A Union Council

11 April, 12:10
   - фото 1
Photo source: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
If I could convene an ecumenical council, I would convene one in Venice to heal the three-way schism among Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

By Benjamin Martin

At the root of the schisms among Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians lie disagreements over Christology and Pneumatology. Although our respective traditions remain distinct, with different terminologies and different resources of ontology, theology, and doctrine, the ecumenical dialogues and scholarship of recent decades have helped to render the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith discernible across our divisions. Unity among us requires acceptance of diversity in canonical norms, sacramental forms, and doctrinal expressions, but I think that we can achieve a common confession of faith, such as follows:

I believe in one God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly man in body and soul, consubstantial with the Father in divinity and consubstantial with us in humanity, like unto us in all things but sin, not made but begotten of the Father before the ages in His divinity and in these last days for us men and for our salvation, coming down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit, incarnate and born in his humanity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, whom he preserved from sin and who now reigns with him, body and soul, in heaven. His divinity and his humanity are one, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, their distinction, virtual and conceptual, never abolished but their characters preserved, each willing and performing what is proper to it in communion with the other, together in one Person, God the Word, through whom all things were made. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death and was buried and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who issues from the Father like a blessing to rest upon the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, sent by them, and adored and glorified with them, and who has spoken through the prophets. I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, both actual and original, and that original sin, which is in all men without personal fault, wounds all men in body and soul, and deprives all men of holiness and justice, can be and truly is taken away not by the powers of man nor by any other remedy but only by the merits of the one mediator our Lord Jesus Christ. I confess that the sacraments received and recognized by the Church were instituted by him and confer upon those who place no obstacle in the way, by the performance of the rites themselves, the comprehensive graces necessary for their salvation, that in the divine liturgy a holy sacrifice is offered to the Father, and that in Eucharist Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present by the power of the Holy Spirit. I profess it right to venerate Mary and the saints, their relics, and their images, to pray for the living and the dead, to obey the pastors of the Church, her bishops, her metropolitans, her patriarchs, and her supreme pontiff, and to hold forever all that they teach definitively, either solemnly or ecumenically. In so doing, I look forward in hope to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The creedal references to the supreme pontiff and solemn magisterium demand further elucidation, so the council could likewise issue a constitution on the papacy, such as the revision of Pastor Aeternus appended below, and thereby achieve a consensus on ecclesiology that suffices for communion.

After so many centuries of schism, many other divergences have also accumulated. For example, we count ecumenical councils differently. A shared confession of faith diminishes the importance of a shared enumeration of ecumenical councils, but our unity is nevertheless served by a common account of ecumenical councils, such as follows: A council is orthodox if it teaches in accord with Sacred Scripture and previous ecumenical councils; if a council finds wide reception, especially among the Eastern Patriarchates, and the approval of Rome, it may be received with or assigned its own proper number in the sequence of ecumenical councils, without which it cannot be an ecumenical council; ecumenical reception “has always been the ultimate criterion for the ecumenicity of a council” (Cf. Chieti Document §18).

Using the shared confession of faith to interpret the Councils of Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II, the Oriental Orthodox Churches could receive these in part, i.e. without their condemnations of Dioscorus of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch, along with their designations as the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Ecumenical Councils, respectively.

Until the 11th century, the Roman Church counted only seven ecumenical councils, but then began to count the Ignatian Council of 869-870 as the Eighth, despite its suppression by the ecumenically received Photian Council of 879-880. When Pope John VIII formally received the Photian Council, he repudiated the condemnation by the Council of 869-870 of St. Photios of Constantinople, whom Cardinal Baronius incorrectly concluded to have died in schism from Rome, but he did not repudiate all the council’s canons, e.g. can. 5. Therefore, the Church should distinguish between cann. 2, 4, 6, 9, and 25, which attack Photios personally, and the rest of the council’s canons, such as cann. 11, 12, 18, 21, and 22, which have long informed the Western canonical tradition, holding the former repudiated and the latter valid. A future council could propose to enumerate the Council of 879-880, along with the canons it received of the Council of 859 and 861 and the unsuppressed canons of 869-870, as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Byzantine Christians have often excluded the Council of 879-880 from the enumeration of ecumenical councils because it did not define doctrine; however, this criterion may be an innovation.

Although counting up to 21 ecumenical councils in recent centuries, the Roman Church has at times considered returning to the count of seven councils or reclassifying the councils from Lateran I to Lateran V as ten Councils of Latin Christendom. In the latter case, the Roman Church could propose that the Christian East interpret the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II according to the shared confession of faith and receive these in whole or in part as the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Ecumenical Councils, respectively. Like the Council of 879-880, Vatican II did not formally define doctrine; if such is required for enumeration as an ecumenical council, then the Councils of Trent and Vatican I may be proposed as the Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils, respectively. Alternatively, these might be received as local councils or left unaddressed.

