox Christians and Catholics has been taken up. Recently, the Commission met in October 2009 in Cyprus, where it dwelled upon the primacy in the first millennium.


The Network of Dialogues

In addition to the International Commission for Theological Dialogue, there are also national and regional circles that have partly worked out remarkable documents. For example, the Orthodox-Catholic committee in France has in 1991 presented a text worth reading about the understanding of the Roman primacy within the communion of the churches. In the nineties the Orthodox-Catholic Commission in Germany has dealt mainly with the understanding and practice of the sacraments. Finally, in North America already since 1965 Orthodox-Catholic meetings regularly take place. Last, in 2006 a remarkable text came out on the question of the 'Filioque', which concerns the relations [Zueinander] between the three persons within the triune God.

In addition to the theological level, there are contacts of Episcopal Conferences or individual Bishops with representatives of the Orthodox Church. The bishops' conferences in Italy and Germany are particularly active. In Italy this is caused, on the one hand, by the centuries of Byzantine cultural presence on the Italian peninsula, and on the other hand by the continuing streams of Orthodox pilgrims, e.g. to the holy Bishop Nicholas, whose bones are kept in Bari. In Germany, the Bishops' Conference supports the dialogue with the Orthodox Church through a scholarship program for Orthodox theology students. It is implemented with the help of the Ostkirchliches Institut Regensburg. In the context of the Ecumenism Commission, the working group "Churches of the East" maintains contacts with the Orthodox Patriarchates. Moreover, the German Bishops' Conference is conducting its own theological discussions - e.g. with the Moscow Patriarchate -, which in December 2009 were resumed after a long break.

Finally, the informal meetings and working groups are a third level of the dialogue. The Wien Foundation "Pro Oriente" has here already for decades great merits.



They include also the symposia on the Eastern Church spirituality, organized by the ecumenical community in the monastery Bose in northern Italy, or the personal contacts maintained by religious communities as e.g. Focolare and Sant'Egidio.

The international Orthodox-Catholic working group St. Irenaeus, which was founded five years ago in Paderborn, has at its annual meetings above all dealt with the question of the relation between theory and practice of primacy in East and West. After all, there are also contacts between parishes and individual believers, which were often the result of individual initiatives but nevertheless make an invaluable contribution to the deepening of relations between Orthodox Christians and Catholics at the church grassroots level.

Although in the last 45 years a multifaceted network of ecumenical contacts developed, in these discussions the same questions are time and again asked. They mainly concern the causes of the split, the current conflicts and the different ideas about the future togetherness. In the ecumenical dialogue, these tensions are mentioned, solutions are sought, proposals are discussed and dismissed. Three problem areas are of central importance for the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue: papal primacy and synodality, nation and universality, reform and continuity.

Also the International Commission for the Theological Dialogue has dealt with the the relation between papal primacy and synodality in its Ravenna Document. The Catholic side particularly emphasized that the Orthodox Church in this text acknowledged for the first time the necessity of a primacy for the universal church. This is admittedly true but does only apply to "the fact of primacy at the universal level" and not with regard to the nature of its exercise. Precisely the legal and doctrinal authority of the pope, however, form the central point of contention. Here, the Commission will still have to clarify many open questions, because the document has by no means definitely answered the primacy question. The main result is the recognition of the mutual relatedness of primacy and synodality at all levels of the church. If one takes this seriously, the Ravenna Document does not only challenge the Orthodox Christians but also the Catholics. The Catholic Church admittedly knows kinds of synodical counselling but there are - with the exception of the Eastern Catholic Churches - hardly any opportunities to take synodical decisions.

In addition, according to the Ravenna document there should be primatial structures below the level of the papal primacy. This, too, exists only in the Eastern Catholic Churches, where the patriarchs or major archbishops at least to some extent have the corresponding authority. It would therefore be advantageous for the ecumenical dialogue with Orthodoxy, if the authority of the Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops as well as of their synods would be strengthened. A greater independence of the Eastern Catholic Churches would admittedly mean a loss of influence and power for the Vatican; but at the same time, Rome would gain in authority in the inter-church relations.


Nation and Universality

The second problem area is the relation between nation and universality. Of course, all churches admit that the Christian faith exceeds the border-lines of gender, class, race and nation. Nonetheless, we can observe at least since the 19th century a close connection between national consciousness and church affiliation. Although this phenomenon is now observed primarily in the Orthodox area, it applies basically to all societies that are shaped by the church. Not only in Greece and Russia but also in Poland and Spain the connection between church and state is so close that the universal claim of the Christian faith is sometimes disregarded.

