While it is true that there was no “breakthrough” at last month’s plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, this does not mean that the meeting did not assist the world’s two largest Christian Churches in moving a step closer to unity. 

To equate the absence of a breakthrough with failure, as some have done, is to misunderstand the ecumenical dialogue, and fails to grasp the particular dynamic of the international Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue that officially began in 1980, and has progressed since. 

The Sept. 20-27 12th plenary session of the commission was hosted by the Archdiocese of Vienna, headed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, also a member of the Catholic delegation. 

Swiss Archbishop Kurt Koch, the newly appointed president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity led the 23-member Catholic delegation. 

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Turkey, a renowned theologian of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, led 27 delegates representing all the Orthodox Churches, with the exception of the patriarch of Bulgaria. 

Bishop of Rome’s role 

The commission came to Vienna to analyze, revise and, if possible, accept as a common text the draft document on “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium.” The document, essentially a historical text, had been requested by the commission at its 2007 plenary session in Ravenna, Italy. 

At Ravenna, the Catholics and the Orthodox (for the first time) recognized that during the first millennium, at every level of the Church — local, regional and universal — there was a “protos,” or a “first one,” or “primate,” and that the bishop of Rome had a primary role here. 

The question at issue is to understand what exactly that role was, and what it entailed. The document requested by the commission at Ravenna was meant to help reach a common understanding on that role. 

The commission began reviewing this crucial topic at its 2009 plenary session in Paphos, Cyprus, on the basis of a mainly historical text elaborated by the joint coordinating commission. 

In Vienna, it focused more critically on this same topic and text and, in particular, on the historical facts and testimonies cited therein that related to the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium. 

Matter of interpretation 

It was not an easy discussion, as participants later admitted, since such facts and testimonies are open to different interpretations. 

Thus, for example, Metropolitan Hilarion, who represented the patriarchate of Moscow at the Vienna meeting, told journalists in the Russian capital that the draft text was unsatisfactory because “it carries no clear assertion that the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium did not extend to the East.” 

Even though Eastern Church leaders would turn to the pope as the arbiter in theological disputes during the first millennium, he said this fact “cannot in any way suggest that the bishop of Rome was seen in the East as the possessor of supreme authority over the universal Church.” 

Some sources suggest Metropolitan Hilarion may have also been reacting to the positive media reports that highlighted the upbeat remarks made by the commission’s two co-chairmen at a Vienna press conference, after the meeting. 

From the Vatican side, Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, told Our Sunday Visitor that it came as no surprise to anybody that the discussion was difficult “given that the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium is the heart of the matter.” 

“Moreover, since both East and West went their different ways in that first millennium, in both historical and cultural directions, it is therefore very difficult for them to reach an agreement as there is so much discussion about how historical events are to be interpreted,” he said.  

There was a long discussion at Vienna on this key knot that must be untied: the role of the bishop of Rome in the universal Church in the first millennium. If a common understanding can be reached on this point, it would represent a major breakthrough on the path to unity. But not the final one, since the bishop of Rome’s role in the second millennium has to be discussed, too, as well as the interplay between primacy and synodality. 

After much discussion in Vienna, the Catholic delegation agreed to consider the historical text under examination as a working instrument only, though it believes the text can be useful in the next stage of the dialogue when the subject of the primacy will be examined from a more theological perspective. 

“Given that our task is to develop the path to full communion and progress thereon, not just to produce documents, and given that the theological question is central to the understanding of the role of the bishop of Rome,” Bishop Farrell said, it was therefore agreed “to put aside the historical text and turn to the theological aspect of the question.” 

The draft historical text was discussed at Paphos and Vienna, but “was not an agreed document of the commission like the Ravenna one, and so it will not be published,” he added. 

Primacy and synodality 

Once that text was set aside, the commission agreed to set up a joint subcommission to prepare a new document that will consider the theological and ecclesiological aspects of the primacy in relation to synodality. 

“We see this as an oppor-tunity, but a lot of work will have to be done, and we can’t prejudge what will happen,” Bishop Farrell stated. 

At a Vienna press conference, Archbishop Koch elaborated on this crucial discussion relating to primacy and synodality that the commission is embarking on. 

“The Catholic Church has a strong primacy (of the pope), but probably has not developed synodality as much as the Orthodox Church. The strength of the Orthodox Church is in its synodality, but the doctrine of primacy is not that strong. We will be able to enrich each other,” he said. 

The subcommission is expected to submit its work to the Joint Coordinating Committee next year, and it is hoped a text can be ready for discussion at the commission’s plenary session in 2012. 

Brotherly spirit 

After the Vienna meeting, the heads of the Catholic and Orthodox delegations gave upbeat reports to the media, while acknowledging that unity is still not on the horizon. 

“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two Churches,” Metropolitan John stated; “a friendly and brotherly … spirit prevailed in the discussion, and if we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain, and bring our two Churches to full communion.” 

Archbishop Koch recalled that, in a 1976 lecture at Graz, Pope Benedict XVI, then Father Joseph Ratzinger, said “that we cannot expect more from the Orthodox than what was practiced in the first millennium.” Archbishop Koch added, “therefore the basic discussion is about how these Churches lived in the first millennium and how we can find a new (common) path today.” 

But he insisted that “this discussion needs the necessary free space, and it needs patience.” 

“I know people can be impatient, but patience is an act of love,” he said, explaining that the two sides are seeking to overcome a separation that has lasted almost 1,000 years. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Papal prayer for dialogue (sidebar)

“Obedience to the will of the Lord Jesus and consideration of the great challenges that confront Christianity today oblige us to work seriously for the cause of the re-establishment of full communion between the churches. I urge everyone to pray intensely for the work of the commission and for the continuous development and consolidation of peace and harmony between the baptized, so that we may present to the world an ever more authentic evangelical witness.” 

— Pope Benedict XVI at a Sept. 22 general audience