“Theological dialogue with Catholics risks failure”

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The theological dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Churches which was launched with the aim of achieving full sacramental communion, risks stalling permanently. One of the main reasons for this would appear to be the divisions that exist between the Orthodox Churches and those influential circles within the Orthodox faith–the Patriarchate of Moscow above all–that are refusing to recognise one universal primate as the leader of the Church, founded on a shared and canonical and ecclesial tradition.

The alarm was raised by none other than the Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas, a former member of the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, co-President of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Zizioulas, whom many consider to be the greatest living Christian theologian (his “Eucharistic ecclesiology” is appreciated both by Pope Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI) restores faith in the upcoming meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem next May. He sees unity among Christians as much more than just an alliance between Church hierarchies to form a “common front” to deal with ethical and sex-related issues.

Meanwhile, the direction the Ukrainian crisis has taken raises questions once again over the control the Patriarchate of Moscow exercises over the majority of Orthodox parishes in the Ukraine.

The date of the Pope and the Patriarch’s meeting in Jerusalem is nearing. What can we expect from this meeting?

“It’s going to be a very important event. The intention is to commemorate the meeting between Paul VI and Athenagoras 50 years ago, the first time a Pope and an ecumenical Patriarch had met since the days of the schism. Their embrace sparked hopes of forthcoming unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This has not yet happened. But it is important to show the world that we are continuing to move patiently and determinedly towards unity. We are on our way to achieving this. We haven’t stopped. This is why the upcoming meeting between Francis and Bartholomew in Jerusalem will not just be a commemorative act looking to the past but represents a door that is open to the future.”

A year on from his election, what is the prevailing impression Orthodox faithful and leaders of the Eastern Churches have of Pope Francis?

“Pope Francis surprised all of us in a positive way, because of his style, his temperament, his humility and also because the actions he is taking as Pope could bring the Catholic and Orthodox Churches closer together. The Orthodox have always essentially seen the Pope as the Bishop of Rome. And Pope Francis often refers to this title as the title which allows him to exercise his ministry. The Orthodox used to see the Pope as a figure who put himself on a pedestal and the papacy as a form of ecclesiastical imperialism. They thought the Pope’s intention was to subjugate them and exercise power over them. Now there are many signs which are pointing in the opposite direction. For example, the Pope has stressed on more than one occasion that the Catholic Church can learn from the Orthodox Church when it comes to synodality and the synodal nature of the Church.

Does the creation of the Council-of-Eight Cardinals and the new impetus given to the Synod of Catholic bishops have anything to do with this? Come into this

“Yes, these are important decisions. Some misunderstand synodality, presenting it as the application of worldly political methods to Church life. But the theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches clearly set out the correct way in which synodality should be understood. In the Ravenna document of 2007 we recognised that the primacy is necessary and is deeply rooted in the Church’s canonical tradition. This is not just for human “organisation” reasons. It must always be seen in the context of synodality. The Church is always a synod and in the synod there is always a protos, a number one, a primate. This does not mean a penetration of secular thought on democracy or the monarchy into the Church. Only theology. It derives from the faith in our Holy Trinity. Ever since the very beginning, Church tradition has had canons which state the following: in the Church there is never a Primus without the Synod and there is never a Synod without the Primus. Harmony between the Primus and the Synod is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This has been our ecclesiology right from the start.”

The Patriarchate of Moscow rejected the conclusions of the Ravenna Document you mentioned. Did you read the Russian Church’s pronouncement?

“Yes I did read it. I speak for myself and on behalf of the ecumenical Patriarchate when I say that we do not agree with that document. It claims that the primacy exists and has theological grounding at the local and regional Church level but not on a universal level. We know what the real reason for this is: they want to deny that after the schism in the Orthodox Church too the ecumenical Patriarchate exercised universal primacy. In order to achieve this, they reject the possibility of recognising the Pope’s role as universal primate in a way that is acceptable to the Orthodox Churches as well. In the Ravenna document they managed to reach a consensus on this very point: we recognised that in the Church the primacy is always exercised on three levels: a local level, a regional level and a universal level.”

Are internal divisions within the Orthodox faith compromising ecumenical dialogue?

“I fear that there are going to be problems. Particularly because the position of the Patriarchate of Moscow holds as much weight as a pronouncement by the Synod. These are not positions expressed by single individuals, by Metropolitan Hilarion or by Patriarch Kirill. With a pronouncement like that, it becomes difficult for an exchange of views to take place and this is what dialogue is all about. Imagine if the Orthodox Church today wished to enter into dialogue with the Catholic Church having already made certain synodal pronouncements on the primacy issue, which is the issue currently at the centre of discussion: it would mean there was no room for discussion and that dialogue had ended. The step taken by the Patriarchate of Moscow could have very negative consequences. It could in fact lead to the end of theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches which was launched in order to overcome the obstacles that are standing in the way of full communion. I hope this will not happen.”

Will clarifications be made at the sinaxis (assembly) of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches in March?

“We also need to discuss issues relating to the Orthodox Churches in the context of the great pan-Orthodox synod. Preparation work for this began several years ago and the event could be announced next year. I hope ecumenical dialogue will also be discussed, if not officially, then at least in private. I want to ask the Patriarch of Moscow whether he is aware of the consequences of the step he has taken. He may not have realised just how catastrophic it could be for dialogue.”

Pope Francis says that the greatest danger the Church faces is self-referentialism. A while back you talked about a “narcissistic self-satisfaction” that has contaminated many ecclesial circles. Why is ecclesial introversion so insidious?

Pope Francis says that the greatest danger the Church faces is self-referentialism. The Church is there for the world not for itself. The Church gets its light from Christ, as the moon gets its light from the sun. But the light which beams out from the Church is not just for itself: it is for the world, for the life of the world. But what I see now in many ecclesial circles is a growing temptation to set the Church against the sin-filled world and sinful humans. But Jesus ate with sinners. He embraced them. The Church is called to give the same love and forgiveness and not to serve people an ideology caked in Christian words.”

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