Starts and Stops Along the Path Toward Unity

Orthodox and Catholics Have Made Progress Since Vatican II

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 13, 2002 ( Dialogue aimed at bringing about full unity between Orthodox and Catholics took shape with the establishment of a special commission in 1979.

The Mixed International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches was set up by Pope John Paul II and Orthodox Patriarch Demetrios I of Constantinople.

But the most important step in Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement took place in 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council.

That’s when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople lifted the mutual excommunications decreed in 1054 by Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, which gave rise to the schism.

The Catholic-Orthodox commission began its work in 1980. To date it has written five documents, three of which touch upon the question of Eastern-rite Catholics (pejoratively referred to by some as «Uniates») who obey the Pope but maintain their Eastern liturgy and customs, like the Orthodox.

A commission meeting in Balamand, Lebanon, in 1993 was attended by representatives of 10 Orthodox Churches, among others. The Russian Orthodox Church signed the document but later rejected it, Vatican Radio reported today.

During the commission’s eighth meeting, held in Baltimore, Maryland, in July 2000, the dialogue was stymied precisely over the question of Eastern-rite Catholics.

The meeting, which was presided over by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, on behalf of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, concluded without agreement on a joint theological document, something that had occurred at Balamand.

During the debate, Christians obedient to the Pope explained that Eastern-rite Catholics are a «bridge» between Catholics and Orthodox. But some Orthodox regard them as an insurmountable ecclesiological obstacle.

Eastern-rite Catholics in Eastern Europe had suffered persecution under the Communists, who tried to force them to join the Orthodox.

Another issue in Baltimore that stalled progress in dialogue was the question of the Pope’s authority, in particular, the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility.

In No. 96 of his encyclical on ecumenical dialogue, «Ut Unum Sint,» John Paul II invited «Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject [papal primacy], a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea ‘that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21).»

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