New Commission fosters East-West dialogue
From last 26 to 31 January, the first meeting of the new
International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic
Church and the Ancient Churches of the East1 was
held in Cairo, Egypt. The meeting was jointly presided over by Cardinal
Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian
Unity, and by His Eminence, Amba Bishoy, Metropolitan of Damietta and
Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The meeting's organization and agenda were set during a
January 2003 preparatory meeting held in Rome.2 The Orthodox
Delegation was made up of representatives from the Ancient Churches of the
East; the Catholic Delegation was made up of many representatives, Bishops
and theologians who belong to the Latin and various Eastern traditions.
This first meeting had a two-fold objective:
first, to determine the results of the numerous, bilateral dialogues
carried out between the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the
East since the Second Vatican Council, and
second, to determine the new issues to be examined for the subsequent
meetings of the Commission.
Unity constructed at three levels
On the road to arriving at her full visibility, the unity
of the Church is being constructed at three levels: faith, the sacraments
and the institutions. During the course of these last decades, great
advances have already been made on these three levels between the Catholic
Church and the Ancient Churches of the East.
An imposing series of joint studies, documents of concord
and official agreements were on the table for discussions at Cairo, the
fruit of more than 30 years of reflection and ecumenical dialogues. The
most important results of such dialogues were also the object of numerous
common declarations that were co-signed by the Holy Father and the highest
Authorities of the same Ancient Churches of the East.
During the Cairo meeting, the new Commission became
acquainted with all the documents, both official and unofficial, in order
to understand better the various breakthroughs already accomplished and to
map out the road that still lies ahead.
Level of faith
At the level of faith, Christological Declarations were
signed by Pope Paul VI and John Paul II with almost all the Patriarchs and
Leaders of the Ancient Churches of the East. Such Christological
agreements have represented the most decisive step in the development of
ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the aforementioned
Eastern Churches which, at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451), did
not receive certain doctrinal formulas of the Council.
Despite certain differences in terminology that had caused
misunderstandings and even deep-seated doctrinal disagreements, the
qualified Authorities of the Catholic Church and the Churches known as
Pre-Chalcedonian were able to declare their full communion in faith in
Jesus Christ, who is perfect in his divinity and in his humanity.
The above-mentioned Christological agreements have put an
end, if not to all the contentious theological disputes between the
Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East, at least to those
with the most fundamental, doctrinal difficulty: "so much so that we have
been able to profess together the faith which we have in common", as Pope
John Paul II was able to affirm.3
These very Christological agreements form a secure and
firm basis for every rapprochement on the other two levels of the
dialogue, namely, those of the sacraments and the constitution of the
The meeting at Cairo acknowledged some improvements in the
content and form that could be brought to such Christological agreements,
so that with even greater clarity and authority they may express the
common faith of the Catholic Church and of all the Ancient Churches of the
East. Such a supplementary task was not given the highest priority with
respect to the numerous issues to be examined in other areas, especially
those of the sacraments and of ecclesiology.
Level of the sacraments
With regard to the Church's sacraments, the various
ecumenical dialogues with one or other of the Ancient Churches of the East
have already obtained significant results. While a certain number of
doctrinal questions still remain to be clarified, the Catholic Church and
the Ancient Churches of the East desire full recognition of the sacraments
celebrated in their respective traditions.
As a matter of fact, the division between the Catholic
Church and the Ancient Eastern Churches in the beginning had nothing to do
with the dispute at the level of sacramental life. With certain Ancient
Eastern Churches as, for example, the Syrian Orthodox Church, ecumenical
dialogue has already permitted the Authorities to sign agreements
according to which the faithful who find themselves in a situation that
prevents them from going to a minister of their own Church can receive the
sacraments of the Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick from
a minister of the other Church.
Similarly, a doctrinal and pastoral agreement concerning
the celebration of mixed marriages was signed with the Syrian Orthodox
Church of Malankara.
