Friday, May 22, 2015

The Two Lungs of God’s Revelation: The Current State of Catholic/Orthodox Ecumenism

The current state of ecumenism between the Catholic Church and representatives from a multitude of diverse faiths could not have been predicted even one-hundred years ago. Singular among the organizations who
have taken issue with the Catholic Church over the last two-thousand years is the Eastern Orthodox Church. Soon after the end of the first millennium, political and theological circumstances led to the unfortunate and calamitous schism between the Churches of the East and West. This wound to the body of Christ would not be the last, but it has been the most long-standing. There are multiple calls to unity among God’s people in Scripture. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle made his case for unity through Word of God: “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (NRSVC, 1 Cor. 1:10). The Gospel according to John recounts that as Jesus ascended into heaven he petitioned God for the unity of his Church: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (NRSVC, Jn 17:11). With all of this in mind, the Second Vatican Council renewed the quest for ecumenical dialogue between the Church and her estranged brethren. While there are those who oppose these discussions, there is little denying that the current environment between the Churches of the East and West are closer than they have been in centuries. In order to gain a better understanding of the present climate of ecumenism between the Church in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church we must consider the theological issues at hand, the persons involved, and the documents produced from the dialogue. Before we delve into how these discussions have developed since the end of the Second Vatican Council, we must first take a brief look at what caused the initial separation.

The fracturing of the Catholic Church into other denominations has been referred to as “wounds to unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 817). By their very nature, wounds are not surgical, and are, therefore traumatic, messy, and painful. The Schism that caused the wounds to the Church have scabbed over and scarred, but the evidence of harm remains. Fortunately, Christ is “The Great Physician”, and, as such, tends to our “wounds”. As with any organization, there has been a degree of infighting within the Church since its inception. The major political and theological disagreements that plague the Church have traditionally been addressed either at councils, by local bishops, or, ultimately, the Bishop of Rome. Unfortunately, as the whole of Christendom grew, so did the political aspect of the Church’s hierarchy. Heretical sects were numerous and problematic. “In the effort to settle heresies which were rending the empire asunder, emperors seriously tried to bring about reconciliation… in their efforts to suppress heresy… called all the first councils… [and] would continue to be a constant third party disturbing Christian harmony between East and West” (Bausch 172). This empirical meddling complicated relations between the see of Rome, which had an agreed upon primacy, and the see of Constantinople, which was the political seat of the Empire. While there had always been liturgical and traditional differences between the two geographical locations, they had not been divisive enough to indicate a break. Theologically, it was the inclusion of the filioque to the Creed that has caused the most dissension. “The Orthodox churches of the East have remained fiercely attached to the language of the Constantinopolitan creed, while the Latin church unilaterally inserted the term filioque, by which it affirmed that the Spirit PROCEEDS FROM THE FATHER AND THE SON, not simply from the Father” (Marthaler 248). While this had been contentious for quite some time, and undoubtedly colors Eastern and Western approaches to the Trinity, it was nearly five-hundred years before additional political tensions merited the type of opposition that would lead to schism. As time passed political affiliations waxed and waned, as did the influence of Rome and Constantinople. Questions of Papal primacy and jurisdiction grew. Hordes of invading Normans and Muslims only served to complicate the matter. The political split between Constantinople and Rome finally came in the form of the mutual excommunications of 1054. The East had appealed to the West in an attempt to bolster their forces against these invading forces, and it seemed that diplomatic relations between the East and West were at their highest point in decades. Unfortunately, both Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, sought to have each opposing church bend to the customs and will of the other in order to make this alliance possible. They both refused. “The ultimate result was that on July 16, 1054, the Cardinal [Humbert] publicly delivered the bull of excommunication to Cerularius. In turn, an Eastern synod condemned the Western ‘heresy’ and excommunicated the cardinal and his associates” (Bausch 178).While there have been several unsuccessful attempts at reunion since this event, it was seen as the point in which conflict had reached critical mass. Until the Second Vatican Council here had been very little ecumenical dialogue since the Council of Florence in 1452 (Bausch 180).

