National Catholic Register


Church vs. Church vs. Church

Moscow-Constantinople Rift Complicates Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue



August 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 8/5/08 at 11:34 AM


Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a landmark visit, spent 10 days in Russia in late May. He delivered a positive assessment afterward regarding relations between Rome and Moscow, telling the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano of “many signs of reconciliation” between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches.

But concern about the status of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue arose following publication of a report in the June 5 issue of the Europaica Bulletin, which is published by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Office for Representation to the European Institutions.

The article quoted Cardinal Kasper as stating during his Moscow trip that, “We launched the dialogue with all Orthodox Churches and we won’t continue it without the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The Russian Orthodox Church pulled out of a major Catholic-Orthodox dialogue meeting last October in Ravenna, Italy, because of the participation of the Estonian Orthodox Church, which the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognizes but that the Russian Orthodox Church does not.

Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, denied Cardinal Kasper said the dialogue would be suspended.

“Cardinal Kasper did not say ‘will not continue’; the dialogue is governed by a set of rules agreed on at the beginning (1979-1980), which allow it to continue even in the absence of one or other of the autocephalous Churches,” Bishop Farrell told the Register via e-mail.

An autocephalous Church is self-governing, with its own patriarch and rules of canon law.

But Bishop Farrell added the dialogue process would be difficult if the Orthodox could not settle the question regarding the Estonian Orthodox Church.

“[Cardinal Kasper] merely underlined the fact that as long as there are tensions within the Orthodox world, the dialogue would suffer and become very difficult,” Bishop Farrell said. “It is our hope that the present difficulties between Constantinople and Moscow can be resolved.”

‘Half the Orthodox World’

The Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has continued in the past without the presence of one of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, said Father Ron Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The patriarchy of Jerusalem in the 1980s didn’t take part in any ecumenical meetings for a long time for their own reasons,” he noted.

However, Father Roberson added, “the Russian Orthodox is not just another Church. This is basically half the Orthodox world, and for the Russian patriarch [Alexy II] it is a personal issue. His parents are buried in Estonia, and he speaks Estonian.”

Estonia’s history is complex, and the religious situation is very complicated, Father Robeson said.

“Estonia was independent from the end of World War I to the end of World War II, when they came under Constantinople,” he said. “Stalin stirred the ethnic pot, with the end result being many ethnic Russians living [there].”

From their time under Constantinople, many Orthodox Estonians identify as Greek Orthodox, whereas ethnic Russians want to stay under Moscow’s authority.

Said Father Robeson, “It’s something we [the Catholic Church] can’t intervene in; they have to work it out among themselves.”

Chorbishop John Faris, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, agreed that the problem is an internal Orthodox one.

“We as Catholics — the other partner in the dialogue — cannot be of assistance,” he said. “To put it bluntly, it’s like having a dinner party with one couple who’s fighting: It’s going to be a little bit awkward.”

Nonetheless, the chorbishop (an Eastern Catholic auxiliary bishop or a member of the clergy ranked just below a bishop) reported that the ecumenical dialogue is in good shape otherwise.

“We’re going into another generation and making advances,” he said. “Real dialogue is taking place, which means you are trying to enter into the life of the other person, to be concerned about them and their welfare, and to argue for their rights and identity.”

Chorbishop Faris cited the ongoing sharing between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict XVI — for instance, when the former addressed the Pope on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29 — as exemplary. “Despite the problems we face, there’s a wonderful affection,” he said.

Orthodox Perspectives

Father Mark Arey, ecumenical officer of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, said that a strong fraternal fellowship continues to exist among the Orthodox, despite the dispute regarding the Estonian Orthodox Church.

“We’re a family of churches. The respect and the love between Moscow and Constantinople is unmistakable. We’re not talking about petty people; we’re talking about deep respect for each other’s positions.”

Part of the Greek Orthodox delegation for an official visit to Moscow in May, Father Arey recalled being profoundly moved when serving liturgy with the Russian Patriarch. “It’s a tremendous moment when Alexy II holds up the gifts and first remembers the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople,” he said.

Such an occasion illustrates what Father Arey called “emergent ecclesiastical diplomacy.”

Said Father Arey, “Not all diplomacy takes place in front of the cameras.”

The Russian Orthodox Church may have offered a way out of the impasse in late June. An official resolution of the Russian Orthodox Bishops’ Council on June 27 has requested that the Orthodox Church of America and seven other churches Moscow recognizes be allowed to be represented at inter-Orthodox meetings.

The Orthodox Church of America traces its roots to Russian Orthodox missionaries in late 18th-century Alaska and was recognized as autocephalous by Moscow in 1970.

However, its autocephaly remains in dispute, said Father Leonid Kishkovsky, director of external affairs of the Orthodox Church of America.

“One third [of the Orthodox] recognizes us; one third is neutral and existentially friendly; and one third is hostile: Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Greece, and Cyprus,” said Father Kishkovsky. “They subscribe to the thesis that all Orthodox outside the traditional territory — the diaspora — belong by right to Constantinople.”

But since Constantinople recognizes the Estonian Orthodox and has invited representatives to inter-Orthodox meetings, the resolution from Moscow is seen as a counter-proposal requesting equal privileges for Churches it recognizes but Constantinople does not.

“Certainly Moscow is putting forward the pieces,” said Father Kishkovsky. “At the moment we’re sitting quietly and observing.”

Stephen Mirarchi

writes from Tampa, Florida.