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On the Difficulties of the Dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholics: The Inconsolable Results of the Vienna Discussions

08.10.2010, 16:32
The Orthodox always acknowledged that in the first millennia Rome had primacy, and, of course, agreed that Peter occupied a special place among the apostles. But Rome was more likely linked with historical circumstances in the first place, than with the Chair of Saint Peter.

Preconditions of the Dialogue

First we will try to explain the essence of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue on the primacy of Rome in the first millennia. Pope John Paul II suggested a simple idea, which he gently and eloquently expressed in the encyclical of 1995. At the Liturgy we need a joint confession of faith—thus, the following resolution is possible: Catholics omit the Filioque, singing the Symbol of Faith, and the Orthodox recognize that historically before the schism there were various interpretations of the doctrine of the Trinity and such interpretations do not touch the essence of the confession of faith. The only Symbol of Faith is the one confession of the church. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (today Pope Benedict XVI) suggested a second idea: any model is possible in the limits of the authority of the pope as the “Western Patriarch,” but on the condition that from the Orthodox they cannot ask for the recognition of more authority of the pope than that which he had in the first millennia of the church before the schism. John Paul II supported this second idea. The suggestion and acceptance of these ideas was not an easy affair for not all Catholics are ready for such a kind of “liberal” approach, but overall there is the sense that what happened consisted in this. It can be said that the extended hand of the Catholics was open as it was never before, and their thoughts were filled with ideological enthusiasm. Which, of course, is good.

The Orthodox always acknowledged that in the first millennia Rome had primacy, and, of course, agreed that Peter occupied a special place among the apostles. But Rome was more likely linked with historical circumstances in the first place, than with the Chair of Saint Peter. The Orthodox, however, treated the historical tradition of the first millennia with respect. Therefore the Catholics expected a successful dialogue. Such monuments of theological thought as the collection of Orthodox theologians about the primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church, which was created a few decades ago, or the Orthodox-Catholic collection “The Primacy of Peter,” which appeared in the last decade, only increased their hope. In addition, Metropolitan John Zizioulas in his second book “On Being Other” practically rejected the theory (which he had when he wrote his first main book “Being as Communion”) that the first church was an association of 200 episcopacies, and that centralization in the patriarchate was an artificial phenomenon. Obedience overall and obedience to the church authority the patriarch in the book “On Being Other” understands as a way of church life of the Christian and the community. Obedience of the Christian to the bishop is the adoption of Christ’s way of life, because he had filial obedience to the Father.

The adoption in 2007 of the Ravenna Document established special hope. In this document Orthodox and Catholics agreed to emerge for the understanding of the hierarchical order of the church from the principles of the 34th Apostolic Canon. And the very church is an assembly where there is always a primate. But the primate always practices his authority together with the assembly. The apostolic canon stipulates there being a primate in each region. But it provides that he should rule together with the council of bishops of each region, which should gather at least twice a year. The formulated conception about three equal unifications of the primacy and collegiality was rather witty. The “minimum” of the church reality is being made by the episcopacy—as a full-fledged Eucharist assembly (remind that priests serve with the blessing of the bishop). The bishop is the primate in the Eucharist assembly but cannot celebrate the Liturgy without the Eucharist assembly. The same goes for the realization of the authority. In the local church is a head who practices his authority together with the council of bishops. Transferring this model to the level of the whole church, the Ravenna Document proposes such a vision of the supreme authority of the church. The pope is the head of the entire church who practices his authority together with the council of the heads of the local churches (which, evidently, have to be searched for in the Orthodox East).

With such a history hopes for the success of the dialogue on the primacy of Rome in the first millennia were justifiable.

The dialogue and Around the Dialogue

During the dialogue the Catholics greatly conceded to the Orthodox. From the text, in good time, most of the quotations of priests, which are found in countless books that defend the dogma of the First Vatican Council about papacy, were discarded. The Catholics practically agreed with the thought that the quotations that were so loved until recently are part of the medieval rhetoric. I remember that Catholics quoted St. Maximus the Confessor about the purity of the faith of Rome. In response I quoted the same St. Maximus, who talks about the Constantinople Patriarch as the second Moses who leads the whole church. In response to the question “What is this?” was only one comment—the Byzantine rhetoric.

Most quotations about the Roman Catholics were denounced in advance and the discussion was only about the synonymous testimonies and demonstrative historical events. At the beginning it was successful to work on a text, which, for its unity with the Ravenna Document, looked entirely acceptable. Of course, it needed editorial corrections; in particular a series of clauses from the Ravenna Document needed to be added.

But here the dialogue met decisive opposition from Moscow. At the beginning Metropolitan Hilarion fought with John Zizioulas, and at the Vienna session he brought with him the number one expert in fighting with Roman and Constantinople theories of primacy by Professor Valentin Asmus. The dialogue reached a dead end; what to do is unclear.

A negative result is also a result. Today the Catholic Church is reinterpreting its attitude toward Moscow, and new chances are appearing for Kyiv. Before the Vienna negotiations such an understanding of the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church was spread among Catholics.  The patriarch sways from geopolitical conservatism and ecumenical liberalism. Conservatives from one side and liberals from the other are competing for influence on the patriarch. But the negotiations in Vienna proved that liberal groups next to the patriarch do not exist. Metropolitan Hilarion, in whom Catholics saw a leader of the liberals, turned out to be at best a moderate conservative. When ten years ago he waged a war with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, many said that the true Hilarion Alfeyev is the author of theological books, and the war with the holy person is a forced role. But today it is clear that the mask is liberal judgments in books, and the essence of the worldview of Metropolitan Hilarion is all the same conservatism. Even if moderate, it is completely firm and expressive.  

Destroying the work of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in Vienna, the Moscow Patriarchate demonstrated that the choice between the project of renewing the Russian World at any price and the ecumenical dialogue with Catholics is for the benefit of geopolitics. The Russian Orthodox Church chose a conservative policy, in the framework of which it will try to make the canonical territory of the ROC the only political space of the partly restored USSR.  Also, the ROC will try to increase its influence in the Orthodox Church, searching for compromising solutions to the accumulated problems together with Constantinople. But the renewing of the unity of the church of the first millennia is not a task the ROC will work on. Even if other Orthodox Churches will insist on the necessity of work in this direction, the ROC will occupy a “special position,” emerging from its conservatism. This conservatism consistent in its development and has already undergone three stages: the doctrine about the limitations in human rights (2007, 2008), renewing the ideology of the Russian Empire in the doctrine about the Russian World (2009), and hindrance in the dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholics (2010).

The realization that the imperialistic conservative ideology is the true face of the hierarchs of the ROC, and everything else is masks and roles, does not come easy to the Catholic world. Ukrainian Catholics were the first to understand this, and they proposed a paradoxical method to mend relations with the ROC. The more they fawn over the ROC, the more Moscow is open to a dialogue and prepared for real work. This paradox masterly described in the last part of the book by the vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University Myroslav Marynovych “The Ukrainian Christian Idea,” republished this year in the sixth volume of this collection of works.

The fascination with Moscow is passing. We hope that Rome will turn its attention to a few realities of Russia and Ukraine. On the territory of Russia there are close to 13 thousand Orthodox parishes. On the territory of Ukraine there are close to 17 thousand. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church also exists in Ukraine with over 4 thousand parishes. It seems that the voice of these communities does not matter for Rome or for Moscow. At the same time Kyiv, and not Moscow, is the center of the eastern-Orthodox civilization, if such a thing exists. From Kyiv, not from Moscow, one can expect new theological ideas and conceptions, which will be needed by the church in the 21st century. If Rome were also mindful of all the initiatives of the Greek Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine, as it is in Moscow, the prospects of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue would be entirely different.

Only having felt uneasy over the fact that the entire Orthodox world and even Ukraine has advanced its friendship with Catholics more than it did with Moscow, the ROC can return to the constructive theological dialogue, rejecting its current attempt to drive it into a dead end, so loved by the Russian conservatives.