Following a half century of harrowing World Wars, a war of another type was to be the background upon which a new era of interfaith dialogue would emerge. Prior to the close of the Second Vatican Council, in the midst of the Cold War, Pope Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in Jerusalem. The momentousness of this encounter cannot be understated. Vatican II was reaching its conclusion, and the renewed focus on ecumenism was a central issue. Together, these two leaders prayed, exchanged gifts, and created an environment favorable to ecumenical dialogue that the East and the West had not enjoyed in centuries. “As a direct result of their meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I came to issue, on December 7, 1965, the day before the end of Vatican Council II, the of their Common Declarations officially lifting the joint excommunications which had been issued… in 1054 (Whitehead 57). They would meet once again in 1967; promulgating yet another joint statement concerning the state of Catholic/Orthodox dialogue. These meetings between the Bishop of Rome and Orthodox Patriarchs continue to this day. One of the most influential Vatican Documents detailing the nature of ecumenical dialogue was Unitatis Redintegratio. With this decree, the council put forth the principles by which the Church hoped to proceed ecumenically with diverse ecclesial communities. The document makes “Special Consideration of the Eastern Churches” and seeks to inform the method by which unity is achieved: “It is the Council's urgent desire that, in the various organizations and living activities of the Church, every effort should be made toward the gradual realization of this unity, especially by prayer, and by fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time” (Unitatis Redintegratio 18). The Pope has the ability to speak on behalf of the Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, is conciliar and does not have a central authority. That being the case, Pope John Paul II’s meeting with Bartholomew I in 1979 resulted in the commissioning of a joint committee, The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, by which ecumenical dialogue would continue and issue cooperative statements. “Bartholomew I was essential… in getting fourteen national Orthodox Churches to participate in the renewed dialogue conducted by The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church” (Whitehead 194). Together with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, these fourteen autocephalous churches have promoted ecumenical dialogue and released numerous statements spanning over thirty years. Many important documents were produced by this commission prior to the end of the millennia were. 1982’s The Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, concerns the commonality we share in the Holy Eucharist, and the authority by which it is presented by both the churches of the East and West. In 1988 the commission released a document that detailed Eastern and Western stances on hierarchy, authority, and apostolic succession. This document addresses issues that have been historically divisive; such as Papal primacy and the conciliar nature of the Eastern Church (The Sacrament of Order 55). 1993 saw the promulgation of a different type of joint document altogether. Whereas the previous documents had been, for the most part, positive; Uniatism: Method of Union of the Past, and Present Search for Full Communion, was primarily negative in tone. This document deals with the conversion of certain Oriental Orthodox Churches to Catholicism. Representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that this was done:
In the course of the last four centuries, in various parts of the East, initiatives were taken within certain Churches and impelled by outside elements, to restore communion between the Church of the East and the Church of the West. These initiatives led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their Mother Churches of the East. This took place not without the interference of extraecclesial interests. In this way Oriental Catholic Churches came into being. And so a situation was created which has become a source of conflicts and of suffering in the first instance for the Orthodox but also for Catholics (Uniatism 8).
While it is clear that the hope for unity continues, the path by which this is achieved is highly contested. Fortunately, the post-millennial search for communion continues despite bumps in the road.
The new century has born witness to a multitude of substantial moments within the Catholic Church. We have seen the death and canonization Pope John Paul II. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has become the first Pope to resign from office in nearly six-hundred years. The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, makes him the first pontiff from the Americas. In keeping with these groundbreaking developments, much has happened in the way of ecumenism over the last fifteen years. Fortuitously, the eighth plenary session in, Baltimore, Maryland, recognized both the history of the ecumenical movement while also looking to the future: “This year, 2000 years after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Joint International Commission celebrates the 20th anniversary of the beginning of its work at Patmos and Rhodes in 1980. It is a beautiful opportunity to thank God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - for what has been accomplished together during these two decades” (Communiqué ). In an encouraging show of support by the Church, Pope John Paul II, only months from death, returned the relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (Whitehead 