Primacy theme of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue

The Orthodox Church News Magazine
Editorial of Nativity/Theophany 2007
Volume 43

“The Orthodox Church” News Magazine
Editorial of Nativity/Theophany 2007
Volume 43

In the aftermath of a high-level and official Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue held in Ravenna, Italy, October 8-14, 2007, news reports and commentaries described the results of the meeting as a common agreement that the bishop of Rome has primacy in the universal Church, both East and West. This led some to conclude that the Orthodox participants in the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church had agreed that the Orthodox Churches had submitted to the rule of the Pope.

The reality is different—at the same time simpler and more complicated. There is, and always has been, an Orthodox consensus that the bishop of Rome holds a primacy of honor among all the patriarchs and bishops of the Christian West and the Christian East—when there is no schism between Rome and the Orthodox Churches. When the unity of the Christian West and the Christian East was lost (approximately in the 11th century), the primacy of honor among the Orthodox Churches passed on to Constantinople, where it remains.

Thus, from the Orthodox point of view, the primacy which the bishop of Rome has depends on the full unity of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. For the Orthodox, unity comes before primacy.

Another dimension of the discussion of primacy is the understanding and definition of the nature of primacy. During the centuries preceding the separation of the Church of Rome and the Eastern Churches, there was not much clarity about the nature and content of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. This lack of definition and clarity was evident both in the Christian East and in the Christian West. One of the causes of the separation between Rome and the Eastern Churches was the emergence of in-creasingly precise claims and teachings about the authority of the bishop of Rome. The more definite the claims for papal authority became, the less inclined were the Eastern Churches to accept these claims. The depth and extent of the claims of papal powers and authority continued to increase after the schism of the 11th century, making the restoration of unity more and more difficult.

The title of the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission’s statement at Ravenna is “Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority.” It is a good and meaningful development that theologians representing the Catholic and Orthodox churches are reflecting together on the nature of the Church. Two points have been rightly made about the Ravenna meeting. The first point—it is a good and hopeful sign that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are able today to affirm together the principle of universal primacy. The second point—the Ravenna statement is a modest step, and much remains to be done.

At Ravenna, a dispute between the Churches of Constantinople and Moscow led to the withdrawal of the Moscow delegation from the Ravenna meeting. The occasion for the dispute was the presence of a delegation from the Estonian Orthodox Church, which is associated with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. There is a larger Orthodox Church in Estonia which is associated with the Patriarchate of Moscow. Before the Russian Revolution and after the end of World War II, the Orthodox Church in Estonia was fully within the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The acute dispute over Orthodoxy in Estonia emerged in the 1990s, when part of the Orthodox community in Estonia was accepted by Constantinople. For a relatively short time, the Patriarchate of Moscow stopped commemorating the Ecumenical Patriarch, signaling a temporary break in communion. What emerged eventually was a tacit peace, with two Orthodox Churches in Estonia existing in parallel. From the Moscow point of view, Constantinople’s invitation to one of the Churches in Estonia transgressed against the status quo.

The withdrawal of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Catholic-Orthodox meeting in Ravenna causes awkward complications for the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue process. On the one hand, the procedures of this dialogue have acknowledged that the absence of one or several Orthodox Churches does not stop the process or invalidate its results. On the other hand, the absence of the Moscow Patriarchate—the largest Orthodox Church, with many millions of adherents—puts into question the effectiveness and practical results of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Another dimension of the withdrawal of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Ravenna meeting—ironically—shows again that there are significant unresolved questions within the Orthodox Church. Even as the Catholic-Orthodox statement on “Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority” was being composed at Ravenna, the dispute between Constantinople and Moscow demonstrated that the balance between conciliarity and primacy articulated in the Orthodox teaching on the nature of the Church is not easily found in practice.