Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ecumenical dialogue and the Orthodox Church

It's interesting to see the Catholic view of differences in position among Orthodox patriarchates. This article, entitled "Divisions in the Orthodox Church are holding up ecumenical dialogue," sees these differences as an impediment to the end of the Schism. I, on the other hand, see this as the way the Church works. We work by consensus, by conciliarity, and not by top-down fiats. It does take a long time and is certainly not as "clean" as a papal bull, but it has vouchsafed the Church and Tradition for millennia.

(Vatican Insider) - The Russian Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan Hilarion has put certain conditions on theological dialogue and rifts between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople are to blame for this. They are having to open their eyes to the pastoral conversion suggested by Pope Francis.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the reason why dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has been proceeding at baby step pace with long stand-by phases is to be found in the Orthodox playing field, characterised by reservations and divisions. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations confirmed this yet again in a recent interview with KNA news agency. During the interview, Metropolitan Hilarion clearly aired his dissatisfaction at the work being done by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church – the body in charge of appeasing the two Churches on the pressing question of primacy and the exercise of authority in the Church. Metropolitan Hilarion is the top representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow in the commission and yet the tone of distance he has got across in some statements, has not gone unnoticed. “We are wrong to try to present the theological traditions of our Churches as united at the highest level,” he said. Theological dialogue must not conceal but highlight the differences between Christian denominations. More particularly (and positively) he has stated that Orthodoxy can join its voice with the Roman Church on a whole host of moral issues. The thinking is that to ignore or diminish the importance of our differences and pretend that more harmony exists than is actually present is a recipe for disaster. You cannot build a house on a poor foundation. Rome and Orthodoxy can form a strong unified voice on war, end of life issues, abortion, the proper place of the Church in the world, etc. but they should not push for a finish out of the edifice when the concrete has not even been poured.

Hilarion’s remarks are further proof of the low opinion Moscow has of the joint Commission for theological dialogue. In the first plenary assembly he attended on the subject of primacy and authority in the Church, held in Ravenna in 2007, the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church walked out in protest against the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to invite representatives of the Estonian Church to join the Orthodox delegation. The Estonian Church left Moscow’s jurisdiction after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last November a meeting held by the Commission’s small committee in Paris, ended without an agreement being reached, after representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow refused to sign a document that dealt with the issue of primacy in a more theological and less historical–ecclesiological light.

The current adversities in theological dialogue are largely a side-effect of underlying conflicts that have always existed in the Orthodox Church. The politically and numerically preponderant Patriarchate of Moscow has persistently encouraged an alliance with the Catholic Church on ethical issues but has shown little interest in engaging in dialogue over theological questions. According to the Russians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, would like to play Orthodox “pope”, gaining jurisdictional powers that are not in line with the ecclesiological concept of Eastern Christianity. Meanwhile, Russia’s revival as a super power is reigniting “imperialist” sentiment in the Patriarchate of Moscow. No. The issues are substantive and exist beyond just Russia. Constantinople meeting with Rome is not world Orthodoxy minus Moscow meeting with Rome.

But the dispute within the Orthodox Church will have to face the new season of change introduced by Francis’ Catholic Church sooner or later. Says who? A single patriarch can do what he wills, but that forces the hand of no other patriarch. Anything he does, says, or puts on paper only speaks for him and not for Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Syosset, etc. Reality is not changed by a patriarch's touring schedule. Bartholomew I’s presence at the Bishop of Rome’s inauguration mass and his invitation to Francis to visit Jerusalem in memory of Paul VI’s visit to Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago were highly symbolic gestures. The modus operandi of Peter’s current successor could help heal a mistrust that goes back generations. Francis’ reference to Russia’s literary great, Dostoevkij on the flight back from Rio did not go unnoticed in Russia. “When one reads Dostoevskij, you get a feel for Russia’s spirit, the Eastern spirit. This will do us a lot of good. We need this renewal, this breath of fresh air from the East, this light from the East,” The Pope had said. With his sensus Ecclesiae and his seductive apostolic fervour, Pope Francis could find new words to speak to the hearts of the Catholic Church’s Eastern brothers. In doing so he would bring primacy issues into perspective and show everyone that the only way to achieve unity is to embrace the mission Christ entrusted his Church with, as brothers. Using words like "seductive" and "fervor" are not going to help allay Orthodox concerns one bit.


  1. Patriarch Bartholomew does not speak for all of Orthodoxy....and his gestures do not mean he is prepared to unite with Rome. Metropolitan Hilarion is absolutely correct. There is much common ground on moral issues. But the Churches can never be united unless Rome retracts the doctrine of papal infallibility/supremacy (for starters). And Rome cannot drop this doctrine because She claims it is infallibly declared by the Supreme Pontiff. There is no way out of the situation for Rome....and Holy Orthodoxy will never compromise.

    St Mark of Ephesus pray for us!

  2. This Vatican Insider article is a rather vapid opinion piece. That said, another approach to the present impasse in ecumenical relations could focus on Roman Catholic doctrinal developments since the schism, and - at least from an Orthodox perspective - the title of that proposed article could be:

    "Roman Catholic Doctrinal Innovations are holding up Ecumenical Dialogue"

  3. Let's get real. "There is no way out of the situation for Rome" is a cop-out. It's uncharitable, un-Christlike, defeatism. It also represents a tragic oversimplification of very complex ideas. The vast majority of Orthodox suffer from this oversimplification, primarily because our emphasis on orthodoxy has caused us to ignore a robust account of our catholicity. Today's Orthodox are satisfied with stubbornness and bigotry, and a completely one-sided version of dialogue. Lord have mercy.

    On the other hand, the suggested title of "Roman Catholic Doctrinal Innovations are Holding up Ecumenical Dialogue" certainly does enough to express Orthodox dissatisfaction with Catholic errors and narrative coercion.

    However, the Josephus Flavius' perspective "I see this as the way the church works" paints a view of Orthodoxy which would be foreign even to the Council Fathers. The Vatican Insider article was a bit harsh and very...well...Vatican. But let us be corrected even by those who may not be our betters. We call the bishops "Your Grace," but I would like to know what part of "walkout protest at a dialogue meeting" is grace.

    I don't like to criticize the bishops, but as a layperson it is my duty to serve as the conscience of the church. We need more openness (not compromise!!!) in Orthodoxy, and there is much to be learned from Pope Francis (and his last three predecessors) in this regard.

    Ecumenical defined: Christian unity aimed at achieving universal Christian unity through interdenominational organizations.

    Jesus prayed for unity. (John 17:20-21 "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.)(NKJV)

    1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.(NKJV)

    Here listed are some of the denominations and churches who are involved in the ecumenical assemblies. Wesleyan churches, the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans, The Salvation Army, United Church of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, Methodists, Presbyterian Churches, Baptists, Pentecostal Churches, and Quakers, to name just a few.

    These churches do not speak the same thing. They teach different ways to become saved. They teach conflicting doctrines about how to remain saved. They do not agree on how to have sins forgiven. They declare various and sundry terms for pardon from sin. They differ on the essential doctrines of Christianity.

    To refer to these associations as ecumenical give misnomer a bad name. How can the different churches cooperate in charitable causes? How they join together in Bible study and worship? There can only be true unity in the truth found in Scripture. God did not create nor approve of different doctrines for thousands of denominations and church groups.

    The true ecumenical church is the one founded on the Day of Pentecost 33 AD. The statement of faith is the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus died for one church, His church.