03 October 2006, 13:01
Mass media reports: "A Healing Astonishment. Catholic Self-Criticism Following the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue in Belgrade"
The 9th session of the International Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue Commission has taken place in Belgrade from September 18th to 24th. Unanimously, participants have stressed the constructive atmosphere in which it was held. However, an "official protest" delivered by the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, to Cardinal Kasper, the Commission's Catholic co-chair, did not go unnoticed. Catholic news agencies claimed to be "astonished", showed "limited understanding" or even announced a "new set-back" in the quest for improved relations between Moscow and the Vatican.
Barbara Hallensleben, professor of Christian doctrine and the theology of ecumenism at the theological faculty of Fribourg University, participated in the Belgrade meeting as a member of the Dialogue Commission. Her assessment of the situation is different. "By staging his protest, the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate has actually helped the catholic cause of finding a common understanding of primacy", says Hallensleben towards the press agency KIPA. She believes that Catholic members of the Commission have not grasped the extent of the dispute at the time. Not without being self-critical, she recognizes what she calls a "healing astonishment" which may ultimately lead to a more fundamental exploration of potential ways towards full church unity.
What is at stake? The contentious issue was a section in the document deliberated during the meeting, a paragraph on the authority of Ecumenical Councils. It states that, in the second millennium, the East and the West continued to hold "general councils gathering together the bishops of local Churches in communion with the See of Rome or the See of Constantinople". Bishop Hilarion is right in emphasising the fact that no pan-Orthodox Council has taken place after the 7th Ecumenical Council in Nicea in the year 787. He states that for the Orthodox tradition "communion with the See of Constantinople" has never been regarded as a criterion for the legitimacy of a council in the same way as did the communio with Rome in the West. Within the order (taxis) of Patriarchates, Constantinople holds the second place; since the disruption of the communio with the bishop of Rome it has ascended to the position of an "honorary pre-eminence" amongst the remaining patriarchates. However, neither historically nor ecclesiologically does this validate the notion of a "second primate" that could complement the Roman primate on the same level albeit in a different shape.
In the year 2000, the "Note" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the term of "sister churches" has already served as a reminder of the fact that wordings like "our two churches" ought to be avoided because "if applied to the Catholic Church and the totality of Orthodox Churches , [they] imply a plurality not merely on the level of particular Churches, but also on the level of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Creed, whose real existence is thus obscured" (no 11). The protest of the Moscow Patriarchate essentially reaffirms this plea: the Catholic and the Orthodox sister churches are not two churches incorporating two different primates. Rather, they are united as sister churches and as such they are searching together for an appropriate expression of their unity in the Body of Christ.
Thus, the relationship with the Patriarchate of Constantinople is by no means an "inner-Orthodox" matter, supposedly of no concern for Catholics. Rather, Catholic local churches strive for full church communion with entirety of Christian sister churches. For this reason, the methodology chosen at the Belgrade meeting was unfortunate: when the Orthodox delegations were urged to vote on how to articulate the role of the patriarchate of Constantinople, the delegation from Moscow found itself in a minority position, despite the fact that it represented some 70% of Orthodox Christianity; its voting power was limited to 2 votes out of 30. During the discussion, Bishop Hilarion emphasised the view that questions of the ecclesiological self-understanding could never be decided by majority verdicts.
Due to time restrictions, decisions concerning subsequent stages of the dialogue were not taken and the work was postponed to the next meeting in October 2007. According to professor Hallensleben, this is a welcome opportunity to deepen the Catholic self-understanding regarding the dialogue with the Orthodox sister churches. "Ecumenical dialogue is invariably also a 'dialogue of conversion'", she is cited by press agency KIPA. "Previously, we have established our divergences in our commission, but we have not yet asked ourselves either whether they need to stay or whether their continued existence actually rules out full ecclesial communio. I sincerely hope that we will eventually reach the point where we can devise specific proposals for the transformation of the lives of our churches." Cardinal Walter Kasper assured to take in consideration the essential remarks made by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Barbara Hallensleben wishes to express her personal appreciation for the collaboration with Bishop Hilarion: "In Belgrade, he has helped us to better understand the truth of the conditions in which our dialogue takes place. Although this might imply a surge of tensions in the short term, we should remember the Word of the Gospel: "The truth will set you free!" According to professor Hallensleben, it is important that the Orthodox churches, like Catholic local churches, view themselves as the true Church of Jesus Christ. "This is not an impediment, but rather a precondition for our full communio", she declares. "The 16th century model of church division should not be transposed to the Orthodox churches, for they have emerged not from separation, but from their own ecclesial traditions which can be traced back to their common apostolic institution."
From KIPA-APIC news agency
Translated by the Russian Orthodox Church's
Representation to the European Institutions