Vatican Evaluation of Relations Between Catholic and Orthodox Churches

“Substantial Progress” Made Based on “Positive Spirit”

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 11, 2004 ( Here is an evaluation of the present state of relations of the Catholic Church with the other Christian churches, given on Wednesday at a press conference by Mons. Eleuterio Fortino, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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One of the most important elements of the decree “Unitatis Redintegratio” (UR) — still valid, 40 years after its promulgation –, is that of relations with the Orthodox Churches. The Council exhorted everyone, “but especially those who intend to work in the re-establishment of the desired full communion between the Eastern Churches and the Catholic Church” to give “adequate consideration to the special condition of the birth and growth of the Churches of the East and to the nature of the existing relations between the latter and the See of Rome before the separation” (UR, 14). Following this indication, relations have been established, in different times and ways, and the same theological dialogue with all the Churches of the East, with the Orthodox Churches and the ancient Churches of the East, or those antecedent to the Council of Chalcedon. The Holy Father made a general evaluation in the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” (UUS). On the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, he wrote: “With a positive spirit, basing ourselves on everything we have in common, the Mixed Commission (of theological dialogue) has been able to make substantial progress” (UUS, 59). With reference to the dialogue carried out with the Ancient Churches of the East, he affirmed: “In regard to the traditional controversies on Christology, the ecumenical contacts have made possible essential clarification so as to allow us to confess together the faith that is common to us” (UUS, 63).

These relations still find inspiration and orientation 40 years after the UR decree, including in situations of new possibilities and of unforeseen difficulties.

1. The theological dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, after a positive beginning and with its results included in the encyclical UUS, has, over the last 15 years, met with serious difficulties and, since the last plenary session (Baltimore, Md., 2000) has not been able to hold other meetings. In that session, the topic “Ecclesiological and Canonical Implications of ‘Uniatism’ “was discussed. It was not possible to agree to a common document on the argument. However, the session emphasized the need to continue the dialogue and highlighted an important fact for this theological dialogue. Both sides showed that the birth of the Catholic Eastern Churches is profoundly linked to the question of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the Church. Therefore, the question must be addressed as the main problem in relations between Catholics and Orthodox.

2. In regard to the “Petrine Primacy,” the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity organized an academic symposium in May of 2003, with parallel reports of Catholics and Orthodox on four topics: a) The biblical foundation of the primacy, b) The primacy in the thought of the Fathers of the Church, c) The role of the Bishop of Rome in Ecumenical Councils, d) The recent discussions on the primacy in relation to Vatican Council I and on the primacy among Orthodox theologians. It was not an official dialogue, but an academic symposium with its own characteristics. The search for full communion, however, is enriched with all the contributions (fraternal relations, research in theological institutes, dialogue structure through mixed commissions, prayer, etc.). The Minutes were published.

3. In the last years, relations have intensified with some Churches that, in the past, had shown less interest in relations with the Catholic Church. After the Holy Father’s visit to Athens (2001), the Church of Greece sent to Rome, for the first time, a Synodal delegation (March 8-13, 2002). In response, the Catholic Church sent to Athens (Feb. 10-14, 2003) a delegation, presided over by Cardinal Kasper, and active cooperation has been established in several areas. Relations with the Church of Greece are also following other avenues. I remember one: in 2003, the 8th symposium on “Spirituality in the East and West and Reciprocal Influences” was held in Joannina (Greece), organized by the Theological Faculty of the University of Thessalonica and the “Antonianum” Athenaeum of Rome.

4. The Holy Father visited Bulgaria in 2002 (May 23-26). The Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity traveled to the country in October of the same year (Oct. 7-9). A year after the Pope’s visit, a delegation of the Holy Synod of Sofia visited Rome (May 22-27, 2003). On that occasion, the liturgical use was inaugurated, on the part of the Orthodox Community of Rome, of the Church of Saints Vincent and Athanasius, near the Trevi Fountain. The search for unity implies solidarity and exchange of gifts.

5.The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity visited the Church of Serbia (May 10-15, 2002). A delegation of the Holy Synod of that Church and the Catholic Episcopal Conference of the country now meet regularly.

6. After the Holy Father’s visit to Rumania (May 7-8, 1999) and that of Patriarch Theoctist to Rome (Oct. 7-13, 2002) — significant events of fraternal relations, despite the ongoing problems in the country between Greek-Catholics and Orthodox over the issue of places of worship –, the President of the Pontifical Council was simultaneously conferred a doctorate “honoris causa” by four Theological Faculties of Cluj: the Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Latin Catholic, and Protestant.

7. In recent years there has been tension between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Catholic Church. The Russian Church reproached the Catholic Church for what the former considered acts of proselytism and new impetus to the practice of “Uniatism” in Ukraine. There have been several initiatives to clarify the matter. Cardinal Kasper’s visit to Moscow in 2004 was important (Feb. 17-23). As a result, a joint working group has been established between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, in the Russian Federation, for the solution of practical problems existing between the two Churches in this country. Since then, the group has held two meetings, in May and September, 2004.

8. Cardinal Kasper visited the Orthodox Church in Byelorussia (Dec. 15-18, 2002) and has initiated a positive relationship with it.

9. With the Ancient Churches of the East (Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac, and Armenian), as a group, stemming from Christological agreements and the results of several bilateral dialogues, an official theological dialogue was initiated in 2002. The first meeting of the Mixed Commission took place in Cairo in January of 2004. The second will be held in Rome in January 2005.

10. A Mixed Dialogue Commission has been established with the Assyrian Church of the East. The next imminent meeting will take place in London from Nov. 18-24. Two main topics will be studied: the theological tradition of the Ancient Church of Mesopotamia and the ecclesiology of communion, according to the Assyrian and Catholic traditions.

11. Regular and frequent relations are maintained with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. When difficulties or misunderstandings arise, they are resolved directly. The regular exchange of delegations for the feast of St. Andrew at Fanar and of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome, offers a useful instrument for direct conversations. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I was in Rome for this year’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul. On that occasion, he asked the Holy Father for the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzus, Patriarchs of Constantinople, which are in St. Peter’s Basilica. At the end of this month, His Holiness Bartholomeos I will come to Rome to receive from the Holy Father the gift of the relics. It will be the occasion for a new meeting.

This inten
sification of contacts will contribute to a new beginning of the theological dialogue. The RU decree continues to give valid inspiration and orientations.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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