When a senior Russian Orthodox bishop recently proposed a “Catholic-Orthodox alliance” he raised some ecumenical eyebrows. But with theologians from both churches due to sit down together again in Rome this December for their first talks in more than five years, most agree it is open season for new ideas and initiatives.
“Europe has so rapidly de-Christianised that urgent action is needed to save it from losing its centuries-old Christian identity – I strongly believe the time has come for Catholics and Orthodox to unite their efforts to defend traditional Christianity,” explained Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who represents the Russian Church in the European Union. “The proposed alliance would enable European Catholics and Orthodox to fight together against the secularism, liberalism and relativism prevailing in modern Europe, and to speak with one voice in addressing secular society.” The bishop was addressing an ecumenical congress in Poland. Orthodox leaders hoped for a “breakthrough”, he added, in ties with Catholics under Benedict XVI. They counted on the new Pope to oppose “progressive groups” demanding the ordination of women, and a liberal approach to abortion, contraception, euthanasia and same-sex marriages.
Talk of an “alliance” could be somewhat premature. But most observers agree there are, indeed, signs of movement – and that it’s the secularist challenge to faith in Europe that’s doing most to bring the denominations together.
Catholic-Orthodox ties have long been tense over Orthodox complaints of Catholic “proselytism” in Eastern Europe, as well as the revival of Greek Catholic churches, which combine the eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome and are known pejoratively as “Uniates” by Orthodox leaders. It was over the issue of “Uniatism” that the International Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Theological Dialogue broke down when it last met near Baltimore in the year 2000.
But things could be about to change. “New people mean new initiatives – it’s clear that there’s been some rethinking,” argues Fr Waclaw Hryniewicz, a Polish expert on ecumenism. “In concrete terms, the difficulties are still there. But we now have a theologian-pope who seems to have a clear vision for the future. It looks as if the issues are
being tackled with a new sensitivity.” When Benedict XVI was elected last April, he promised the College of Cardinals to “cultivate any initiative” for rebuilding Christian unity. The pledge was greeted with scepticism. As prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been responsible for Dominus Iesus, a declaration which appeared to question the authenticity of non-Catholic denominations.
But Orthodox bishops insisted that the new Pontiff’s rigorous reputation need not pose a barrier. The spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, predicted Benedict XVI would value Orthodoxy’s “wealth of theology and spirituality”. The Russian Patriarch, Alexei II, said he too was ready to “open a new epoch”.
Catholic and Orthodox bishops have since met several times. At a Eucharistic congress at Bari last June, the Vatican’s top ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, proposed a joint council of Catholic and Orthodox bishops. In July, Patriarch Alexei said he wouldn’t rule out a papal trip to Russia if existing problems were settled. In late October, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, returned from Moscow predicting progress.
As for Greek Catholics, Orthodox leaders insist they will never accept “Uniatism” as a model for reconciliation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But some have suggested they are ready to respect Greek Catholic rights.
Meanwhile, there have been signs of movement on another long-vexed issue: papal primacy. Several Orthodox leaders have indicated they’re ready to accept the Pope’s authority – at least, as it existed in the first millennium before the churches of East and West were divided at the Great Schism. When Patriarch Bartholomew visited Rome last June for the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, the Pope confirmed that papal primacy could “safeguard legitimate differences”.
Cardinal Kasper, who chairs the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, believes that “unity without fusion or absorption” offers a good formula to work on. “The Orthodox churches will keep their forms of daily life,” the Cardinal acknowledged in Moscow the same month. “This will be unity in the same faith, with the same sacraments, with the same episcopate, in the Apostolic succession, but with a plurality of liturgical, theological, spiritual and canonical forms.” For all the optimism, there are still serious problems. In August, Greek Catholic leaders in Ukraine defied warnings from their country’s largest Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, and went ahead with a planned relocation of their headquarters to predominantly Orthodox Kiev. Greek Catholics denied intruding on Orthodox territory. But Russian Orthodox leaders branded the move “Catholic expansion” and demanded that the Pope reverse it. When Cardinal Sodano wrote back in October, defending the move, the Orthodox complained that they had been brushed off with a “bureaucratic note”.
Catholic and Orthodox leaders have been bitterly divided over rival property and jurisdictional claims since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union back in 1991. But tensions continue in neighbouring Russia too, where a Catholic-Orthodox joint working group, inaugurated in May 2004, has failed to reach agreement on the key issue of proselytism.
In July, Russia’s Orthodox Church announced it was close to re-establishing communion with breakaway Orthodox communities abroad, but said it could downgrade ties with other churches as a price.
“The Orthodox Church excludes any possibility of liturgical communion with the nonOrthodox,” Orthodox leaders noted, to Catholic consternation, in a joint statement with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. “We have agreed to limit contacts with nonOrthodox denominations to charitable and educational projects, and to join in ceremonies and discussions only when these accord with Orthodox teachings.” Despite such apparent contradictions, experts on both sides are upbeat. The new theological dialogue will bring Catholic bishops and theologians from a dozen countries together with representatives of five Orthodox patriarchates and six autocephalous (selfgoverning) churches. The first objective, they agree, is to seek a “new synthesis” on papal primacy. If this can be achieved, other agreements will flow logically from it.
Speaking in September, Cardinal Kasper laid down five priorities for Catholic and Orthodox negotiators: admitting sins and errors, overcoming ignorance and prejudice, “exchanging gifts” and spiritual insights, as well as cooperating “to speak with a single voice to secularised Europe”. It’s that last task which is now doing most for the cause of ecumenism.
Whether or not it comes to an “alliance”, Church leaders agree pressure for closer relations is building up. In his September address, Bishop Hilarion predicted that Patriarch Alexei would one day meet the Pope too, and declare a “common and united testimony to the world” with him.
“Our churches are on their way to unity,” Bishop Hilarion told the Polish congress. “But one has to be realistic and understand this will probably take decades – in the meantime, we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. We need a strategic alliance, and we need it here and now. In 20, 30 or 40 years, it may simply be too late.” Fr Hryniewicz is sceptical about Bishop Hilarion’s language, especially if it appears to be directed against Protestants. But he’s confident the revived Theological Commission can make progress, given careful planning and enough goodwill.
“You can ponder joint responses to secular challenges without a theological dialogue. And you can even make short-term alliances in the face of particular problems,” said Fr Hryniewicz. “But you can’t expect to reach theological and ecclesiological agreements solely under pressure of extraneous circumstances. Nor can you move forward on key issues without a broader framework of theological understanding. So if the Orthodox have agreed to attempt this, with the Pope’s approval, it would indeed be a sign of hope”.