For the first millennium after Christ walked the earth, the Church was united. 

During the second millennium, the Church was fractured, starting with the Great Schism of 1054, in which the Orthodox Churches of the East and the Latin Church of the West mutually excommunicated one another’s leaders. 

Could the third millennium see the churches of the East and the West come together again? 

Quest for reunion 

A document released by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation in October looks toward that possibility. “Steps Towards a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future” is an unprecedented effort to begin to visualize the shape of a reunited Catholic and Orthodox Church that would result from the re-establishment of full communion, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

The statement says that despite divisions “it seems to us obvious that what we share, as Orthodox and Catholic Christians, significantly overshadows our differences. Both our Churches emphasize the continuity of apostolic teaching as the heart of our faith, received within the interpretive context of the historical Christian community. Both believe our life as Churches to be centered on the Divine Liturgy, and to be formed and nourished in each individual by the Word of God and the Church’s sacraments.” 

The group has been meeting for 45 years — since shortly after Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism,Unitatis Redintegratio, was promulgated in 1964. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh co-chair the consultation. 

The consultation recommended, among other things, that bishops from each tradition meet in their own nations or regions to consult on pastoral issues, and that the faithful of both traditions come together for prayer and for social ministry to come to better understand that both draw on a common reliance on God.

Papal authority 

The statement follows movement toward one another on issues that have traditionally divided the two churches, such as the “filioque,” and ecclesial authority in the Eastern and Western traditions, the subject of a the “Ravenna statement” in 2007. 

The Ravenna statement was the work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church meeting in Ravenna, Italy. 

But authority — specifically, the authority of the pope — remains a key question, according to the statements released after various dialogue sessions. 

“It is the papacy,” said Adam A.J. DeVille, an assistant professor at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., and author of the recently released book "Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity" (University of Notre Dame Press, $38). “That is the big issue. If you read any standard textbook treatment of Christian division, you usually get four or six or eight problems that are listed. Now we look at the list, and say we’ve resolved those other problems or understand them not to be church dividing. This one is going to be the one that is going to take a lot of work.” 

Some of those issues — for example, the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries — stem directly from the role of papal authority, DeVille said. Others, such as the “filioque,” were points of disagreement long before the schism. 

The “filioque” is the Latin word meaning “and the son” that was inserted into the Nicene Creed recited in the Latin Church in the fifth cen-tury. It refers to the origin of the Holy Spirit, whom Catholics say “proceeded from the Father and the Son.” 

Orthodox Christians use the original Greek version, which says the Holy Spirit was generated by the Father, and first millennium Orthodox leaders considered the Latin addition to be heretical. 

In 2003, when the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation discussed the issue, participants from both sides agreed that there was misunderstanding, but no fundamental disagreement. 

In the years leading up to that, when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass with Orthodox patriarchs, both leaders recited the creed in Greek — without the filioque — and the 2000 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declaration Dominus Iesus cited the Greek text of the creed as the statement of basic Christian belief. 

Long-standing issues 

The role of the pope — or the Bishop of Rome — was also a thorny issue well before 1054, DeVille said. 

“People often have what I regard as a somewhat romantic idea of the first millennium,” he said. “They say Christians were united during that period. We were, but there were all sorts of debates and disagreements going on nonetheless, and one of them was about the role of authority in general and the role of the pope in particular. Many Catholics have an impression of how the pope functioned, and many Orthodox have a different assumption.” 

More recent scholarship indicates that the truth lies somewhere in the middle; the early popes did not exercise direct authority over local matters in the East, and they did not unilaterally appoint bishops or call ecumenical councils all on their own. But they were always considered the “senior bishops” in the Christian world, and were appealed to by Eastern Christians to settle disputes. 

DeVille joins the members of the North American dialogue in seeing hope for progress. 

“What I think has been quite hopeful in the past four years is the willingness to say we need to look at this much more carefully than we have. We have to look at what we want the papacy to be, what the papacy needs to be, what God designed the papacy to be, for the third millennium,” he said. “We’re not going to solve this by quoting Bible verses at each other. We’ve been throwing that stuff together for centuries and it hasn’t worked.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Common Ground on Easter: (Sidebar)

The division between the Eastern and Western Christian churches is seldom more apparent than at Easter or Pascha, when, in most years, believers in the two traditions celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord on different days. 

In October 2010, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation added its voice to many other similar consultations in calling for a common date for the celebration of our central feast. Members of the consultation wrote: 

“The First Council of Nicaea (325), touchstone of Christian theology through the ages, was gathered largely to resolve two major questions: the Arian controversy and the date of Easter — so consequential were those two issues for the unity and life of the Church.” 

As the Council of Nicea used the best technology of the time to set the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, Christians from the East and West can use the most accurate scientific instruments and astronomical data available too determine the date of the equinox in Jerusalem, without regard to the calendar used by either Church.