Monday, December 11, 2006

26-year-old Orthodox-Catholic dialogue

Talks between Vartholomeos and Benedict may help transcend key thorns inthe 26-year-old Orthodox-Catholic dialogue


Pope Benedict XVI celebrates a mass at the House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus on November 29 - his first mass on Muslim soil. Benedict's beliefs as a cardinal have lent hope that he may not be an ecclesiastical hawk on issues such as papal primacy and proselytisation in the east, which have irritated the Orthodox churches

WHEN some bemoaned Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XVI, believing it to be the advent of a dogmatic conservative, some Orthodox Christian theologians looked further. They recalled that as theology professor at Regensburg, Germany, professor Ratzinger had espoused conciliatory views on the key issues that divide Roman Catholic West and Orthodox East, especially the issue of papal primacy in the Christian world.

Since the two churches excommunicated each other in 1054, and then lifted a thousand-year-old anathema in December 1965, efforts at unity have been plagued by two intractable issues. The first is Rome's support for Uniate churches in Eastern Europe, which follow the Eastern Rite but are under Vatican jurisdiction. The Orthodox call them "wolves in sheep's clothing", a Vatican Trojan Horse determined to woo the faithful in traditionally Orthodox countries such as the Ukraine.


The second, and thornier, issue is that of the role of Peter's successor. In the first millennium of the united Christian Church, it was a primacy of honour. In the 1870 First Vatican Council, however, the declaration that the pope is infallible when speaking on dogma ex cathedra imbued that primacy with a theological content that is anathema to Orthodox Christians, and a growing number of Catholics, which before his days as dean of the College of Cardinals and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican's top theological post), included Joseph Ratzinger.

In his 1982 book Principles of Catholic Theology, Ratzinger says: "Nor is it possible, on the other hand, for one to regard as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The symbolic gestures of Pope Paul VI and, in particular, his kneeling before the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch [Athenagoras] were an attempt to express precisely this and, by such signs, to point the way out of the historical impasse."

In his article in a book published after Vatican II, The Great Themes of the Council, he stated: "The earliest meaning of the Primacy of the Roman bishop of the seat of Saint Peter was the central point of orientation in the unity of communion... The primacy of the pope was not understood, therefore, in the administrative sense, but was wholly derived from a eucharistic ecclesiology." Ratzinger saw the supreme authority of the church in the collegiate body of bishops (in which the pope is first in status), a view that approaches Orthodox teaching. In the unified church, Rome was first in a pentarchy, followed by Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. But then, Rome's primacy was one of honour, without a right to intervene in the affairs of sister churches, and not the current magisterium universalis.

In his Dominus Iesus Declaration, issued as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, however, Ratzinger had another view: "Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him".

For Orthodox theologians who know him, the question is whether as Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger will be able to return to his more conciliatory, scholarly views or will be bound by the strictures of the curia, which he so faithfully served. One, who has known him since his professorial days and is still in touch with him, argues that Benedict finds his field of action is limited by Vatican strictures.

The matter of the Uniates is equally tricky, despite Vatican overtures toward the Orthodox, such as John Paul II's 1995 Apostolic Letter to the Eastern Churches, Orientale Lumen: "This appeal calls on the Churches of the East and the West to concentrate on the essential. We cannot come before Christ, the Lord of history, as divided as we have unfortunately been in the course of the second millennium. These divisions must give way to rapprochement and harmony; the wounds on the path of Christian unity must be healed." But the letter offered a clear vote of confidence in the Uniates, or Eastern Rite Catholics: "Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters... It has been stressed several times that the full union of the Catholic Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome which has already been achieved must not imply a diminished awareness of their own authenticity and originality," the letter noted. "I invite the Eastern Catholic Bishops and clergy to collaborate closely with the Latin Ordinaries for an effective apostolate," it added.

While a handful of Catholic theologians have argued against support for the Uniates, Vatican policy remains one of support, and Benedict has not yet offered any sign of change.

New dialogue

At the Pope's initiative, the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue was jump-started after a six-year hiatus, with about 30 theologians from each side meeting in Belgrade in September. The dialogue begun in 1980 (Ratzinger participated in the first years), was suspended in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Vatican sent Uniates to Eastern Europe, and the Uniate problem was discussed at length.

In Belgrade, debate on papal primacy was based on the 34th Apostolic Canon, which states that each geographic church region has a single head, who cannot act without the collegial consent of the many bishops, and vice versa. Though this flies in the face of papal primacy as it stands, the Catholic side reluctantly accepted the Orthodox interpretation of the canon, which was supported by the Uniate delegates. The dialogue will resume next October in Italy.

Theology Professor George Galitis, who taught in Munich and has known the Pope since his university days, says that as professor Benedict came "very close to the Orthodox" on issues of collegial church governance, against papal absolutism. In the 1960s, he says, a more liberal Ratzinger opposed hardcore Vatican positions on primacy and infallibility, espousing views acceptable to the Orthodox. But as archbishop of Munich and a cardinal in Rome, his positions shifted radically. "As Pope, he still feel as guardian of the Catholic faith, but I imagine he may remember his old self. But to do this he must free himself from institutional strictures," Galitis says.

ATHENS NEWS , 01/12/2006

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