Ultimately, communion may be restored even if no consensus on ecumenical councils is achieved. Differing enumerations may be accommodated by oikonomia, i.e. by virtue of the supreme law that is the salvation of souls. The one known systematic treatment of oikonomia that we inherit from the ancient Church appears in opuscule 227 of the Bibliotheca of St. Photios, summarizing a lost text of St. Eulogius of Alexandria, a 6th century patriarch who shares a feast day with St. John Chrysostom. Eulogius argues that, provided the faith is preserved from error, the Church may accommodate (i) temporary lapses in Christian practice, such as the circumcision of Timothy, (ii) different and even poor articulations of doctrine, even for an indefinite period of time, and (iii) technical barriers to communion like disobedience toward disciplinary anathemas or the commemoration of heretics. In other words, the Pastors of the Church may discern divine grace in these conditions and respond to it when they judge such action prudent for the salvation of souls. Especially if a shared confession of faith is achieved, the Church may restore communion accommodating differing enumerations of ecumenical councils as a case of the third condition.

Disagreement has also emerged during the centuries of schism over the Roman doctrine of Purgatory. Both the East and West have affirmed the possibility of sanctification after death, yet the Roman Church distinguishes in the purgatorial fire both a transformative dimension that prepares the soul for Heaven, with which the Christian East is familiar, and a punitive or expiatory dimension that atones for the consequences of sins forgiven. Just as a father by one and the same act both disciplines a son for the sake of the son and punishes the son for the sake of his siblings, so too does the suffering of Purgatory serve both the dead and the living. The Roman Church distinguishes between these dimensions, never reducing one to the other, and claims jurisdiction to remit only one, i.e. the expiatory, for she teaches that without the unqualified disposition of detachment from all sin, even venial sin, an indulgence will only ever be partial (Indulgentiarum doctrina, norm #7).

Recent controversy recommends a clarification of Church teaching on human sexuality. Both East and West share the understanding of marriage as a free, loving, exclusive, perpetual, and fruitful union of a man and woman blessed by God. East and West have differed regarding who administers the sacrament, when a subsequent union is permitted and whether it is sacramental, and how to respond pastorally when a marriage fails. Some of these differences must be tolerated, and pastoral practices may be harmonized.

According to both East and West, both divine and natural law restrict sexual activity to the context of marriage. Like St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, the Church faithfully teaches that, not only for Christian believers but for all rightly disposed to see it by a courageous desire to know the truth of what is good and to live in accord with it, the norm of marriage appears embedded in human sexuality itself and therein shows its violation by extramarital or unnatural acts to be unchoiceworthy and unbecoming of the human person. If the consequent moral shortcoming of illicit unions, whether adulterous, homosexual, or otherwise, were more widely evident inside and outside the Church, the Church might then enjoy greater freedom in her pastoral care, and controversy might more readily subside.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that many Christians of each communion are spiritually unprepared for the restoration of Eucharistic communion among Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians. Not only must we overcome centuries of polemics to rediscover our unity in faith, but especially the locally divided Local Churches must be prepared to encounter one another as equals. To heal such deep schisms, no party should claim legitimacy at the expense of another. The result must be a temporary situation of coincident jurisdictions everywhere and, in some cases, multiple primates per primatal see commemorated in the diptychs. Yet, such canonical chaos is an improvement over a situation of schism.

Some Local Churches may judge it prudent to restrict sacramental sharing or concelebration until both clergy and laity are better prepared to receive the fruits of communion and to avoid confusion. But, in time, the Local Churches should permit these practices and progress toward the integration of coincident jurisdictions, both within their canonical territories and in their diasporas. The challenges are especially acute for the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and India, which must each determine how to preserve two distinct rites within one Local Church. Accommodation may be made for smaller coincident jurisdictions of foreign rites to remain around world, since these may better care for minority communities of the faithful and hardly undermine the canonical territories of the Local Churches.

The integration of locally divided Local Churches will require years of bilateral negotiations to achieve consensus on liturgy, martyrology, specific doctrinal expressions used in catechesis, theology, canon law, and pastoral practice. In the cases of the Byzantine Catholic Churches of Europe, many of which are significantly smaller than their Orthodox counterparts and which have suffered Latinization in different degrees, appeal may be made to Constantinople to guide their integration in trilateral processes so that they may be received into communion as they are and at the same without precluding the gradual and authentic restoration of their Byzantine patrimony. These churches could be offered the choice to come under the direct jurisdiction of Constantinople during this process.