63). Bartholomew I, whose ecumenical agenda had not slowed since his installation in the early nineties, met with Pope Benedict XVI in late 2006 to discuss the state of both Churches and the world in which they reside. The Levant, and the area surrounding it, has been embroiled by violence for over 2000 years. Woefully, the wars rage on. “We take profoundly to heart the cause of peace in the Middle East, where our Lord lived, suffered, died and rose again, and where a great multitude of our Christian brethren have lived for centuries. We fervently hope that peace will be re-established in that region, that respectful coexistence will be strengthened between the different peoples that live there” (Common Declaration 5). Despite the convivial nature of these meetings, the need to also address issues that continue to be divisive is crucial. 2007 found the dialogue once again turning toward the question of Papal authority and primacy versus Orthodox sobornost: “It remains for the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches to be studied in greater depth. What is the specific function of the bishop of the ‘first see’ in an ecclesiology of koinonia and in view of what we have said on conciliarity and authority in the present text?” (Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity, and Authority 45). The thirteenth of March 2013 joyfully marked an ecumenical first since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attended the inauguration of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. In May of 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the institution of modern ecumenical dialogue between the East and West, Pope Francis and the (ever present) Bartholomew I met in Jerusalem to discuss peace and humanity:
United in our intentions, and recalling the example, fifty years ago here in Jerusalem, of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, we call upon all Christians, together with believers of every religious tradition and all people of good will, to recognize the urgency of the hour that compels us to seek the reconciliation and unity of the human family, while fully respecting legitimate differences, for the good of all humanity and of future generations. In undertaking this shared pilgrimage to the site where our one same Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and rose again, we humbly commend to the intercession of the Most Holy and Ever Virgin Mary our future steps on the path towards the fullness of unity, entrusting to God's infinite love the entire human family (Pilgrimage to the Holy Land 9-10).
In the light of all that has happened, and with the lengthy history of separation, it would be difficult to predict where these dialogues may go. On the one hand the prospect of reunification seems remote. With nearly one-thousand years of opposition behind us, fifty years of real ecumenical dialogue seems negligible. However, Jesus Christ only walked the Earth for thirty three years, three and a half of which, according to scripture, were active ministry. In this small amount of time he: rebukes Satan, draws apostles, turns water to wine, drives the moneychangers from the temple, walks on water, feeds the multitudes, heals the sick, and raises the dead. He does all of this before saving the souls of all humanity on the cross! The point is, I firmly believe that through Christ anything is possible. More than anything, I believe this is possible because he wills it. When and where this will happen is up for debate. What is certain is that the pride and ego that permeates man’s heart must take a back seat to the movement of the Holy Spirit within these ecumenical dialogues. The Church is the Body of Christ; and, as with any body, a fully functioning healthy body has the ability to reach its full potential. As Pope John Paul II was fond of saying: “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Ut Unum Sint 54).

Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica. 2nd ed. NewYork: Doubleday, 1997. Print.

John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint: On Commitment to Ecumenism. The Holy See, n.d.Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Communiqué: Emmitsburg- Baltimore USA, July 9-19, 2000. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I (July 1, 2004). The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Common Declaration by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (25 May, 2014). The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity, and Authority. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I at the conclusion of the visit of the Pope to the Phanar [30 November 1979]. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The Sacrament of Order in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, with Particular Reference to the Importance of the Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Uniatism: Method of Union of the Past, and Present Search for Full Communion. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

Marthaler, Berard. The Creed. 2nd ed. Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty Third Publications, 1993. Print.
New Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha. 4th ed. Ed. Coogan, Michael D. Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Orthodox Roman Catholic International Dialogue. The Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of 1965. The Holy See, n.d. Web. 9 May 2015.

Whitehead, K. D. The New Ecumenism: How the Catholic Church After Vatican II Took Over the Leadership of the World Ecumenical Movement. Staten Island, N.Y.: St. Pauls/Alba House, 2009. Print.

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