Friday, November 16


Catholic-Orthodox Declaration: Kind of a Big Deal

In 1963, Timothy Ware wrote,
Between Orthodoxy and Rome there are many difficulties. The usual psychological barriers exist... there are a multitude of inherited prejudices which cannot be quickly overcome... such things as the Crusades, the 'Union' of Brest-Litovsk, the schism at Antioch in the eighteenth century, or the persecution of the Orthodox Church in Poland by a Roman Catholic government between the two world wars. Roman Catholics do not usually realize how deep a sense of misgiving and apprehension many devout Orthodox--educated as well as simple--still feel when they think of the Church of Rome...

Since the two sides have so much in common, is there perhaps some hope of a reconciliation? At first sight one is tempted to dispair, particularly when one considers the question of the Papal claims. Orthodox find themselves unable to accept the definitions of the [First] Vatican Council of 1870 concerning the supreme ordinary jurisdiction and the infallibility of the pope..."

And, reacting against these, especially in light of the weakness of Constantinople due to its subjection under Turkish rule--and the shrinkage of its flock to about 2,000 isolated souls who are despairing of whence will come the next patriarch of Constantinople, given that no one currently meets the qualifications imposed by the Turkish government--Orthodoxy has tended to reduce any claims at all to juridical power at the universal level of the Church, often labelling even the Patriarch of Constantinople as one who has simply a "primacy of honor."

A document signed by all the Orthodox Churches, except the Russian Church, for whom theology is not entirely separate from a certain sense of deep national pride, and by representatives of the Catholic Church this October at Ravenna was released yesterday. It has not gotten a lot of press, but it is sort of a big deal:

A Zenit article quotes Walter Cardinal Kaspar:
"The important development," he explained, "is that for the first time the Orthodox Churches have said yes, this universal level of the Church exists and also at the universal level there is conciliarity, synodality and authority; this means that there is also a primate; according to the practice of the ancient Church, the first bishop is the Bishop of Rome."

This was headline news on Greek television, but has gone completely unnoticed in the Anglophone world, even in St. Blog's.

The document, a ten-page reflection available here, reads almost like a summary of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's own book on ecclesiology, itself inspired by Augustinian ecclesiology,Called to Communion (Buy it; Read it; Occasionally, hug it). It is a very edifying reflection on the nature of the Church.

The document essentially traces the place of authority within the Christian community, beginning at the diocese, then discussing the role of patriarchs and metropolitans exercising authority at the regional level, and then extrapolates to the idea of similar relationship of primacy in the relationship among the five patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem). The document says,

Both sides agree that a canonical taxis [order] was recognized by all in the era of the undivided Church. Further, they agree that Rome, as the Church that "presides in love" according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis [order], and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos [first] among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome as protos [first], a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millenium.

Thus, Cardinal Kaspar also warns against exaggerating the importance of this document--the document concludes with the question, "How should the teaching of the first and second Vatican Councils on the universal primacy be understood and lived in the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millenium?" However, for the first time there is a foundation upon which to move the discussion--the recognition that Orthodoxy could have a primacy of more than simply "honor," which nonetheless does not imply the ontological inferiority of other bishops qua bishops (which is the position taken by Vatican II, when it renounced the theory that bishops receive their faculties from the Pope).

Essentially, it looks like the document is sketching a picture of a Church in which the faithful under each Patriarchate are in union with the faithful of other Patriarchates (and in this sense Rome would be a Patriarchate) because the Patriarchs themselves are united one with the other under the presidency of Rome.

The document itself raises the question of the Pope's universal primacy of jurisdiction, which is the central question. I would have two questions, reading the document as a Catholic:
(1) The document seems to skirt the question of whether the Pope is significant simply because that's how it was in the first millennium, or because Jesus Christ gave St. Peter a unique leadership role which the Pope has uniquely inherited--and which would be an article of faith, not simply a fact of history.
(2) The document says that at the regional and the universal level, "the first [protos] cannot do anything without the consent of all." Vatican I & II say that the Pope should act in communion with all, and in practice important things like the definition of the Assumption were done that way... but "cannot" seems strong. But, the Orthodox have no problem with the patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, who certainly didn't worry about "the consent of all" when he defended the Trinity. So the precise meaning of the line might benefit from some elaboration.

I must also admit the slightest touch of schadenfreude at the thought that any ex-Protestants who took their anti-Catholicism with them when they converted to Orthodoxy may yet end up in communion with Rome.

Human nature has its inherent tendencies towards Donatism, and Timothy Wares observed, again in 1963,
Workers for Christian unity who do not often encounter the rigorist school... [who believe that] "Heretics and Schismatics have from the one indivisible Church, and, by so doing, they have ceased to be members of the Church... should not forget that such opinions are held by many Orthodox of great learning and holiness.

That is also increasely the case even within the Catholic Church, as some feel freer and freer to judge their own hierarchy's theological competence or even good will. In some sense, then, even if the leaders of each side are able to reach agreement--and though difficulties remain, it is more possible now than ever before--individuals on both sides of a particular disposition will certainly, to turn a phrase, protest.

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