18 November 2007

Orthodox and Catholics to reunite?

The bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other back in 1054. Although these actions were rescinded in 1964 during an historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches remain out of communion with each other. Perhaps this is about to change, as indicated in this Times Online report: Vatican joins historic talks to end 950-year rift with Orthodox church. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church met recently in Ravenna, Italy, and issued what may or may not be a groundbreaking statement: Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority. From the Times report:

The document suggests that the Pope, always referred to in the text as “Bishop of Rome”, could be the “first” among the regional patriarchs. But this would be only as a primus inter pares, with his authority resting firmly on the support and consensus of the other patriarchs. “Certainly Rome could not be the absolute centre of administration, with authority over all the others,” Greek Metropolitan Athanasios Chatzopoulos, one of the participants of the Ravenna conference, said. “The ‘primus’ would not be able to do anything without the consent of the other Patriarchs.”

Despite the media attention, this does not appear to me to mark a substantive shift in the centuries-old Orthodox position. The Orthodox have always been willing to recognize the primacy of the "Patriarch of Rome," but they will not recognize his supreme authority over the entire church. That's why this headline from The Trumpet is greatly misleading: Vatican Takes Step to Reabsorb Orthodox Church. Moreover, this sentence from the Times is equally absurd: "Healing the schism would in effect turn Patriarch Bartholomew into an Orthodox 'Pope'." There is much greater likelihood of the Orthodox churches fragmenting among themselves than of Bartholomew being accorded popelike powers.

Much still stands in the way of reunion, not the least of which is fractiousness within the Orthodox fold. There is also the question of the number of ecumenical councils recognized by the two communions. The Orthodox acknowledge seven such councils, the last of which occurred in 787. Rome recognizes 21 ecumenical councils, the last being the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. What would be the status in a reunited church of the 14 councils occurring after the split? This is far from clear. Even decades of negotiations are unlikely to resolve such issues as filioque, purgatory and the extent of the Old Testament canon, because each side has staked a claim to truth from which it would be difficult to back down after nearly a millennium.

Why Ravenna? This city was undoubtedly chosen because of its history as a centre of the Byzantine presence in the Italian peninsula between 540 and 751. The Byzantines left a lasting legacy in the form of art and architecture that graces the city to this day. The ancient church buildings contain renowned mosaics, such as the one of Christ shown above from the Church of San Apollinare Nuovo. It would be most appropriate if unity between eastern and western churches were to begin here. By God's grace may it come to pass.

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