Primacy Problem

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, head of the Joint International Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue, says obstacles remain in achieving fully unity between the two Churches.

Catholic-Orthodox relations have never been better in terms of friendship and a shared commitment to tackling the negative effects of secularism. Good relations between Pope Benedict XVI and the Patriarch of Moscow have energized relations, as has the Holy Father’s good rapport with other Orthodox leaders. Pockets of Orthodox opposition notwithstanding, he visited Cyprus at the invitation of the Orthodox archbishop of the country, Chrysostomos II.

Yet, when it comes to full communion between the two Churches, there is still some way to go. That’s according to Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, since 2006 the head of the Orthodox delegation in dialogue with the Catholic Church over the issue of full unity, the Joint International Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue.

Speaking with the Register in Rome, Metropolitan Zizioulas — a highly respected theologian said to be of one mind with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople — explained the chief obstacle to achieving full communion. He also discussed why closer relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican is a goal distinct from that of unity.

Your Eminence, at what stage is the theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches?

We are discussing now the primacy of the bishop of Rome, which is, in my view, the most difficult and crucial problem between the two Churches. We are doing that on the basis of our earlier agreement on the nature of the Church, in particular approaching it as a Eucharistic community. So the fundamental question is about the relationship between the local Church and the universal Church, where the priority lies.

Is the local Church part of the universal Church, or is the local Church in a sense a full Church?

Vatican II has made a step towards the ecclesiology which allows the local Church fullness and catholicity. So, on the basis of that, we are discussing primacy, because primacy is to be found at all levels: at the local Church, in regional Churches and at the universal level.

Some Church leaders have said that communion is not necessarily far away and could be achieved very soon. Apart from the issue of primacy and a few other obstacles, there is little that separates the two Churches. What do you say to that view?

The problem of primacy cannot be solved so quickly. It will take a very long time, because we are now discussing primacy in the first millennium, when the two Churches were not divided, and then we will move to the second millennium, where the differences are enormous.

Relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches appear to be improving. Do you see these good relations as also important in reaching full communion?

There have been problems between the Russian Church and the Vatican, but this is just limited to these two Churches. Constantinople has no problems with the Vatican of this kind. But this is not to do with the unity of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church — they are two different things. But with Kirill [patriarch of Moscow], there has been an improvement in relations between the Russian Church and the Vatican.

So, it’s not crucial at all to eventual union with the Orthodox?

No, I don’t think that affects the unity of the two Churches, because the Orthodox Church is not just the Russian Church. And even the Russians themselves would not go as far as to speak about the unity of the two Churches. There are improvements in relations of these two: for example, exchange of visits and that sort of thing. But Eucharistic unity, that is, full communion, cannot take place very soon.

Do you have an idea of how long it might take?

Only God knows, and only God can do that. We are working towards it, but we don’t know. As soon as we agree on these matters, which are to do with primacy mainly and also some Filioque questions [referring to the phrase “and the Son” which was added to the Nicene Creed in the Western Church — the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Eastern Churches objected to the change], then there’s no reason why we should not be in agreement, but this may take some time.

What is the next step?

We’re continuing this discussion on the primacy of the first millennium. We [the Joint Theological Commission] will meet in Vienna in September.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.