Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev
VIENNA, Austria, 6 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)
Dialogue between Catholics and
Orthodox can be fruitful, though many hurdles still exist on the road to
Eucharistic communion, says a leading prelate.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the
Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, commented in this
interview on Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to Turkey, as well as on
Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.
Q: Soon Pope Benedict XVI will visit Turkey, because he wants to
strengthen the bonds between Rome and Constantinople. What is the
significance of this journey as to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue?
Bishop Alfeyev: It is to be hoped that this visit will further improve
the relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. These two
churches broke communion with one another in 1054, therefore it makes
them especially responsible to restore unity.
In speaking about the possible impact of this meeting on
Orthodox-Catholic relations as a whole, one should remember that the
Orthodox Church, insofar as its structure is concerned, is significantly
different from the Roman Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Church has no single primate. It consists of 15
autocephalous churches, each headed by its own patriarch, archbishop or
In this family of Churches the patriarch of Constantinople is "primus
inter pares," but his primacy is that of honor, not of jurisdiction,
since he has no ecclesial authority over the other Churches. When,
therefore, he is presented as the "head" of the Orthodox Church
worldwide, it is misleading. It is equally misleading when his meeting
with the Pope of Rome is considered to be a meeting of the heads of the
Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Historically, until the schism of 1054, it was the Bishop of Rome who
enjoyed a position of primacy among the heads of the Christian Churches.
The canons of the Eastern Church
in particular, the famous 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon
ascribe the second, not the first place, to the patriarch of
Moreover, the ground on which this second place was granted to the
patriarch of Constantinople was purely political: Once Constantinople
became "the second Rome," capital of the Roman
Empire, it was considered that the bishop of Constantinople
should occupy the second seat after the Bishop of Rome.
After the breach of communion between Rome and Constantinople, the
primacy in the Eastern Orthodox family was shifted to the "second in
line," i.e., the patriarch of Constantinople. Thus it was by historical
accident that he became "primus inter pares" for the Eastern part of the
I believe that, alongside with contacts with the Patriarchate of
Constantinople, it is equally important for the Roman Catholic Church to
develop bilateral relations with other Orthodox Churches, notably with
the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter, being the second largest
Christian Church in the world
its membership comprises some 160 million believers worldwide
is eager to develop such relations, especially in the field of common
Christian witness to secularized society.
Q: Do you think that this journey will open new horizons for the talks
between the Christian and the Muslim worlds?
Bishop Alfeyev: Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is necessary and
timely. It is quite unfortunate that some attempts by Christian leaders
to encourage this dialogue have been misinterpreted by certain
representatives of the Muslim world.
The recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's academic lecture in
Regensburg is a vivid example of such a misinterpretation. The
aggressive reaction of a number of Muslim politicians, as well as of
many ordinary followers of Islam, has been regarded by some observers as
Some analysts asked: Are we not moving toward a world dictatorship of
Muslim ideology, when every critical observation of Islam
even within the framework of an academic lecture
is brutally and aggressively opposed, while criticism of other
religions, especially Christianity, is permitted and encouraged?
I should add, perhaps, that several theologians of the Russian Orthodox
Church, even those normally critical of the Roman Catholic Church,
expressed their support for Pope Benedict XVI when the controversy over
his Regensburg lecture broke out. They felt that what he said was
important, although, indeed, it was not quite in tune with modern
unwritten rules of political correctness.
Q: The Pope did away with the title "Patriarch of the Occident." What
does this gesture mean? Is there any ecumenical meaning to it?
Bishop Alfeyev: Well, I was the first Orthodox hierarch that happened to
comment on this gesture. Several weeks later, official comments were
also made by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In my remarks I argued that repudiation of the title "Patriarch of the
Occident" is likely to be considered by the Orthodox as confirming the
claim, reflected in the pope's other titles, to universal Church
Among the many designations of the Pontiff, that of "Bishop of Rome"
remains the most acceptable for the Orthodox Churches, since it points
to the Pope's role as diocesan bishop of the city of Rome.
A title such as "Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province"
shows that the Pope's jurisdiction includes not only the city of Rome,
but also the province.
"Primate of Italy" indicates that the Bishop of Rome is "first among
equals" among the bishops of Italy, i.e., using Orthodox language,
primate of a local Church. Following this understanding, none of the
three titles would pose a problem for the Orthodox in the event of a
re-establishment of Eucharistic communion between East and West.
The main obstacle to ecclesial unity between East and West, according to
many Orthodox theologians, is the teaching on the universal jurisdiction
of the Bishop of Rome. Within this context
unacceptable and even scandalous, from the Orthodox point of view
are precisely those titles that remain in the list, such as Vicar of
Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff
of the Universal Church.
