Catholics, Orthodox tackle deepest differences very slowly

October 17, 2007

One of the fascinating aspects about reporting on religion is that the timeframes are far longer than most topics news agencies cover. Experts debate the fine points of little-known issues and progress can be slower than a snail’s pace. But it’s sometimes interesting to take a look at where they’re going.

A recent meeting of the International Mixed Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Ravenna, Italy ended with a short communique that said: “The theme of the next plenary session, the date and location of which are shortly to be decided, is: “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium.” Pope Benedict also mentioned this last week in his audience but didn’t elaborate on it.

Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2006Two participants at the talks have now fleshed that out a bit. These talks between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, which broke from Rome and rejected the primacy or authority of the pope in the Great Schism of 1054, are now slowly getting down to discussing the crux of the problem. If Catholics and Orthodox are to achieve some kind of unity, something Pope Benedict has put high on his agenda, they have to figure out the role the pope would play.

Bishop Gérard Daucourt, bishop of the diocese of Nanterre just outside Paris, told the French Catholic daily La Croix that “for the first time, the two churches agree on the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. We now agree to recognise that two elements — collegiality and primacy — should exist at three levels of the Church — local, regional and universal. This is very important because, for the first time, the representatives of the Orthodox churches accept this form of primacy on a universal level that the Bishop of Rome could have … Until now, the Orthodox agreed to consider the Bishop of Rome as the primus inter pares (literally: first among equals). This time, it goes further, because we’re talking about authority.”

He said that if the Orthodox recognised some sort of papal authority, even a very weak one, the Vatican would have to show greater respect for collegiality (giving bishops a greater say in governing the Church) and “local Churches” (i.e. the different Orthodox churches).

Monsignor Eleuterio Fortino, under-secretary at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Vatican Radio (here in Italian) that the experts had started to discuss “an issue that is essential in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, a difficult issue”. He explained: “We’re starting to study in detail the evolution of the role of the Bishop of Rome in the Church and how it was expressed in the first millennium.” Back then, all bishops recognised the pope but had considerable autonomy in their own regions.

In 1976, when he was still Father Joseph Ratzinger teaching theology in Regensburg, the present pope said in a speech about ecumenism that “what was possible during a whole millennium can not be impossible today … On the doctrine of the primacy, Rome must not require more from the East than what was formulated and lived out during the first millennium.”

As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was deeply involved in the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran agreement that resolved doctrinal disputes that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. That didn’t bring the two churches back together again in any organisational sense, but it resolved a long-standing dispute and made for better relations. It looks like Benedict now wants to reach back even further into history to improve relations with the Orthodox.

But not too quickly… Fortino told Vatican Radio the next full meeting of the commission would be “in two years, in the autumn of 2009.” And then they’ll have to study the papacy in the second millennium, he said.

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