A step forward in Catholic-Orthodox relations

On Sept. 21, in Chieti, Italy, an international group of Catholic and Orthodox bishops and theologians reached agreement on how the role of the pope was understood in the first millennium of Christian history and what that role might look like with unity restored between Catholics and Orthodox. The 60 or so members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church were continuing a long process of dialogue aimed at restoring full communion after nearly 1,000 years of separation between Christian West and East.

Pope and patriarch

That effort really began with the meeting of Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, in January 1964 on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Many warm meetings between popes and patriarchs of Constantinople followed, and, when visiting Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1979, Pope St. John Paul II stressed that if the world is to be evangelized, Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation is urgent.

Pope Francis and the present patriarch of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his election on Oct. 22, have a warm and strong relationship. Patriarch Bartholomew attended the inauguration of Pope Francis in 2013 — the first time a patriarch of Constantinople had ever attended a papal inauguration — and they have met many times since then. For example, they met in Jerusalem in May 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of their predecessors’ meeting, and then Pope Francis visited Istanbul for the patronal feast of St. Andrew in November 2014. He and Patriarch Bartholomew pledged their firm resolve “to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox.”

Those high-level meetings and all the initiatives to restore mutual love and respect belong to the “dialogue of charity” between Catholics and Orthodox, and that is the essential basis for the theological dialogue, the “dialogue of truth,” between the two sides.

Churches in dialogue

The theological dialogue began in 1980, resolving to start by emphasizing how much Catholics and Orthodox hold in common, and then gradually to move outward to tackle dividing issues, especially regarding the papacy. Since 1980, the international commission has produced a series of “agreed statements,” expressing what Catholics and Orthodox believe they can affirm together, as we progress toward our goal of full communion.

“Full communion” means that Orthodox and Catholics will actually cease to belong to two distinct churches and will recognize each other once again as brothers and sisters in one Church, East and West. We will celebrate the Eucharist together and be welcome to Communion in one another’s churches. Preserving the rich variety of our respective traditions of liturgy, theology and devotion, we will fully share those treasures with one another and rejoice in growing closer to Christ and to one another as members of one family instead of two.

That goal has guided the course of the theological dialogue. If Catholics and Orthodox want to celebrate the Eucharist together again, we have to agree about what the Eucharist is. That was the purpose of the first agreed statement in 1982, which was called “The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” The basic idea is that the holy Communion we receive at Mass when we receive Jesus himself is a share in the life of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Church is the body of Christ, and all the members of that body are in communion with one another. So the Church is a mystery of communion, anchored in the Trinity and regularly renewed by the Eucharist. That first statement provided the fundamental framework within which the dialogue has worked ever since.

Baptism and faith are requirements for celebrating the Eucharist — that’s why we profess the Creed at Mass — and the second agreed statement in 1987 examined those vital matters. Another requirement for the Mass is a bishop or priest validly ordained in a line that traces back to the apostles. The third agreed statement, in 1988, showed the agreement of Catholics and Orthodox on those points, too.

Bishops and Rome

The apostolic succession of the bishops expresses the unity or communion of the Church “vertically,” through the ages, and the collegiality of the bishops expresses the Church’s unity and communion “horizontally,” across the world today. It was intended that the next agreed statement would look at those “horizontal” bonds. It’s precisely in that context that Catholics locate the pope, as the head of the college of bishops — and the role of the pope is really the major issue that has separated Catholics and Orthodox since 1054. The dialogue was therefore starting to tackle this major dividing issue.

During the second millennium, after various failed attempts to reunite the West and the East as a whole, some Eastern churches individually renewed communion with the bishop of Rome. Thus we have the Eastern Catholic Churches, sometimes called “uniate” churches, alongside the Orthodox Churches. During the Communist era, many of those churches were brutally repressed, but the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990 enabled them to re-emerge, as did also the many tensions between them and the Orthodox Churches. The dialogue treated those matters in an agreed statement of 1993, but problems continued and brought the dialogue to a standstill in 2000.

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It resumed in 2005 and discussed those “horizontal” bonds.

A meeting at Ravenna in 2007 produced an agreed statement, recognizing three levels of the Church’s life: local, regional and universal. At each level, there is both communion or “synodality” and leadership or “primacy.” The bishop is head of the local church, the patriarchs are regional heads of the Church, and there is a universal primacy rightly exercised by the bishop of Rome because, in an ancient phrase often used by Pope Francis, the local Church of Rome “presides in charity.” That was a breakthrough, but it was stressed that there is no primacy without synodality, and vice versa.

This year’s Chieti document starts to tackle the crucial question of how such a universal primacy might function. Looking back to the first millennium, when East and West were largely united, it notes again that the unity of the Church was eucharistic, and that the bishop of Rome, i.e. the pope, played an important part in ecumenical councils and in dealing with appeals from local bishops. So he had an important role serving the unity of the Church in faith and communion, and that’s the model we need to have in mind today.

Msgr. Paul McPartlan is the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America. He has been a member of the International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church since 2005.