Russian Orthodox say “no breakthrough” at Catholic-Orthodox talks last week

September 29, 2010

catho-orthThe Russian Orthodox Church said on Tuesday there was no “breakthrough” at a Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue meeting in Vienna last week that ended with reports of promising progress on the thorny issue of the role of the Catholic pope. The statement may be more interesting for what it doesn’t say than what it does. It’s not clear which reports Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the “foreign minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, was referring to when he said that “contrary to allegations in the press, the Orthodox-Catholic Commission meeting in Vienna has made no ‘breakthrough’ whatsoever.”

(Photo: Pope Benedict and Metropolitan Hilarion meet at the Vatican, May 20, 2010/Tony Gentile)

Did any media report a breakthrough? Not that I’ve seen. Is it possible that Hilarion was actually referring to the cautiously upbeat statements given at a final news conference by Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon and Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity?

Hilarion was in Vienna last week but did not appear at the news conference. Metropolitan John, who spoke for the Orthodox side, is affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, the spiritual leader of all Orthodox which Moscow seems to compete with for a leadership role. Could this have played a part?

The issue was the role the pope played in the millennium before the Great Schism of 1054. At the 2007 dialogue meeting in Ravenna, the Orthodox confirmed that the pope, as the bishop of Rome, was traditionally the first of the five ancient patriarchs. At the news conference in Vienna, the two delegation heads said that Catholics and Orthodox could eventually come to see themselves as “sister churches” if they could agree to translate that traditional role of the pope into a modern understanding of how the churches related to each other.

orthodox churchIn his statement, Hilarion said:  “For the Orthodox participants, it is clear that in the first millennium the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome was exercised only in the West, while in the East, the territories were divided between four Patriarchs – those of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.”

(Photo: Sunset in the village of Zelyonaya Sloboda southeast of Moscow, July 12, 2004/Viktor Korotayev)

“The bishop of Rome did not exercise any direct jurisdiction in the East in spite of the fact that in some cases Eastern hierarchs appealed to him as arbiter in theological disputes. These appeals were not systematic and can in no way be interpreted in the sense that the bishop of Rome was seen in the East as the supreme authority in the whole Universal Church. It is hoped that at the next meetings of the Commission, the Catholic side will agree with this position which is confirmed by numerous historical evidence.”

John didn’t elaborate on these points at the news conference, so it’s not clear if he might disagree with Hilarion’s view. Koch said that “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.” That means there are still years of discussions ahead of these theologians, but it doesn’t seem to contradict their message that progress was made.

Is there something else behind the scenes that prompted Hilarion to make this statement? Maybe a new stumbling block? Or is he just trying to put his view forward so the Russian Church’s voice is heard? At the pace these talks are going, it may take years before we find out.

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