Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue

by Very Rev. Dr. Harry Linsinbigler

Scripture describes ecclesial division as harmful to Christ’s flock, and something that requires correction (1 Cor. 1.10-13; 12.25). The continued absence of full communion between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church–each comprised of local Churches that together in the first millennium formed a single communion of Christ’s Holy Body–is a sorrowful reality that inhibits a united Christian witness to the world.  The non-Christian world, however, does not have to look far to find Christian writers “satisfied” with the status quo.

The Church itself, however, has not been satisfied with the detached communion of hundreds of millions of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. While some who oppose the dialogue might point to various synodical documents of the 19th century to support their viewpoint, they cannot ignore the parts of those documents that actually support the dialogue. For example, in the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1895, we read that “every Christian heart ought to be filled with longing for union of the Churches,” and that the “whole Orthodox world…ardently longs for the unity of the Churches in the one rule of faith…”  “Agreeable, therefore, to this sacred longing, our orthodox Church of Christ is always ready to accept any proposal of union…” that is absent of doctrinal “novelties” (Article 3).

The Encyclical of 1895 recognizes and laments the “sad division of the Churches of East and West” (Article 3). Within just a short span, this document, lauded by those who oppose rapprochement, recognizes not only that those in the West are “Churches,” but there should be a “union” of the “Churches” with the Orthodox! “The union of the separated Churches with herself in one rule of faith is, as has been said before, a sacred and inward desire of the holy, catholic and orthodox apostolic Church of Christ; but without such unity in the faith, the desired union of the Churches becomes impossible” (Article 4).

The Encyclical of 1848, written in response to Pope Pius IX’s letter to those of the East, mentions “Rome herself” and “the West generally” among the “Christian nations…that are today calling upon the name of Christ” (Article 21).  It speaks of “other Christian Communions” (Articles 13, cf. Article 21), thereby recognizing them as truly Christian. The Orthodox hierarchs hope for reconciliation with Rome, yet “not with haste, but with ‘mature consideration.’” Nevertheless, the Patriarchal Synods hope that the “middle wall of partition…be taken away in the time of his Holiness…” that is, within their lifetime, and even while Pius IX himself is still alive—not delaying for decades or centuries! This shall be achieved in every necessary instance “after consultation with the more wise, religious, truth-loving, and prudent of the Bishops, Theologians, and Doctors, to be found at the present day, by God’s good Providence, in every nation of the West.” They are not pseudo-bishops or pseudo-theologians, as some today would claim it. The encyclical furthermore prays that the Pope take up his position as upholder of the Orthodox Faith that he may “strengthen us, his brethren, still more in the Orthodoxy Confession…and [we] would that the pope might be this true successor to the blessed Peter!” (Article 12).

The Encyclical of 1848 also states that the prayer of Christ for the “common love and unity of Christians in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church…works in us no less than in His Holiness.” (Article 12). Neither the Fathers nor the present Orthodox hierarchy “deny her [Rome] canonical privilege in the rank of the hierarchy, so long as she was guided purely by the doctrines of the Fathers, walking by the plain rule of Scripture and the holy Synods” (Article 13).  Yet even before any such union, the Encyclical refers to the popes of the middle ages as “Bishop of Old Rome” (Article 8), to Pius IX as the “present Bishop of Rome” (Article 10) and as “His Holiness the Pope” (Article 11).

In this document, the phrases “the Catholic Church” and “the Orthodox Church” are used interchangeably referring to the Orthodox Church as the Church of Christ. The Fathers of 1848 expect Pope Pius IX to write “a work” that will not only reunite Rome and the Orthodox Church, but also win Protestants and thus be “a work that will unite” all of “the churches of the West to the holy Catholic Church” (Article 16). “Therefore let the Pope be assured, that if, even now” he will write to affirm such things as two hundred Bishops on investigation find in agreement with the seven Ecumenical Councils, then “he shall hear from us sinners today, not only ‘Peter has so spoken’…but this also, ‘Let the holy hand be kissed which has wiped away the tears of the Catholic Church.’” (Article 15).  If this be the case in response to a Pope that at the time called us schismatics and even heretics, should it not be all-the-more applicable now, when the Roman Catholic Church sees the authentic Church within the gates of the Orthodox Church?  Then it did not esteem us and our Liturgies, but now it recognizes the practices and beliefs of the Orthodox Church to be authentically that of the Church of Christ.  Can we, in good conscience, turn away the approach of a billion Christians that draw near to us, whose leaders encourage their people to learn the riches of Orthodoxy as being part of their own heritage?

The Encyclical of 1895 states that “for the practical realization of the pious longing for the union of the Churches, a common principle and basis must be settled first of all,” and thus both “must search what the one holy, catholic and orthodox apostolic Church of Christ, being then ‘of the same body,’ through the East and West believed, and to hold this fact, entire and unaltered” (Article 5). The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has thus far been committed to this process as described above, and we pray that they continue on this course. May their synergy be God-centered, their course God-driven, and the denouement God-inspired.

Very Rev. Dr. Harry Linsinbigler is Adjunct Instructor of Theology at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary in South Bound Brook, New Jersey and priest at Holy Protection Orthodox Church in Dover, Florida.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

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