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New Opportunities in Catholic and Orthodox Quest for Unity

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. New opportunities may be presenting themselves in the quest for unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Credit: Nikos Manginos, Ecumenical Patriarchate

By Stephen Ryan, a postgraduate student at Trinity College Dublin

The surprising prospects regarding the dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches on a possible path to unification were highlighted recently in a letter of a Catholic archbishop to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Stephen Ryan, a postgraduate student at Trinity College in Dublin, received the letter recently written by Archbishop Job Getcha to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew regarding these ongoing conversations between the two great churches of the West, and he was asked to share the information it contained.

Back in the 1980s, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches came to an understanding that key issues for restoring Communion between the Churches are the issues of primacy and conciliarity.

Foundations for this were laid at the meetings in Munich (1982), Bari (1987), and New Valaam (1988). In recent years, these issues have again received special attention, including from the general public. Further elaboration of the topic is carried out both at the intra-church level and at inter-church events, in specialized theological and religious journalistic publications.

Catholic and Orthodox Churches have long engaged in talks on unification

The letter from the Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches, Archbishop Job Getcha of Telmessos, was sent to Patriarch Bartholomew, and provided to Ryan by an associate of the Archbishop in the Roman Catholic Church.

Dated November 13, 2020, this is a valuable document, as it sums up not only the challenges our Churches face but also the unique opportunities created by this historical moment.

The position expressed by Archbishop Job in the letter shows that Constantinople aims to develop dialogue with the Holy See and shares common views on what areas of work of the Joint Commission are priority for further rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church.

However, this path has repeatedly been hindered by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been peddling the issue of “proselytism” since June 1990, thereby undermining the planned constructive agenda – namely, the discussion of issues of conciliarity and authority in the Church.

Even the adoption in 1990 and 1993 of the relevant documents condemning uniatism as a model for restoring communion between the Churches did not prevent Moscow from raising this issue again and again.

Russia’s split from Greek Orthodoxy creates window of opportunity

The Russian Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk was the one who most actively and consistently blocked the activities of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue. In 2000, 2005, 2007, and 2017 he raised the problem of uniatism, which had already been resolved long ago, at the meetings of the Commission — thereby sabotaging dialogue.

In addition, since 1990, the destructive position of the Russian Church has been promoted by its satellites – the Churches of Antioch, Serbia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Lands and Slovakia – in the same way that they opposed the Council of Crete in 2016.

So when the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church and Moscow subsequently severed communion with Constantinople, it resulted not only in the Russian Church’s secession from the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, but also provided new opportunities for activating the process that had been sabotaged for the past 15 years.

With the establishment of the autocephalous Ukrainian Church and after the denunciation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Synodal letter of 1686 on the acceptance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s jurisdiction over the Kiev Metropolis, the ROC — even if it participated in the Commission — would no longer use the “issue of proselytism” for its destructive purposes, since this problem simply doesn’t exist on its canonical territory.

The same is true for most of the satellite Churches used by Moscow in its subversive activities.

Catholic and Orthodox Churches could practice Uniatism in Ukraine

As for uniatism, Archbishop Job interprets to the Patriarch of Constantinople and obviously supports Cardinal Kurt Koch’s long-standing idea — which was repeatedly proposed to Metropolitan Hilarion – to consider this issue directly in Ukraine; for example, to create a local mixed commission under the auspices of the Vatican and Constantinople.

Therefore, if representatives of the autocephalous Ukrainian Church are included in Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, this will not slow down its work, as the Russian Church will not be participating in it — but on the contrary, it will speed it up.

Being able to give an independent view on relations with the Eastern Catholic Churches based on its own experience, the autocephalous Ukrainian Church, if not completely removing the possible claims of pro-Moscow forces in this area from the Commission’s agenda, will at least create an advantage over the opponents of the restoration of the unity of Christ’s Church.

Perhaps the fact that the current difficult and even critical situation created such a favorable opportunity is a kind of an unhoped-for “compensation” for the trials to strengthen faith, and a consolation from God.

After all, if such an opportunity is realized and seized, an imaginary loss and a temporary discord in church relations will ultimately lead to much greater unity, and open a way to new experiences, as well as mutual spiritual enrichment and development.

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