Progress in improving Catholic-Orthodox relations

As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, it’s important to take stock of what it has meant for the People of God and Christ’s continued incarnational presence in the world. One of the areas which has been most fruitfully developed in the wake of the council is that of ecumenism, the bridge-building efforts within Christianity. Prime among these efforts is the strengthening of the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christ’s church, and their shared treasury of witness to the Risen Lord.

Serious scholarly studies have made clear that the “Great Schism” which took place between the Western and Eastern communities of disciples in 1054 A.D. stemmed from a variety and confluence of complex causes: theological, social, historical and psychological.

Fierce debates over the Filioque (“and the Son”) clause being added to the creed to explain the spiration/procession of the Holy Spirit, acrimonious accusations surrounding practical concerns like liturgical use of leavened versus unleavened bread, and the Western crusaders’ despicable behavior during the Sack of Constantinople, all left horrible scars which are not fully healed even a millennium later.

But perhaps more than any other issue, differing interpretations of the Petrine office and the Bishop of Rome’s spiritual, juridical and (eventually) temporal governance, contributed to the hardening of hearts and minds against one another. The ecclesiological situation remains a scandal and wound for the church that Christ explicitly prayed “may be one, as the Father and Son are one” (cf. Jn 17).

Yet the thawing of relations which took place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, continues to inch us closer toward the church being able to once again breathe with both lungs, as Pope John Paul II famously put it. The monumental efforts of Pope John XXIII in inviting Orthodox observers to the council, and in Pope Paul VI’s returning relics (like those of Saints Saba, Titus, Andrew and Mark) to their rightful homes were matched in the “dialogue of love” by the opening of the Eastern Patriarchs, like Athenagoras and Dimitrios, toward their sister church in thought, prayer and deed.

Pope Francis recently added his own striking gesture to this tradition of exchange, humbly asking for a blessing and bowing to be fraternally kissed on the crown of his head by Patriarch Bartholomew at the conclusion of a shared doxology service in Turkey.

We are not on the verge of full reconciliation, despite these efforts, not only of Francis, but of his collaborators and immediate predecessors as well, all of whom insist that the relationship with the East is a serious priority.

Serious issues remain. But the re-envisioning of what a united church, and the pope’s role within it, could look like — whether it employs the language of primus inter pares (first among equals) or some other re-ordering of the Roman Church’s synodal relationship with the others in the original Pentarchy (Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) — remains to be fully worked out by theologians on both sides of the divide.

John Paul II called for help from any interested parties in this project of rethinking the papal office in his important encyclical Ut Unum Sint. When read in juxtaposition with Pius XI’s Mortalium Animos, and even more so some of the writings of Pius IX, documents which were products of their cultural eras and mindsets, it becomes clear just how far-reaching the recent popes have been in their thinking on potential paths forward and how far we have come in our quest for unity.

This is by no means an insignificant conversation (and potential mutual “conversion” in heart and intellect), considering the fact that there are by most estimates over 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. In a time when so many Christians feel under threat from all sorts of quarters, or at the very least believe that the world is in dire need of exhibiting the witness of the Gospel to offer Christ as the answer to both our most ominous fears and our deepest longings, a stronger relationship with the Orthodox can only help that most admirable of causes.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.

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