On the Orthodox side, the church's ties with a nation are particularly noticeable in the Western diaspora, where Orthodox dioceses of different patriarchates co-exist, although the Orthodox Christians basically see themselves as one Church. But there are parallel church structures even in traditionally Orthodox countries, as e.g. Estonia, Ukraine or Moldova. In the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, the principle of nationality does no longer apply, because it understands itself as a "multi-national church." Since it includes not only native Russians but also members of many nationalities in the post-Soviet area, the principle of territoriality is alternatively used as an argument. Thus, the Moscow Patriarchate tries to defend its "canonical territory" against competing inner-Orthodox groupings. In addition, a further spread of the Catholic Church has to be prevented, as the controversy over the creation of four Catholic dioceses in the Russian Federation has shown.

No matter whether the national or the territorial principle is emphasized, in both cases the universal character of Christianity and the catholicity of the Church of Jesus Christ are questioned. Also the Orthodox Christians know that the current situation does not correspond to the ideal. A pan-Orthodox Synod, which is in preparation for decades, ought to find a solution. It is gratifying that the preparatory process has by now gained a new momentum. For a decisive progress in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue will only occur if previously an inner-Orthodox understanding has been reached.

There are also differences in the relation between reform and continuity in the church. One is very sensitive to weighting tradition and renewal in the Catholic as well as in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is generally regarded as the "Church of the tradition." Many Orthodox Christians proudly argue that in their Church alone the tradition of the early church were preserved unchanged. Those voices fail to recognize the radical changes of the church structures, as e.g. the upheavals of the 15th century (the end of the Byzantine Empire), of the 18 century (the church reform of Tsar Peter the Great) and of the 20th century (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and of the Russian Empire). Moreover, a rigid traditionalism means that the living development of faith is frozen at a fictitious point in time, somewhere between 10th and 14th century.


Modern Tradition

Contrary to such traditionalist voices the theologians of the Paris School of Saint-Serge emphasize that the Orthodox Church as the "Church of the Holy Spirit" has always known a living development of the tradition, which adjusted to new cultural contexts and inculturated the Christian faith in different societies. The Orthodox Church has often been accused that it had not yet undergone the Enlightenment. Even though it is impossible to catch up this in a short time, many Orthodox theologians by now think that a discussion about the questions raised by the modern age and postmodernism is unavoidable.

On the Catholic side above all the Second Vatican Council has dealt with issues of the modern age. Unfortunately, in recent times the post-conciliar development is questioned especially also within the Catholic Church. The saying that the Catholic Church has been radically changed and opened through the Second Vatican Council caused uncertainty. Already in the first year of his pontificate Pope Benedict XVI has in front of the College of Cardinals said about the hermeneutics, i.e. the understanding of the Vatican Council that he rejected "hermeneutics of discontinuity." However, it is remarkable that he does not advocate "hermeneutics of continuity" but "hermeneutics of reform", which preserves the old legacy but also faces up to "the needs of our time." As Benedict XVI says, it is about the challenging "connection of loyalty and dynamism." To adhere to continuity and at the same time to dare reforms is a challenge that our churches are to take up jointly. We cannot, backward-looking, keep to traditional forms; we must spread the Christian faith into the future, and thus open the way for the kingdom of God.

Part Two - CiG 3/2010 p. 33 f.

Those who ask about the chances of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue must not simply suppress the problems in order to seek opportunities for a fruitful exchange in other areas such as liturgy and spirituality. Rather, the knowledge of the difficulties means also opportunities for the ecumenical learning process. If the relation between primacy and synodality is not only seen as a problem within the Catholic Church and the right relation between the national ties and the universality of Christianity is seen not only as an problem of the Orthodox Church, but - like the relation between reform and continuity - as a challenge to both churches, then this knowledge can result in the effort to find together solutions. The prerequisite for it is the insight that the church model that we favoured in the second millennium possibly needn't be the ideal for the third millennium.


Tradition Means Reforms

Especially the Orthodox side repeatedly requires the orientation towards the model of the first millennium. The election of Joseph Ratzinger as pope was not least welcomed unanimously by Orthodox Christians because of his famous quote still familiar to many theologians, "Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium." This sounds wise and plausible, at first glance. However, the controversial question of primacy is thus not solved, because up to this day it has not yet been possible to define jointly what the first millennium taught about the primacy and how it was lived. Historical studies may perhaps some day allow a common definition. But this does not at all mean that the primatial practice always corresponded to this doctrine.

Finally, it has to be taken into consideration that in the globalized world of the third millennium, in comparison to the first millennium, a modified form of the primatial practice will be required. The solution therefore lies not in the past but in the common orientation towards the future. This exactly might have been the intention of Pope John Paul II when he in his ecumenical encyclical "Ut unum sint" (that they may be one) [no. 95] invited the representatives of other Christian churches together with him to ponder on a form of exercising the papal primacy, "which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation"

The same applies to the relation between nation and universality. It is not disputed that Christianity is not an abstract doctrine but a living faith in always new historical contexts. In the first millennium, it was primarily the Roman, Greek and Syrian culture in which the Christian faith was inculturated. At the turn from the first to the second millennium Frankish, Germanic, and Slavic influences followed. From 16 to 18 century, through the worldwide mission new cultures came into the sphere of influence of Christianity.

