Catholics and Orthodox report promising progress in latest round of unity talks
Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians reported promising progress on Friday in talks on overcoming their Great Schism of 1054 and bringing the two largest denominations in Christianity back to full communion. Experts meeting in Vienna this week agreed the two could eventually become “sister churches” that recognize the Roman pope as their titular head but retain many church structures, liturgy and customs that developed over the past millennium.
(Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas (L) and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, 24 Sept 2010/Leonhard Foeger)
The delegation heads for the international commission for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue stressed that unity was still far off, but their upbeat report reflected growing cooperation between Rome and the Orthodox churches traditionally centred in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches,” Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon told a news conference. “If we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain.” Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity, said the joint dialogue must continue “intensively” so that “we see each other fully as sister churches.”
(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI (L) with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel, October 18, 2008/Osservatore Romano)
The rapprochement of the Catholic and Orthodox churches must be the slowest “big story” on the religion beat. About 30 theologians meet in a joint Catholic-Orthodox commission about once every year or so to see how far they have come in reassessing Christian history so that the Great Schism can be laid to rest and the two churches can move forward to full communion. These talks produced their first joint declaration back in 1982 and have had ups and downs since then. The push towards unity has clearly gained momentum since Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill took office on February, 2009. The goal is still far off — hey, they have 1,000 years of division to get over — but they’re getting close enough now that an agreement now looks increasingly possible.
Kirill and Pope Benedict are both conservative theologians keen to work together to have Christianity’s voice heard in Europe, a continent they both think should return to its Christian roots. They’ve met in the past, including when Kirill visited Benedict at the Vatican in his former role as “foreign minister” of the Russian church. They haven’t yet held a summit meeting, so to speak, but religion reporters in Europe keep waiting for signs they will finally set a date for their first top-level talks. The Russians aren’t the only Orthodox in the game, but their size gives them a kind of veto power that has to be considered in this equation. The Vatican has good relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul and the new Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej has invited the pope to Belgrade.
Given the long-term importance of these talks for Christianity’s two largest denominations, our busy Vienna bureau chief Boris Groendahl agreed to trek out to the city’s suburbs to cover a news conference with the two delegation leaders and Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. You can read his full report on the news conference here.
(Photo: Archbishop Kurt Koch in Vienna, 24 Sept 2010/Leonhard Foeger)
Boris sent me such long verbatim excerpts from the news conference that I wanted to post them here to give an idea of how the Catholic and Orthodox theologians imagine that this long process towards unity might develop. There’s no guarantee, of course, that they will eventually reach full communion. But the two sides already broke the ice back in 2007 when their meeting in Ravenna, Italy produced an agreement in which both sides recognised the Bishop of Rome as the traditionally most senior bishop in Christianity. They made further progress last year in Cyprus. The intensity of the work involved and the upbeat tone of the delegation heads’ comments today says even this slowest of religion stories is moving ahead in interesting ways.
Here are excerpts from what Archbishop Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon had to say. Koch spoke in German (my translation here) and John spoke in English.
Metropolitan John of Pergamon: “There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches. Our predecessors and especially the leaders of our churches both on the Catholic and the Orthodox side have prepared a way for a friendly and brotherly discussion. I must assure you that this spirit prevailed in our discussions. And therefore I wish to assure that if we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain, and bring our two churches — the most ancient churches, the churches that share the same ecumenical past, the same traditions, the same sense of the church — to bring us to full community.”
Archbishop Karl Koch quoted Pope John Paul’s comment about the two churches being the two lungs of Christianity and said they had to practise breathing together. “This is a difficult but necessary theme because we lived together in diversity but also in unity in the first millennium, but a second millennium in which we grew apart lies between us.
(Photo: Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas in Nice, France, February 26, 2009/Eric Gaillard)
“Pope Benedict XVI already said in his famous lecture in Graz in 1976 that we cannot expect more from the Orthodox than what was practised in the first millennium. So the basic discussion is about how these churches lived in the first millennium and how we can find a new (common) path today. This discussion needs the necessary free space (‘Freiraum’) and it needs patience. .. I know some people can be impatient but patience is an expression of love. People know from personal experience what it means when two people in a marriage drift apart — we have 1,000 years to work through. We must and we want to take new paths because Jesus gave us the mission to live together.”
In the Q&A session, Koch said: “I think there is certainly a recognition that in the early days of the church, there was a practice or an order of things in which Rome had a special role, a primary role. We still have to speak about what that meant and implied. Ravenna was the great recognition that there must be a protos, a first one, at all levels — at the level of the local church, of the region and on the universal level. Now we are at the universal level and we’re looking more closely what this protos at this level looked like at that time. This is something new.