The following recommendations are offered to aid the Church in moving toward the canonical regularization of her restored communion:

  1. The taxis of autocephalous churches shall proceed as follows: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, the East, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, North Macedonia, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary.
  2. The diptychs shall also include autonomous churches constituted in Eastern territory – Mount Lebanon, Cilicia, Mount Sinai, and Bessarabia – and may include autonomous Eastern churches constituted outside Eastern territory, such as those of Finland and Estonia.
  3. The Maronite and Cilician Churches should be understood as Local Churches enjoying maximal autonomy within the Patriarchate of Antioch.
  4. The Jacobite Syrian Christian Church should be encouraged to integrate with the other Syriac churches of India; likewise, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo, with the other Byzantine churches of Ukraine, which shall receive patriarchal status; and the Moldovan Orthodox Church with the Bessarabian Orthodox Church.
  5. Coincident Byzantine jurisdictions should also be integrated in Poland, i.e. the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Przemyśl-Warsaw with the Polish Orthodox Church, in Czechia, in Slovakia, and in Hungary, so that each has its own autocephalous church, and in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, so that each has its own autonomous church under Constantinople.
  6. To show due respect for ecclesiastical precedence, the primates of autocephalous churches constituted outside Eastern territory, i.e. Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary, shall not by virtue of such autocephalous status outrank Latin metropolitan archbishops; similarly, the Roman Church should transfer the Diocese of Rrëshen to the ecclesiastical province of Shkodër and thereby lower the rank of the Latin Archdiocese of Tirana-Durrës to that of exempt archdiocese without suffragan.
  7. The integration of coincident Byzantine jurisdictions shall proceed in the thirteen regions of the Byzantine diaspora, so that each will have its own autonomous church under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
  8. Melkite and Antiochian Greek communities lying outside the canonical territory of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch should be offered the choice of integrating either with the local Byzantine jurisdictions or with the local Syriac jurisdictions remaining under Antioch.
  1. Coincident Armenian jurisdictions should likewise integrate, with those lying outside the canonical territories of Antioch and Cyprus coming under the jurisdiction of Etchmiadzin; however, individual diasporic communities presently linked to the See of Cilicia may elect to join the local diasporic jurisdictions of Antioch.
  2. The diasporic jurisdictions of the Maronite Church should increase cooperation with the integrated diasporic jurisdictions of Antioch, and the Churches of Alexandria, Ethiopia, and Eritrea should likewise consider how to cooperate in the care of their faithful in diaspora.

We conclude with a simple variation of the diptychs, a prayer for the pastors of the Church, especially the patriarchs and primates who care for the Christians of the East:

  • God bless Francis of Rome.
  • God bless Bartholomew of Constantinople.
  • God bless Theodore, Theodore, and Abraham of Alexandria.
  • God bless Ignatius Joseph, John, Ignatius Ephrem, and Joseph of Antioch.
  • God bless Theophilos of Jerusalem.
  • God bless Louis Raphael of the East.
  • God bless Karekin of Armenia.
  • God bless Elijah of Georgia.
  • God bless Porphyry of Serbia.
  • God bless Lucian and Daniel of Romania.
  • God bless Sviatoslav, Onuphry, and Epiphany of Ukraine.
  • God bless Cyril of Russia – correct his straying heart.
  • God bless Matthias of Ethiopia.
  • God bless Basil, Basil Thomas, Basil Saint Thomas, and Raphael of India.
  • God bless George of Cyprus.
  • God bless Jerome of Greece.
  • God bless Anastasios of Albania.
  • God bless Stephen of North Macedonia.
  • God bless Sabbas and Eugene of Poland.
  • God bless Michael of Czechia.
  • God bless Rastislav and Joseph of Slovakia.
  • God bless Peter of Hungary.
  • God bless Bechara Peter of Mount Lebanon.
  • God bless Aram and Raphael Peter of Cilicia.
  • God bless Damien of Mount Sinai.
  • God bless Peter and Vladimir of Bessarabia.


Appended: Pastor Aeternus Revised

The eternal Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, in order to continue for all time the saving work of redemption, determined to build His holy Church so that in her, as in the house of the living God, all who believe might be united together in one bond of faith and charity. For this reason, before He was glorified, He prayed to the Father, not for the apostles only, but for those also who would believe in Him on their testimony, that all might be one as He, the Son, and the Father are one. Therefore, just as He sent the apostles whom He had chosen for Himself out of the world, so also He wished shepherds and teachers to be in His Church until the consummation of the world (Pastor Aeternus 1-3).

Through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down to our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved (Lumen Gentium 20). [Each bishop] is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to solicitude for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church (Lumen Gentium 23).

From the earliest times, the one Church has existed as many local churches (Chieti 2), which reflect, like an icon, the unity of the Blessed Trinity (Chieti 1) through their communion in faith and in sacraments, through their reciprocal recognition of canonical legislations (Ravenna 16), through the conciliar action of their bishops (Ravenna 9), and through the synodal action of their faithful (Chieti 3).