According to Orthodox teaching, Christ has no "vicar" to govern the
universal Church in his name.
The title "Successor of the Prince of the Apostles" refers to the Roman
Catholic doctrine on the primacy of Peter which, when passed on to the
Bishop of Rome, secured for him governance over the universal Church.
This teaching has been criticized in Orthodox polemical literature from
Byzantine time onward.
The title "Supreme Pontiff"
originally belonged to the pagan emperors of ancient Rome. It was not
rejected by the Emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity.
With respect to the Pope of Rome, "Supreme Pontiff of the Universal
Church" is a designation that points to the Pope's universal
level of authority which is not recognized by the Orthodox Churches. It
is precisely this title that should have been dropped first, had the
move been motivated by the quest for "ecumenical progress" and desire
for the amelioration of Catholic-Orthodox relations. ZE06110620
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev
VIENNA, Austria, 7 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)
Catholics and Orthodox should
establish a "strategic alliance" for the defense of Christian values in
Europe, says an Eastern prelate.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the
Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, made this
suggestion, and others, in this interview on topics linked to ecumenism.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: Benedict XVI is looking for the "full and visible unity" of all
a unity which man cannot "create," but which he may encourage, through
his own conversion, through concrete gestures and an open dialogue about
fundamental topics. On the basis of which topics can Orthodoxy and Rome
strengthen their bonds? How should they be put into praxis?
Bishop Alfeyev: I believe, first of all, that it is necessary to
identify several levels of collaboration and then to work for better
understanding at each level.
One level relates to the theological conversations that are pursued by
the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission. These conversations are and will
be focused on the dogmatic and ecclesiological disparities between the
Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church.
At this level I can predict many years of exhaustive and difficult work,
especially when we come to the issue of universal primacy. Complications
will arise not only because of the very different understanding of
primacy between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but also from the
fact that there is no unanimous understanding of universal primacy among
the Orthodox themselves.
This fact already became evident during the recent session of the
Commission in Belgrade, and the internal disagreement within the family
of the Orthodox Churches on this particular issue will be manifested in
ways more acute and striking in the future. Thus, a long and thorny path
There is, however, another level to which we should set our sights, and
here I mean not so much what divides as what unites us. To be specific,
this is the level of cooperation in the field of Christian mission.
Personally, I believe that it is quite premature and unrealistic to
expect restoration of full Eucharistic communion between East and West
in the foreseeable future. Nothing, however, prevents us, both Catholics
and Orthodox, from witnessing Christ and his Gospel together to the
modern world. We may not be united administratively or ecclesiastically,
but we must learn to be partners and allies in the face of common
challenges: militant secularism, relativism, atheism, or a militant
It is for this reason that, since the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I
have repeatedly called for the fostering of ties between the Catholics
and the Orthodox Churches through the creation of a strategic alliance
for the defense of Christian values in Europe. Neither the word
"strategic" nor "alliance" has so far been commonly accepted to describe
a collaboration such as this.
For me, it is not words that matter but rather the connotation behind
them. I used the word "alliance" not in the sense of a "Holy Alliance,"
but rather as it is employed for "The World Alliance of Reformed
Churches," i.e., as a term designating collaboration and partnership
without full administrative or ecclesial unity.
I also wanted to avoid pointedly ecclesial terms such as "union,"
because they will remind the Orthodox of Ferrara-Florence and other
similar unfortunate attempts at achieving ecclesial unity without full
Neither an ecclesial "union" nor a hasty doctrinal compromise is needed
now, but rather a "strategic" cooperation in the sense of developing a
common strategy to combat all the challenges of modernity.
The rationale behind my proposal is this: Our churches are on their way
to unity, but one has to be pragmatic and recognize that it will
probably take decades, if not centuries, before unity is restored.
In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united
voice. Without being one Church, could we not act as one Church? Could
we not present ourselves to secular society as a unified body?
I strongly believe that it is possible for the two Churches to speak
with one voice; there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the
challenges of secularism, liberalism and relativism. Also in the
dialogue with Islam, Catholics and Orthodox can act together.
I should add that any rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox will
in no way undermine those existing mechanisms of ecumenical cooperation
that include also Anglicans and Protestants, such as the World Council
of Churches and the Conference of European Churches.
However, in the struggle against secularism, liberalism and relativism,
as well as in the defense of traditional Christian values, the Roman
Catholic Church takes a much more uncompromising stand than many
Protestants. In doing so it distances itself from those Protestants
whose positions are more in tune with modern developments.
