On September 21st, at the end of its plenary session in Chieti, Italy, the “Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church” adopted a joint document titled “Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church.“ This might seem to mark progress in the relations between both Churches. However, there are more important issues in the background of these relations which are not addressed at all, or at least neglected. One could argue that the Commission’s work is instead encumbered much more by inner-Orthodox tensions, and by a misperception of the stumbling blocks between both Churches, than by the theological differences themselves. Therefore, since it misses important issues, it cannot easily achieve progress in inter-church relations.
The previous document adopted by the very same group after its meeting in Ravenna (Italy) in 2007 was named “Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church. Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority.” The Ravenna document deals with the topic of synodality and primacy during the first millennium, the same topic that was again treated now in Chieti. This strange phenomenon is indicative of the state of the official dialogue between both Churches, which is marked to a high degree by inner-Orthodox tensions between the Ecumenical and the Moscow patriarchates.
Great hope was once put in this dialogue. When the Joint Commission was established in 1979, and after the publication of its first documents, there was much enthusiasm about the theological depth of the texts. However, when after the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches (the “Uniates”), which were suppressed in almost all communist countries, could re-emerge again, and when many formerly Orthodox believers joined them, the Orthodox Churches regarded this development as an aggressive act by the Catholic Church, and suspended all talks that would not address the issue of “uniatism,” as it was labeled by the Orthodox side. In 1993, a statement that declined “uniatism” as a means for church unity was agreed upon, but the dialogue drifted into a crisis; it was only in 2007 that the next document, from Ravenna, was adopted.
The fact that the issue of conciliarity and primacy had to be treated a second time is an expression of the inner-Orthodox tensions. The delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) had abandoned the Ravenna meeting because of the presence of representatives of the Estonian Orthodox Church, an autonomous Church under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, whereas the ROC regards Estonia as its “canonical territory.” The Moscow synod later rejected the Ravenna document (which had been unanimously adopted by all members of the Commission present) and said that its contents neglected the Orthodox tradition in favor of Catholic positions. In the years to come, the synod formulated its own text on the issue, which evoked a debate with theologians from the Ecumenical Patriarchate about the idea of primacy within the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeyev), head of the ROC’s department for External Church Relations, campaigned for a revision of the Ravenna document, and both the Russian and Georgian delegations to the Commission rejected it as a document of the Commission and refused to work with it. After several attempts to come to an agreement, the Commission adopted the Chieti text, which was drafted two years ago by a subcommittee. The text was decided on unanimously, with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church not participating in the meeting, while the representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church expressed objections against some paragraphs (allegedly nine—but is was not specified which ones).
In comparison of the two texts, it is conspicuous that the Ravenna statement (which, with some 5,700 words, is almost twice as long as the Chieti one) refers much more to the former documents of the group, whereas the Chieti document does not even mention the preceding text. Both documents deal with the issue of primacy on the level of the local, the regional and the universal Church, but Ravenna offers a much better and deeper theological analysis and contextualization. At the local level, Chieti emphasizes more strongly the role of the bishop, Ravenna sets him as the primus/protos in the communion of his local church. It is obvious, that any allusion to the theology of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), the former co-chair of the Commission, was eliminated, along with any mention of Ravenna.
The Ravenna document speaks about the 1993 joint statement on “uniatism” and says it is “a subject to which we shall give further consideration in the near future.” Chieti does not mention the issue; however, Metropolitan Ilarion pointed to it many times already before the Chieti meeting and also in an interview after it. He refers above all to the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, which is very strong in the Western part of the country (which has been in Soviet times at least formally a stronghold of the ROC), and demands that “uniatism” should be the exclusive topic to be addressed next by the commission. The Russian hierarch accused the Ukrainian Catholics of the Eastern rite of fueling the Ukrainian conflict by taking sides and by supporting schismatic Orthodox groups even when he was invited to Rome to give a greeting address to the Catholic Synod of Bishops’ in autumn 2014 (which was dedicated to family issues). Later, he spoke of an “aggressive anti-Orthodox campaign of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic leaders.”
These accusations shed light on a frequently-overlooked dimension of Orthodox-Catholic relations: The Greek Catholic Churches are not so much a question of primacy and its implications, but rather one of identity, politics, and interests. And they are frequently misunderstood by Orthodox church leaders as a homogeneous block within the Catholic Church.
However, there is no clear understanding of the role of the Eastern Catholic Churches within themselves. Some of them are narrowly linked to a national idea; some have good relations with the respective local Orthodox Church; some try to gain the greatest possible autonomy from Rome; some again lean as closely as possible to the Holy See. To be clear: There is no Eastern Catholic Church which would strive for complete independence, and for breaking communion with Rome—they all see their safeguard for being Church in their communion with the Pope. But there is a high degree of diversity among them, and not all of them have bad relations with the Orthodox.
The primacy issue, moreover, is also discussed within the Catholic Church itself; it is not only an issue between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Some Greek Catholic Churches have developed theological ideas about their position in the Catholic Church and the impact of papal primacy on them, and so have Bishops’ Conferences in the Latin Church. The realm and the range of the papal authority are not undisputed at all within the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis encouraged (as did also his predecessors) by his teaching and by his actions Catholic theologians to think in new directions in this regard.
So the unity of Orthodoxy cannot be regarded as given, and the Catholic Church is much more diverse than many Orthodox expect. On the other hand, the relationship towards national identity, towards the state in which they live, and towards politics is an issue all local churches—Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic—have to address, especially in the circumstances of today’s world. These are challenges which concern all Christian Churches. All agreements on primacy and synodality in history—as important as they are—will fail to contribute to a rapprochement of the two Churches, as long as these issues are not addressed and discussed properly.
Thomas Bremer is professor of Ecumenical Theology and Eastern Churches Studies at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Münster University, Germany.