In Europe, in the 19th century a close relationship between church and nation developed. On the Orthodox side the so-called ethnophyletism, i.e. too close ties of the church to the nation, was admittedly condemned, yet there developed such close ties between church and national culture that up to this day every Russian is regarded as a potential Orthodox Christian, and every Pole as a potential Catholic. National conflicts were denominationally elevated or reinforced. Accordingly, up to this day e.g. the relationship between Serbs and Croats is burdened. In the meantime, a number of ecumenical projects try to achieve a "healing of memories". However, they run the risk of putting the cart before the horse. Before the memories can be healed, we must learn to deal with them. The dealing with the memories must precede the healing. This would be an important principle also for the conflict between Orthodox and Uniate Church in Ukraine and in Romania.

With regard to the relation between reform and continuity in the church the dialogue appears to be easier, since no party can claim to be the teacher of the other side. Both churches emphasize their continuity with the Church of the Apostles. There are examples of successful and also unsuccessful reforms in both churches. In both churches there are circles of traditionalists who regard every reform as a threat to religious identity, and who close their mind to the ecumenical dialogue. Interestingly, their traditionalism refers often to catechisms and liturgical books of the 17 to 19 century, i.e. to fairly young "traditions" in church history. The traditionalists do not realize that their rites and forms of expression are not the unchanging tradition of the Church, but the result of a centuries-long process. A tradition that does not change ossifies. A faith that does not refer to the actual historical context dies.

Many Orthodox theologians of the 20th century therefore speak of the "living tradition" of the Church, which is only preserved if it is open to change. We think far too often backward-looking when we are talking about the tradition of the church. But "traditio" means in the original sense of the term "handing down", "passing on". It is therefore oriented towards the future, the passing on of faith. Joannis Zizioulas and other contemporary Orthodox theologians therefore emphasize the eschatological aspect of the church. The Church not only preserves the tradition of the apostles but she is at the same time the anticipation of the kingdom of God, which is effective in her already in this world. This perspective means a dynamism that is able to regard reforms in the Church not as threats to her continuity but as steps on the path to the future. For that very reason all the problem areas are also opportunities for ecumenical learning processes. Those who in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue are looking for paths to unity needn't invent entirely new ones; they can benefit from the experiences of the past, when they ask: How has the church behaved between the respective poles?


Supplementing Instead of Standardising

With the unity that we seek it is not about a structural one but about one that is lived, not about an intellectual but a spiritual, not about a restored but a rediscovered unity. The first does not mean that the church would not need structures, and would be a purely charismatic group. Orthodox Christians and Catholics of course agree about the basic structures of the Church, e.g. about her episcopal constitution. In addition, we need not have a uniform organizational structure, but a lively exchange between the bishops, the theologians and the faithful in the communities. That's why personal encounters are necessary: be it through twinning of parishes, through meetings between monastic communities or through joint meetings of bishops.

We do not need mental unity, because Orthodox Christians and Catholics are for centuries living in different intellectual worlds. Different ways of thinking, various philosophical conceptions, and an own intellectual culture have developed. There is no need to standardize these intellectual worlds. The Decree on Ecumenism [no. 17]of the Second Vatican Council says that "In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God's truth" and states that "It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting." This mutual supplementing of the traditions would be lost if we would strive after a uniformity of our spiritual worlds. However, the diversity in the intellectual world must be backed by a spiritual unity. In the Decree on Ecumenism the Second Vatican Council has called the spiritual ecumenism the "soul of the whole ecumenical movement" [no. 8].



The admiration of Western Christians for Eastern liturgy and spirituality has already been mentioned in the first part. But if we want to promote the spiritual unity, this should not remain a one-way process. What is needed is that we make greater efforts to acquaint the Orthodox faithful with the spiritual treasures of the West. The writings of the Western mystics should be increasingly translated into Eastern languages. Then it would be easier for Orthodox interlocutors to realize that the Western Church in the Middle Ages was by no means frozen in scholastic doctrine but was also filled with a vibrant spiritual life. In the Orthodox areas, there are definitely approaches for conveying the Western heritage, as e.g. writing the music to the Chrysostom liturgy with Gregorian melodies by Archbishop Jonafan (Jeleckich) or the Christmas Oratorio and the St. Matthew Passion by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfejev). However, these encouraging examples are still to lead to a broader movement, so that a real "exchange of gifts" happens.

By stating that the unity has not to be restored but to be rediscovered, I wanted to remind of the fact that the unity between the churches was never completely broken. The split did not go to the roots. Therefore, we do not have to restore the unity, but to rediscover the common roots. Then new shoots can develop. Moreover, the unity is ultimately not restored by human efforts but is always a gift from God that we must rediscover. Bishops and theologians have here a particular responsibility, inasmuch as they are able to promote this process of rediscovering the commonalities.

When we learn to notice and appreciate the diversity of lived faith, when we identify the problem areas and make use of these opportunities for learning processes, our search for unity can succeed with God's help.


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