The recent liberalization of doctrine and morality in many Protestant
communities, as well as within the Anglican Church, makes cooperation
between them and the Churches of Tradition, to which belong both the
Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, ever more difficult.
Yet another level of Catholic-Orthodox cooperation would be that of
cultural exchange between the representatives of the two Churches. Many
misunderstandings that exist between us have a purely cultural origin.
Better knowledge of each other's cultural heritage would definitely
foster our rapprochement. Icon exhibitions, choir concerts, joint
literary projects, various conferences on cultural subjects
all this can help us overcome centuries-old prejudices and better
understand each other's traditions.
Q: In his letter to the Pope on February 22, the patriarch of Moscow
mentions some challenges of the modern world, which should be solved
together, and his deep wish to bring back Christian values to society.
How can forces be joined, so that the dangers of materialism,
consumerism, agnosticism, secularism and relativism could be overcome?
Bishop Alfeyev: These questions were raised during the conference
"Giving a Soul to Europe" that took place in Vienna on May 3-5, 2006.
The conference was organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for
Culture and the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow
Some 50 participants representing the Roman Catholic and the Russian
Orthodox Churches gathered together in order to ponder on the challenges
facing Christianity in Europe and to develop ways of collaboration in
It is precisely materialism, consumerism, agnosticism, secularism and
relativism, all based on liberal humanist ideology, that constitute a
real challenge to Christianity. And it is this liberal humanist ideology
that we must counteract if we wish to preserve traditional values for
ourselves and for our future generations.
Today Western liberal humanist ideology, standing on the platform of its
own, self-made universality, imposes itself on people who have been
raised in other spiritual and moral traditions and have different value
systems. These people see in the total dictate of Western ideology a
threat to their identity.
The evidently anti-religious character of modern liberal humanism brings
about non-acceptance and rejection by those whose behavior is
religiously motivated and whose spiritual life is founded on religious
There exist several variations on the religious response to the
challenges of totalitarian liberalism and militant secularism. The most
radical answer has been given by Islamic extremists, who have declared
jihad against "post-Christian" Western civilization with all of its
so-called common human values.
The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism cannot be understood without full
appreciation of the reaction that has arisen in the contemporary Islamic
world as a result of attempts in the West to impose its worldview and
behavioral standards on it.
So long as the secularized West continues to lay claim to a worldwide
monopoly on worldviews, propagating its standards as being without
alternative and obligatory for all nations, the sword of Damocles of
terrorism will continue to hang above the whole of Western civilization.
Another variation on the religious response to the challenge of
secularism is the attempt that is being made to adapt religion itself,
including its doctrine and morals, to modern liberal standards.
Some Protestant communities have already gone down this path by having
instilled liberal standards into their teaching and church practice over
the course of several decades. The result of this process has been an
erosion of the dogmatic and moral foundations of Christianity, with
priests being allowed to justify or conduct "same-sex marriages,"
members of the clergy themselves entering into such liaisons, and
theologians rewriting the Bible and creating countless versions of
politically correct Christianity oriented toward liberal values.
Finally, the third variation on the religious response to secularism is
the attempt to enter into a peaceful, non-aggressive dialogue with it,
with the aim of achieving a balance between the liberal-democratic model
of Western societal structure and the religious way of life. Such a path
has been chosen by Christian Churches that have remained faithful to
tradition, namely the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Today both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches have the
capability to conduct dialogue with secularized society at a high
intellectual level. In the social doctrines of both Churches, the
problems concerning dialogue with secular humanism on the matter of
values have been profoundly examined from all angles.
The Roman Catholic Church has dealt with these questions in many
documents of the magisterium, the most recent of which being the
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, compiled by the
Pontifical Commission "Justitia et Pax" and published in 2004.
In the Orthodox tradition the most significant document of this kind is
the "Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,"
published in 2000.
Both documents promote the priority of religious values over the
interests of secular life. In opposing atheist humanism, they foster
instead a humanism guided by spiritual values.
By this is meant a humanism "that is up to the standards of God's plan
of love in history," an "integral humanism capable of creating a new
social, economic and political order, founded on the dignity and freedom
of every human person, to be brought about in peace, justice and
Comparison between the two documents reveals striking similarities in
the social doctrines of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. If
our understanding of social issues is so similar, why can we not join
forces in order to defend it?
I believe the time has come for all Christians who choose to follow the
traditional line, notably the Catholics and the Orthodox, to form a
common front in order to combat secularism and relativism, to conduct
responsible dialogue with Islam and the other major world religions, and
to defend Christian values against all challenges of modernity. In 20,
30 or 40 years it may simply be too late. ZE06110729