Will Francis Reunite East and West? (Part 2)

In addition to the Patriarch Bartholomew’s presence, other Orthodox prelates similarly excited media comment with their attendance at Pope Francis’ installation.

This was particularly true of the Metropolitan Hilarion Aleyev of Volokolamsk, who represented the Patriarch of Moscow, Kyril, and has been in charge of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ecumenical affairs. He is well known in Rome and had often met with Pope Benedict and given important addresses encouraging Catholics and Orthodox to become allies in a common struggle to recover Europe’s Christian patrimony. He has spelled out in realistic terms the common ground that exists for Catholic-Orthodox cooperation:

They are first and foremost the challenges of a godless world, which is equally hostile today to Orthodox believers and Catholics, the challenge of moral corruption, family decay, the abandonment by many people in traditionally Orthodox countries of the traditional family structure, liberalism in theology and morals, which is eroding the Christian community from within. I would like to stress, once more, that there are well-known doctrinal differences between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths, but there are also common positions in regard to morality and social issues which today, are not shared by many of the representatives of liberal Protestantism…Therefore, cooperation is first and foremost necessary between the Orthodox and Catholic Christians—and that is what I call a strategic alliance. (quoted in Inside the Vatican, March 2013)

It is the doctrinal differences between the Catholic and 15 or so Orthodox Churches marking a formal Schism developing since the 13th century which have impeded hopes for Reunion. The patriarch Bartholomew disappointed Catholics and many ecumenical observers when in an address at Georgetown University he spoke with some exaggeration of an “ontological difference” between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

In Rome for the installation of the new Pope, Metropolitan Hilarion joined Patriarch Bartholomew in expressing his pleasure for “the positive momentum that we have had with Pope Benedict XVI and will continue under Pope Francis.” Yet he has also expressed traditional Russian suspicions of the Jesuits (Pope Francis is a Jesuit) who were defamed by the great novelist Dostoevsky and other Russian polemicists. He also expressed the standard Russian resentment of “Uniatism” and any Vatican approval that might be given for the expansion of Byzantine rite Ukranian Catholics into the Eastern Ukraine and for the establishment of a patriarchate long desired by them.

Significant progress towards resolving the question of the Papacy as the major dogmatic impediment to the Reunion of the Churches may be said to have occurred at the Conference of the Joint International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission that took place at Ravenna, Italy, in 2007.

Though refusing to admit that the Petrine Primacy was of divine institution (as held by Catholics), the Orthodox delegates by majority vote admitted in a draft-document that the Pope from the earliest centuries of the Church exercised not only a primacy of honor as the “first of bishops” but one of leadership over the Eastern Churches that was conferred and sanctioned by conciliar canons.

However, the draft-document was immediately subjected to criticism by the largest of the approximately15 unique Orthodox Churches. Russian Orthodox representatives insisted that a primacy on the level of the Universal Church is necessary but could only be one of honor and not of jurisdiction as claimed by the Pope.

The Conference was also marred by Moscow’s representatives abruptly walking out of the Conference because of a continuing jurisdictional dispute with Constantinople over an Orthodox group in Estonia. Moscow delegates also sharply rejected the notion widely spread in the media (and even in some Orthodox circles) that the Patriarch of Constantinople known for his ecumenical efforts was the “spiritual leader” or “head” of all Orthodox. As Metropolitan Hilarion later repeated, “We respect the Patriarch of Constantinople as the first in honor, but we are against viewing him as ‘Pope of the East.’”


There has been resentment by Russian Orthodox spokesmen at what they consider to be Constantinople’s uncanonical interference with parishes in Estonia, Hungary, England, and North America. Other Orthodox voices have joined to assert for the benefit of Western observers believing the “ecumenical patriarch” was the Eastern counterpart of the Pope that Bartholomew has no authority whatsoever over the other autocephalous Churches; he is only the “first among equals.”

It should be recalled that a number of Greek Orthodox theologians and monastics have for years denounced Patriarch Bartholomew for trying to “drag the Orthodox into union with Rome “and have rejected the Ravenna document for “concessions” to Papal Rome. The Patriarch Bartholomew was accused of “pouring forth love on heretical Rome” and furthering the “ecumenist heresy.” There is little doubt that the Patriarch’s ecumenical overtures are in part due to attempts to enhance his influence. The Patriarchate of Constantinople exists in a sorry political situation with its Greek population reduced to 3,000 in number and constantly harassed by a hostile Turkish government betraying an increased Islamist presence. This calls for the sympathy and moral support of Catholics.

Catholics can only welcome efforts on the part of various Orthodox prelates and theologians seeking to respond with some objectivity to Bl. Pope John Paul II’s famous call for a “patient and fraternal dialogue” on the nature and exercise of his Petrine primacy in the Church.

The various meetings of the International Theological Commission of Catholic and Orthodox theologians have resulted in real theological progress that is promising for the future. Previous doctrinal issues such as the Filioque and the use of Unleavened bread are no longer seen as obstacles to Reunion. However, there is the painful matter of ethnic tensions and jurisdictional conflicts existing among them which prevent common action and doctrinal agreement. The patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow each accuse the other of “self-aggrandizement” and wishing to extend its authority over other Churches.

The key problem remaining for all the Orthodox Churches is how lacking a coherent and accepted ecclesiology concerning authority in the Church, they can even arrive at common and “official” agreements for future dialogue with Catholics concerning the Roman Primacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *