Orthodox-Roman Catholic Relations Today

Where are the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Relations today? This article tries to get an answer from some of the work that has been done since 1980 and the beginning of the dialogues between the Vatican and the Orthodox Communion. In a brief article, we can only get a taste of the reality, but it should wet our appetite for more.

I. Three key documents
The first three documents of the dialogue, which includes all of the Orthodox churches, notably the Ancient (Oriental) Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate and Patriarchates of Eastern Europe0 were published in the first years of the dialogue as follows:
– The Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity (Munich, 6 July, 1982)
– Faith and Sacraments and the Unity of the Church (Bari, 16 June 1987)
– The Sacrament of Order in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, with Particular Reference to the Importance of the Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God (Finland, 26 June, 1988).

Within eight years of the establishment of the theological dialogue in 1980 major points of doctrine and theology were discussed and common issues clarified by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches. The intimate connection between the mystery of the Trinity and the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Orders were expressed, the hierarchical structure of the Church acknowledged, and the importance of apostolic succession for valid sacraments and the sanctification of the people of God were affirmed.

Much was happening in the world in the 1990’s. There were wars and rumors of war in the Balkans; the Berlin Wall came tumbling down with the end of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe — a new reality had to be faced. In the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue the focus was on “uniatism”, the Eastern Catholic Churches that are in full communion with the Pontifical See of Rome. A document was developed called Uniatism: Method of Union of the Past, and Present Search for Full Communion (Balamand, Lebanon, 23 June 1993).The document rejected “uniatism” as a model. Yet the document was not entirely satisfactory to members of both sides.

II. The Ravenna Document
“Ravenna Document”, Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church, Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority (October 13, 2007), also known as the Ravenna Report, is a very important document which put the theological dialogue “back on track”, according to the overall plan for the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue. Before and after the release of this report, there were discussions about the role of the Bishop of Rome in the first centuries of Christianity and it will continue to occupy the attention of the participants. This discussion responds squarely with the proposal of Pope John Paul II, that other Christian churches and ecclesial communions in a fraternal dialogue propose what the role of the Petrine ministry would look like in a reintegrated Christianity. There have been some premature proclamations of breakthrough and “unio subito”, but Bishop Hilarion, the “ecumenical officer” of the Patriarch of Moscow, in Vienna in 2010, was quick to point out that we are not there yet. There is much work yet to be done before that happy day arrives. Nevertheless, Ravenna is a landmark document and restores the hope that the work of the joint commission will continue to move forward with a steady and smooth pace.

III. Some Remaining Issues

One of the major issues remaining for Christian unity is authority and how it is exercised. The Ravenna document makes clear that a primacy of oversight (episcope) exists at all levels – local, regional and universal. This structure dates from early in the first millennium. It means that there is subsidiary – matters are best handled at the local level whenever possible. Regional authority or supervision is sometimes necessary to resolve matters of dispute between bishops in two or more dioceses. Finally there is a role for the patriarchal system and for Petrine authority at the universal or highest level, where the whole church is concerned. Benedict XVI rejected the title of Patriarch of the West. The idea that the Pope is the “first among equals” is sometimes used by the Orthodox, but it is not consonant with the teaching of the First Vatican Council of 1870. In the third century Irenaeus explained that the Church of Rome plays a unique role in the universal church, and is a guide to the apostolic faith for the other churches of the world.

Style is very important as well. While “the Church is not a democracy”, we no longer live in the Roman Empire; the political systems which exist today were not known in the first millennium. What we can learn from hundreds of years of constitutional monarchy and republican democracy, as well as from other models of human exchange and governance, are worthy of discussion, even if they are not necessarily adopted.
The East-West dialogue continues to explore the question of authority at all levels. There is common agreement that a recognition of leaders (protoi) is important to the life of the church and the continuation of the apostolic structure given to the church by Jesus Christ. The role of Peter among the Apostles and of the Bishop of Rome in the governance of the church in the first centuries and the first millennium sheds light on the search for unity and the future of authority in the church. Our thoughts and prayers accompany those who are entrusted with this study and forward movement.

(This article appeared in Bread Broken and Shared, May-June, 2013)