National Catholic Register


Catholic-Orthodox (Pipe)Dream?

Archbishop Hilarion Expounds on Roman-Russian Unity

BY Edward Pentin

Register Correspondent

October 18-24, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/9/09 at 5:01 PM


Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk is a rising star in the Russian Orthodox Church. Only 43 and an accomplished scholar, liturgist and composer, earlier this year he was appointed head of the Church’s external relations (effectively their foreign minister), replacing Metropolitan Kirill, who was elected Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox in January.

In mid-September, Archbishop Hilarion made his first visit to Rome in his new capacity. In an extensive e-mail interview Oct. 5, the archbishop discusses that visit, recent speculation that Catholic-Orthodox union could be imminent, and the challenges in furthering the current dialogue.

How happy have you been with your visit to Rome, and what has it achieved in terms of furthering Catholic-Orthodox unity?

It was my first official visit to Rome as chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Affairs, and I am satisfied with its results. First, it was a very eventful visit. For the few days I spent in Rome, I met with Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and leaders of various units of the Roman Curia.

In addition, I met with the president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Archbishop Beniamino Stella, and leaders of the famous Catholic lay movement, the Community of St. Egidio.

All the meetings were held in a very constructive spirit, which testifies to a real interest the both sides have in the fruitful development of bilateral dialogue between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.

In the course of my talks with Roman Catholic leaders, emphasis was made on the importance of common witness that the Orthodox and the Catholics bear to traditional Christian values in the face of the secular world, since the positions held by the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches on such burning issues of today as family, motherhood, population crisis, euthanasia and many others, coincide.

The meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal [Walter] Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, focused on the problems and prospects of theological dialogue between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches.

The next plenary session of the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Commission for Theological Dialogue will take place this [month] in Cyprus, in which a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church will participate, as well.

Is this a new chapter in Catholic-Orthodox relations with the election of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and your appointment as president of the Department for External Church Affairs?

It would be premature as yet to speak about “a new chapter” in Orthodox-Catholic relations in view of the election of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. Under his predecessor, His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, cooperation between the two Churches developed quite intensively in cultural and social areas, in inter-Christian dialogue, on the level of international organizations, etc. So, I would not speak about “a new chapter,” but rather about a consistent continuation of the policy that was already elaborated under the previous patriarch.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, who is well aware of the present situation in the Catholic Church and conversant with her present leadership, gives considerable attention to Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, and it cannot but play an important role in developing bilateral relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.

Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow was recently very optimistic about Catholic-Orthodox unity, saying it could possibly happen in a matter of months. What is your reaction to Archbishop Pezzi’s words, and what is your analysis of the current progress towards reunification?

I would be more cautious with regard to progress towards unity between the two Churches. Yes, I agree that the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches have a common understanding on issues concerning social and economic ethics, personal morality, family, bioethics and other topical issues facing the modern society.

This agreement enables our Churches already now to bear common witness to Christian ideals in the face of the secular world. A perfect unity between Churches however presupposes first of all harmony in faith, and here the situation appears to me to be more complicated.

The Joint Commission for Orthodox-Catholic Theological Dialogue now begins discussing the most important issue — though not the only one that divides the Catholics and the Orthodox — concerning the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the universal Church.

Unlike Archbishop Pezzi, I do not think we can reach a perfect agreement on this point in a matter of a few months. I have already had to point out that the problem of primacy within the universal Church has not been settled even within the world Orthodoxy.

It will considerably impede progress in the Orthodox-Catholic discussion on this problem. In the course of the dialogue, we can only reaffirm our ecclesiological self-understanding, and we are not entitled to invent some new ecclesiology to bring the order of the Orthodox Church closer to the Catholic model.

The official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has been lasting for 30 years now, and its achievements are obvious. However, it has a number of essential flaws. The principal among them I believe is a tendency of both parties to discuss what brings them together rather than what divides them. Each session of the dialogue is aimed at working out a statement in which both sides tend to smooth away their differences as far as possible, as if making believe that these differences do not exist at all. This results in the emergence of a “convergence statement,” which can be read by each side as it wishes while differences remain, as it were, offscreen, being glossed over, leveled out and hushed up.

If ecclesiological differences between East and West are not stated honestly and examined thoroughly, what unity can we speak about?

Therefore, we will continue serious theological dialogue in a responsible, honest and unhurried way for the sake of the triumph of Truth. We will go deeper into the history and Church tradition of each other, getting rid of mutual prejudices and stereotypes which have developed for a millennium-long division between Christians in East and West. After all, we will work together in the social sphere, bearing witness before the modern society to the Gospel’s eternal Truth.

How much is papal primacy a significant obstacle?

A different understanding of the primacy of the pope of Rome in East and West was one of the reasons which ultimately led to a division between the Western and Eastern Churches. Already at the time of ecumenical councils, a theory of the “divine right” of the bishop of Rome as the successor of St. Peter appeared in the West, claiming his primacy in the Church of Christ. Moreover, with time this primacy was increasingly understood as the right of the bishop of Rome to exercise direct jurisdiction over other local Churches.

And the events of 1054 were caused, not in the least measure, by the Western Church spokesmen’s belief in the universal legal primacy of the pope of Rome.

The Catholic understanding of primacy, once a cause of Church division, led the Western Church, in the course of her millennium-long existence without communion with the Orthodox East, to adopt new one-sided doctrines unacceptable from the perspective of Orthodox tradition.

It becomes clear in this light how important the issue of the bishop of Rome’s primacy is in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. It is because of its central importance that the Joint Theological Commission came to discuss it as late as 30 years after an official dialogue between the two Churches began. I believe the discussion on this problem will not be easy due to the theological and canonical tradition that has established itself in the Roman Catholic Church with regard to the Western understanding of primacy.

The both sides of the dialogue have to be ready to undertake a common patient study of the problem of primacy in order to come at long last to an agreement in the Truth.

How significant are past prejudices in preventing unity?

As is known, mutual prejudices, including nontheological ones, served in their time as not the least causes of the division. Thus, representatives of the Eastern Church in their anti-Latin polemic used to reproach Western Christians for shaving beards, fasting on Saturdays, celebrating on unleavened bread and similar ritual peculiarities of the Western Church.

The Latins, in their turn, would denounce the Eastern Christians’ married clergy and celebration on leavened bread, etc.

Unfortunately, the long time of division saw the emergence of new prejudices often brought about by the “historical memory” of grievances over unjust actions of the other Church. It takes time to overcome such prejudices as well as reciprocal practical steps to show unequivocally that these prejudices do not reflect the true state of affairs.

It is my conviction that the better our knowledge of each other and the life of our Churches, the fewer the prejudices that prevent us from establishing good relations.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.