As the Father is the first Person of the Blessed Trinity and as Jesus Christ is Head of the Church, so also does every expression of ecclesiastical communion exhibit an order (taxis) and include a first (protos), who enjoys primacy and exercises an authority that participates in the authority of the crucified and exalted Lord and that calls for obedience (Ravenna 10, 13, 14).

Because the Church of Rome occupies the first place in the taxis of the local churches (Ravenna 41, Chieti 15), the Bishop of Rome enjoys a universal primacy (Pastor Aeternus 3.1) within the College of Bishops and the prerogative to preside at ecumenical councils.

The office [of sanctifying,] of teaching, and of governing, [conferred by episcopal consecration,] can be exercised [rightly] only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college (Lumen Gentium 21); the college or body of bishops, [even if gathered in an ecumenical council,] has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff (Lumen Gentium 22). For this reason, an ecumenical council requires confirmation by the Roman Pontiff (Cf. Chieti 18, criteria for ecumenical councils of Nicaea II).

In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided and that, by the union of the clergy, the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in unity of faith and communion, [our Lord] placed St. Peter at the head of the other apostles and established in him [and in his successors the Roman Pontiffs] a perpetual principle and visible foundation of this twofold unity (Pastor Aeternus 4; 2.5).

In the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, because of her more effective leadership, it has always been necessary for every Church – that is, the faithful throughout the world – to be in agreement with the Roman Church; in consequence of being joined with that See, as members to head, in the words of St. Ambrose of Milan, [flow all] the rights of sacred communion (Pastor Aeternus 2.4).

Although historically not understood in the East as an act of jurisdiction, the Bishop of Rome receives appeals in disciplinary matters from both East and West, and both Latins and Byzantines have an explicit right to appeal to Rome for final judgment in ecclesiastical matters, the latter by virtue of their reception of the Council of Sardica (343) via the Council in Trullo (692) (Chieti 19).

Distinct from receiving appeals, the Bishop of Rome also possesses by virtue of his universal primacy the ability to intervene with full episcopal power anywhere in the universal Church in order to assert, support, or defend the rule of the true faith or the stability of the local churches (Cf. Pastor Aeternus and letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of 20 February 2019). Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both individually and collectively, are bound to submit to this power [of the Roman Pontiff in] true obedience (Pastor Aeternus 3.2).

This power of the [Roman] Pontiff by no means detracts from the ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by the appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks assigned to them (Pastor Aeternus 3.5). [Nor does this power detract from the rights and privileges of the ancient patriarchal sees;] the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with her own established disciplines (Orientalum Ecclesiarum 5).

Better to respect the rights and privileges of the ancient patriarchal sees and of the national patriarchates and autocephalous churches established in recent times, the Bishop of Rome, while checked only by conscience (Cf. Lumen Gentium 22), should not intervene in the affairs of the East except out of obligation and when circumstances require (Cf. letter of Patriarch Bartholomew of 20 February 2019).

The apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff possesses…includes also [a] supreme power of teaching (Pastor Aeternus 4.1). To satisfy [their pastoral office, the Bishops of Rome have striven] unwearyingly to propagate the saving teaching of Christ among all the peoples of the world; and with equal care they have made sure that the doctrine should be kept pure and uncontaminated wherever it was received (Pastor Aeternus 4.3).

It was for this reason that the bishops of the whole world, sometimes individually, sometimes gathered in synods, according to the long-established custom of the churches and pattern of ancient usage, referred to [Rome] especially the dangers which arose in matters concerning the faith; this was to ensure that any damage suffered by the faith should be repaired, [for they have held that, in the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in Rome] the faith can know no failing (Pastor Aeternus 4.4).

The Roman Pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by convening [councils, some of which may yet find ecumenical reception,] or consulting the opinion of the Churches throughout the world, sometimes by regional synods, sometimes by using other means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God’s help, they knew to be in keeping with Sacred Scriptures and the apostolic traditions (Pastor Aeternus 4.5).

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, disclose some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles (Pastor Aeternus 4.6). This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that…the whole Church might be preserved in unity, and, resting on her foundation, might stand firm against the gates of hell (Pastor Aeternus 4.7).

Therefore…when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, i.e. when…by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, the infallibility which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable (Pastor Aeternus 4.9). Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both individually and collectively, are bound to submit to this power [of the Roman Pontiff as well in] true obedience (Pastor Aeternus 3.2).

Better to remove occasion for schism, the Bishop of Rome should exercise this power only out of obligation and when circumstances require (Ut Unum Sint 94); especially because the Eastern Churches have historically recognized the Church of Rome as possessing universal primacy but not universal jurisdiction, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff should be received by a subsequent ecumenical council.

The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the College of [Bishops] consists precisely in “keeping watch” (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the [bishops], the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the [local churches] (Ut Unum Sint 94).