Metropolitan John: “We are still studying the first millennium, we have not reached a conclusion yet. But the main and most important thing we have discovered in the discussions is that what we decided in Ravenna seems to be confirmed by the history of the first millennium.”
“In other words there in the first millennium there was a recognition of the special role that the Bishop of Rome played in the church. There was also the fact that the Bishop of Rome did not operate without consultation with other bishops in his own area as well as universal. So we are discovering that in history and this is an important aspect.
(Photo: 1891 drawing of the old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, torn down in the early 16th century to make way for the present basilica)
“The Church of Russia was absent from Ravenna for reasons that had nothing to do with our dialogue. That didn’t leave Ravenna because of the dialogue. What we decided in Ravenna was already prepared by previous meetings in which the Russian Church participated also. Therefore essentially there is no problem … On the whole the basic ideas of Ravenna are accepted by all the orthodox churches.
Asked which model of unity the talks used, Archbishop Koch said: “That will be the big question for the future. First we started with each church describing its vision on unity. The Catholic and the Orthodox visions probably won’t be the same. We saw the questions we will have to discuss — papal primacy and synodality. The Catholic Church has a strong primacy (of the pope) but probably has not developed synodality as much as the Orthodox Church. The strength of the Orthodox Church is its synodality, but the doctrine of primacy is not that strong. We will be able to enrich each other. The basic principle of ecumenism is the exchange of gifts. The first step is to tell each other individually how we imagine unity would look like. For the Catholic Church, of course, unity without the Bishop of Rome is unimaginable. That’s because the issue of the Bishop of Rome is not just an organisational question, but also a theological one. The dialogue about just how this unity should be shaped must be continued intensively. Unity means that we see each other fully as sister churches. Just like the (Catholic) church in Vienna is the sister church of the church in Basel, the Orthodox Church will be a sister church for us.
“I think the pope himself in thinking in this direction. He’s said to the Anglicans who want to come back that they would be able to keep their tradition and celebrate their liturgy. So he’s said himself that there should be diversity. That will be the second step. It’s far too early (‘Zukunftsmusik’) to ask each other how we can do this together.”
(Photo: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict in London, 17 Sept 2010/Stefan Wermuth)
Metropolitan John: “I’m in full agreement with what Archbishop Koch said. The model will emerge in the future. We don’t operate with a preconceived model. It will be the result of a certain … I would say — I won’t call it reformation , that is too strong — but adaptation from both sides. What the Orthodox must strengthen is their universal unity and also their conception of primacy. And perhaps the Catholic side must strengthen more the dimension of synodality. If those two things happen the result will come close to a conception of a church which is united in its basic structure in the right way.
“Of course we have to be united in faith too. There are certain fundamental things which have to be clarified in maters of faith. The rest can be left to diversity. There are customs, liturgical customs and other customs, that can be left to each church freely to arrange. As far as the Orthdox council is concerned we recognize that autocephaly is a problem, especially when it is associated with nationalistic aspects. But I am glad to say that we’re making good progress towards a pan-Orthodox council and we hope that very soon we will be able to invoke such a council…
“The next meeting will depend on the progress we make on this subject that we are discussing now. It looks as if we are going to have a slight change of our subject, namely to make the historical material focus on theological questions more. This will require another period of preparation by subcomittees and debate — that is probably a period of one year. We hope that in two years’ time we can convene again as a plenary commission. But this will depend on the progress we make.”
Archbishop Koch: “Today and tomorrow we will continue discussing our future work. This dialogue can be fruitful for the reality of living together. The more we recognise each other as sister churches and live in unity, the more that surely will have its effect on daily life. With the Orthodox churches, we share almost everything in terms of faith but we have a different culture because of the division we experienced in the past millennium. With the churches of the Reformation, we don’t have that much in common in faith matters but we have the same culture. Cultural differences can play a role that don’t exist on the theological level. Here’s where we need to meet each other directly. We used to have a strange feeling about Russians because we never sat down with one and drank a glass of vodka. Learning depends on meeting each other.”
(Photo: St. Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral in Vienna, 7 July 2010/Lisi Niesner)
A journalist asked if there would be a joint “Vienna document” like there was a joint statement after the 2007 Ravenna meeting. “I think that’s unrealistic,” Archbishop Koch said. “The right time will come. There will certainly be a communique, but paper is patient.”
The theologians planned two church services to end their week, a Catholic Mass in St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Saturday evening and a Divine Liturgy in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Sunday.