Although such agreements on sacramental life are not yet
applied to the whole of relations between the Catholic Church and the
Ancient Churches of the East, these agreements are already still heading
towards a fuller recognition in this regard.
The meeting at Cairo examined and compared the various
outcomes of the preceding dialogues with respect to the sacraments, and at
the same time has taken into account the many questions that still need to
be studied. With due consideration, however, on the essential connection
between the theology of the sacraments and the theology of the Church, a
decision was reached to give priority to the ecclesiological questions.
Progress made in ecclesiology
Also regarding ecclesiology, much has been accomplished in
the past. Several theological dialogues between the Catholic Church and
the Ancient Churches of the East have been able to expand upon certain
issues and to formulate some principles among the ones most fundamental
for such an issue.
The ecclesiology of communion emphasized by the Second
Vatican Council has established the doctrinal framework that has allowed
the following themes to be studied from a new perspective: the
relationship between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches, their
identity as sister Churches, the actual communion (even if it is
imperfect) which unites them, their progress towards full and visible
communion and towards Eucharistic communion.
Various joint declarations signed by the highest
Authorities of the Catholic Church and some of the Ancient Eastern
Churches already establish true and formal syntheses of ecumenical
ecclesiology, even if they develop the topic in a way that is still very
brief and in need of a deeper and more thorough elaboration.
The meeting at Cairo placed special attention on the
issues that were ecclesiological in nature. By keeping in mind the
importance of the ecclesiology of communion, which is the basis of the
rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the
East, the decision was made to give priority to the study of and dialogue
on such an issue. What are the fundamental principles of this ecclesiology
that can dispose us towards the reestablishment of full communion?
'Church as Communion'
The next meeting of the International Commission will
occur in Rome, 25-30 January 2005, and will be dedicated to the theme:
"Church as Communion". Certain studies will be prepared by the members of
the Catholic and Orthodox Delegations regarding the three principal
1) the notion of communion and its constitutive elements;
2) communion at the regional and universal levels, as well
as the meaning of the notions of "Sister Churches" and "Family of
3) full communion and levels of communion in light of our
common ecumenical goal.
These contributions will allow the Delegations to
understand better the richness of the ecclesiological tradition shared by
the Christian East and West since the times of the Apostles and the
Fathers of the Church.
What kind of house have we continued to live in despite
the walls of division that have been placed between us?
This is, therefore, a program of study and dialogue that
aims at a definitive goal for the future of ecumenical relations between
the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East.
Meeting at Cairo
It is important to note that the Cairo meeting was held in
a most cordial and constructive atmosphere. The meeting was organized very
generously by the Authorities of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the
In his cathedral, the head of the Coptic-Orthodox Church
invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to give a speech to the assembly. The
Cardinal affirmed, among other things, that the Catholic Church and the
Ancient Churches of the East are united by the same faith in the One God
who is in Three Persons and in Jesus Christ, Our Saviour, the Incarnate
Word of God, and moreover, that they acknowledge St Athanasius and St
Cyril of Alexandria as Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
Furthermore, Cardinal Kasper was able while in Cairo to
become acquainted with many priests, Religious and Catholics in the course
of a meeting organized near the Major Seminary of the city by the
Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, Archbishop Marco Dino Brogi.
Finally, the Catholic Delegation also had the joy of
seeing H.B. Cardinal Stephanos II Ghattas, Patriarch of the Coptic
Catholic Church, and to respond in this manner to the invitation he had
cordially extended to the Delegation.
The Church in Egypt in the diversity of its local elements
has certainly helped the members of this new Commission to better
understand the prominent pastoral importance of dialogue between the
Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East, namely, evangelism
and common witness in a society where the Name and Face of Christ have
just now been proclaimed to the sons of God.
1 Collectively, there are seven Churches: the
Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic
Church (the two Catholicosates of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia), the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea and the Malankarese
2 On the preparation of the Cairo meeting, cf.