Progress: Benedict and Bartholomew to Meet Again

VATICAN CITY — In what theologians are describing as a highly significant gesture, Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople are considering a proposal to attend the next round of joint Catholic-Orthodox theological discussions in 2007.

According to sources at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the two leaders are examining the possibility of personally opening the next session of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint International Theological Commission, expected to be held in Ravenna, Italy.

The panel of 60 experts has become the focus for improved Catholic-Orthodox relations after a successful meeting in Belgrade in September — the first time members of the commission had met in six years.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, one of the Orthodox co-chairmen of the commission, said Dec. 7 that details had not yet been finalized but “there is a will on both sides.”

Metropolitan Zizioulas said the presence of the Pope and the ecumenical patriarch, who is regarded as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, would be “very significant,” as it would demonstrate the significance both men attach to the dialogue.

Metropolitan Zizioulas said it would also give members of the commission “moral support” and offer the Holy Father and Patriarch Bartholomew “the opportunity to put some questions to us, which would be a very good thing.”

According to sources at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the proposal was made by Bartholomew during Benedict’s recent visit to Istanbul. The Pope has reportedly approved it in principle and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is also thought to support the idea.

The joint commission was suspended for six years (2000-2006) after members failed to bridge the gap on key differences, particularly regarding the status of the Eastern  Catholic Churches that reached full communion with Rome in the 16th century.

Under Stalinist rule, these Churches suffered repression and their property and congregations were placed into the custody of the Orthodox Church. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern-rite Catholics pressed forcefully for restitution of their churches and property.

In the ensuing disputes that arose, Catholics were accused of aggression and proselytizing among the Orthodox by leaders of the Orthodox Church, particularly Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II.

As well, the Orthodox have always regarded the formation of Eastern Catholic Churches, which they refer to as “Uniate Churches,” as a grave historical injustice that created a permanent wound in the Orthodox Church.

“The Unia has brought about new divisions, tearing the One Body of the Orthodox Church,” the Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church declared in a 1997 statement. “The four centuries of its maintenance have revealed it as a dangerous form of proselytism against Orthodoxy.”

Despite the commission’s restart, the issue remains a point of contention.

As recently as Dec. 5, Patriarch Alexei renewed the accusation of “proselytism” and complained of what he described as the “extremely unfriendly policy” of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, denied the allegations, saying that relations with the Russian Orthodox Church were “sufficiently good” and that visits and discussions were continuing.

Another contentious issue revolves around the exercise of papal authority and the nature of the Petrine ministry. Despite the suspension of the commission’s work, however, some significant advances have been made in this area thanks to a Catholic-Orthodox symposium in 2003 hosted by Cardinal Kasper.

The symposium noted a greater openness to a papal “ministry of unity” in today’s fragmented world. And some participants, most notably Metropolitan John, spoke favorably of a “universal primacy” that the Orthodox Churches could accept as long as it did not undermine the ecclesiological integrity of any local church.

Hopes have been raised of further progress on these sticking points due to Benedict’s high standing among Orthodox leaders. Despite their opposition to his decision earlier this year to drop the papal title of “Patriarch of the West,” many of them esteem him as a theologian.

They also note that, as a German, Benedict is without the historical baggage that hampered Pope John Paul II, as a Pole, in his dealings with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Vatican officials are cautiously optimistic about the dialogue.

“It’s always good to remember that it’s only been 40 years that the Churches have been open to each other,” said one official. “Not everything is going to be clear in a short time.”

The official acknowledged the “great gestures and signs” of the meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, but added, “We need time and patience, and they also with us — it’s reciprocal.”

Father Bernard Albertrauch, director of the Ostkirchliche Institut (Eastern Church Institute) in Regensburg, Germany, believes the presence of Benedict and Bartholomew would be an important gesture but not vital to furthering Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

“We are essentially one Church already, we’re sister Churches — it’s not like relations with the Protestants,” he said.

After working on Catholic-Orthodox relations for 40 years, Father Albertrauch looks for incremental progress rather than dramatic breakthroughs.

“I don’t hope for anything special except to draw nearer and nearer towards a dialogue of life,” he said. “In the Church, things are not for television but for the heart, so we look more at a dialogue of life, of living together, facing the good and difficult things of life together, rather than placing too much significance on ‘spectacular’ meetings.”

                    Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.