THIS year the Churches of East and West shared a common date for Easter. It's a happy coincidence — an omen, perhaps, for the Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission after Pentecost.
The various groupings which make up the Orthodox family differ widely in culture, outlook. and more specifically, in their desire for unity with Rome.
The history of the East-West dispute is complex. The dialogue between the two traditions is comparatively recent and dates back to Pope Paul's visit to the I loly Land in 1964.
The decision to commence formal dialogue was comented during the recent visit of Pope John Paul II to Turkey, where he conferred with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Demetrios I, who is also known by the title Ecumenical Patriarch.
'Centuries of distrust, suspicion and even war have led to hostility and aberration' Among those present at this historic meeting vas the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia. Archbishop Stylianos, who will head the Orthodox negotiating body.
There are about 750 million Catholic and 250 million Orthodox Christians. Unification would create a joint structure of some one billion souls — about one fourth of the population of this planet.
In some ways, since Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy doctrinally have much in common, the task of the commission might he considered smooth. However, centuries of distrust, suspicion, and even war, have led to hostility and alienation which will not easily respond to change.
Archbishop Stylianos will directly represent the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has primacy of honour — but no actual ecclesiastical jurisdiction — over the world's 14 autocephalous (self-governingOrthodox Churches.
The four patriarchates Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem — will also participate in the discussions, with representatives of Bulgarian, Cypriot, Egyptian, Greek, Lebanese, Polish, Romanian. Russian and Serhian branches of Orthodoxy.
The Catholic team will he chaired by the Archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Jan Willebrands, who succeeded the late Cardinal Bea as president of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity. It includes Cardinal William Baum, Archbishop of Washington, and Cardinal I fume.
The two teams will each contain about 30 bishops and theologians. The presence of so many bishops (the Catholic team has five cardinals) is unusual in such discussions, and demonstrates that both sides mean business.
Archbishop Stylianos admits that he and other Orthodox prelates were "a little surprised" at the forcefulness with which Pope John Paul expressed himself on unity during his Turkish visit.
Reunification could he a useful counter to the spread of Islam. Progress towards full unity would affect Christianity throughout Eastern Europe, which is a particular concern of the Pope.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with from 40 to 60 million members, is the largest of all the Orthodox "family", and has shown itself welldisposed towards relations with Rome, However. there is a serious droblem over the Ukrainian Catholic Church which numbered 25 millions when it was absorbed by the Russian Church in World War II — apparently as a Government-imposed "act of solidarity."
The Ukrainian Catholic Church is still illegal in Russia. Whether or not the Russian Orthodox Church itself in bondage — connived in the affair is unclear.
Papal jurisdiction and infallibility may well he the most difficult hurdle the CatholicOrthodox Theological Commis sion will have to face.
To ease the path, the two cochairmen have agreed that deliberations will commence with a study of the sacraments — an area in which there is already wide measure of agreement. It is hoped that this will provide a non-juridicial approach to the issue of Papal primacy., which will follow.
The Orthodox and Catholic traditions show near unaminity on such matters as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the honour due to the Blessed Virgin Mary, confession and absolution, and the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons.
Since the second Vatican Council. the Catholic Church has permitted its. members, in cases of severe need, to receive the Eucharist (and if necessary the confession) from an Orthodox priest, and permits Orthodox, where necessary, to receive these sacraments in return.
The announcement was made without consulting the Orthodox Churches, some of which (notably the Greek) felt piqued rather than flattered. So far, only the Russian Orthodox hurcIi Ills officially reciprocated. (The Russian Church also permits Anglicans to its altars.).
There are differing attitudes between Catholic and Orthodox towards divorce and priestly celibacy, discussion of which should be both fruitful and lively.
The Catholic Church totally prohibits divorce, while permitt ing annulment — a declaration that because of some impediment (the grounds fur which are nowadays surprisingly tolerant) — a valid marriage had never existed.
The Orthodox Church also "holds firmly to the teaching of Our Lord that marriage is for life," but, for "pastoral and compassionate" reasons, provides a second wedding for those who have been divorced in her own courts, requiring that they abstain from Holy Communion for two years.
A third marriage may be solemnised in just the same
way, only with five years' abstention from Communion. A fourth is not allowed.
The Orthodox Church permits married priests. and the majority of its clergy are married.
Monks are unmarried and the bishops .come mostly from the order of monks. Priests who arc widowed, or in rare cases, who have voluntarily separated their wives entering a convent may also become bishops.
The Orthodox Church prohibits the ordination of women. Indeed. the Orthodox attitude, in many ways, is stricter than that of Rome.
Archbishop Stylianos feels so strongly about the issue that he resigned as co-chairman of the Anglican-Orthodox Theological Commission when it was
proposed, and accepted ill many countries, that the Anglican Chu Fell should ordain women. He withdrew his resignation; largely as a result of a plea from the Anglican co-chairman. Bishop Robert Runcie (now Archbishop of Canterbury), and other Anglican bishops and theologians, who told him "You say it is a mistake for us to ordain women; stay on the commission. and help us to see where we have gone wrong."
He considered it a "good argument" and changed his mind about quitting.
Both Churches have disciplinary problems — but they are dissimilar. The Catholic Church has tension between progressive theologians of the Hans Kung stamp and the archtraditionalists who feel the Council reforms have gone too far.
`Reunification could he a useful counter to the spread of Islam'
The situation regarding 1 tans Kung is of great interest to Archbishop Stylianos,.who, over the years, has written numerous articles about Kung and reviewed his hooks.
. The Archbishop told me: "We have to keep to the middle way, which is to avoid extremes. It would he 'extreme' to live blindly in the past without appreciating and respecting the needs or our time. It would he 'extreme' and equally frivolous to follow the times and forget the roots.
"This applies. I am afraid, to Hans Kung, who was, in the early stage, rightly honoured and appreciated, but who has now ,become a theologian without roots.
"He tried to destroy the infallibility Of the Pope and has destroyed the infallibility of the Church. In doing so he has become a Protestant.