Dialogue With the Orthodox

Author: Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino


Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino
Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Disagreements remain on ‘uniatism’

The eighth plenary session of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and all the Orthodox Churches was held in Baltimore, USA, from 9 to 19 July 2000. The commission has not been able to meet since 1993 when in Balamand, Lebanon, it drafted and published its last document in chronological order on Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion. The reason for this long delay is partly due to the difficulties — especially regarding ownership or the use of places of worship — that developed between Catholics and Orthodox in various Eastern European countries in which the Greek Catholic Churches, suppressed under Stalin, were re-established after the collapse of the communist regimes. The internal difficulties which had arisen in various Orthodox Churches have also largely contributed to the delay of the dialogue. However, the seven-year period was not a period devoid of activity. Relations with the individual Orthodox Churches continued, and the theme of theological dialogue was ever present in the search for the right moment for a new meeting. In the meantime, at the local level, fraternal relations and practical cooperation were urgently sought out, wherever Catholics and Orthodox live together in the same place, and especially where Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox of the same ecclesial and cultural tradition live side by side.

The Orthodox Churches have always criticized the Catholic Church for the so-called method of "uniatism". This problem has also arisen in the current theological dialogue, ever since the first meeting (1980). Moreover, it was present in the common preparatory document for the dialogue entitled: Plan for theInitiation of Dialogue, agreed uponby a joint Catholic-Orthodox Committee in 1978. In this document, the issue was placed in the context of the dialogue of charity which has in any case always been connected with the theological dialogue. The preparatory document forthe dialogue says: "The dialogue of charity must always accompany theological dialogue, so that the solution of problems may be facilitated and the deepening of fraternal relations between the two Churches reinforced, at both local and general levels. It would therefore be useful to reconsider such unpleasant situations as, for example, those of 'uniatism',proselytism, etc. In general, theological dialogue can only be fruitful if it takes place in an atmosphere of love, humility and prayer".

The theme of uniatism was initially treated in this perspective, first at Freising (1990), and then at Balamand (1993), because the immediate post-communist period proved rather tense. In the Balamand session the commission published the document cited above on uniatism, which was based on three explicitly stated principles, and offered a series of recommendations for brotherly behaviour between Eastern Catholics and Orthodox.

The three principles are: a) the agreement on the refusal of uniatism as a method of achieving unity (n. 2); b) the common recognition of the right to existence and to pastoral action of the Eastern Catholic Churches (n. 3); c) the affirmation of the inviolable freedom of persons and the universal obligation to follow the dictates of their own conscience (n. 15).

The practical recommendations of the second part not only tended to peaceful coexistence among the communities, but even pastoral cooperation. However, long-standing problems which even became unconscious attitudes are difficult to resolve in a short time, above all psychologically. Thus tension continued. Then when it became possible to convoke the dialogue commission once again, the Orthodox asked that a new, rather theological aspect of the issue be examined: "The Ecclesiological and Canonical Implications of Uniatism". This was the theme addressed in Baltimore. The Catholic members were almost all present, whereas five of the 15 Orthodox Churches that make up the Orthodox delegation were absent: the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia and the Church ofthe Czech and Slovak Republics.

The discussion sought to identify and confront the ecclesiological reasons for the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Orthodox denied that any exist, because the presence of the Orthodox Church in a given place would not justify the existence of another Church of the same tradition. For Catholics, communion with the See of Rome is necessary for general ecclesial communion. The Eastern Catholic Churches, by their existence, affirm this principle of ecclesiology of the first millennium. The issue of the origin of the Eastern Catholic Churches is therefore connected with that of the primacy and the need for full communion. In brief, a solution of this matter will be found in the agreement to be sought with the Orthodox concerning the role of the Bishop of Rome in Christ's Church. Unfortunately, no agreement was reached in Baltimore. The communiqué released to the press is explicit: "Thediscussions of this plenary sessionwerefar-reaching, intense and thorough.... However since agreement was not reached on the basic theological concept of uniatism, it was decided not to make a common statement at this time".

The communiqué contains other important assertions: a) "The commission sees the need for further study of the theological, pastoral, historical and canonical questions related to this issue"; b) the commission "understands well the complexity of the problems that are to be solved and at the same time the importance of dialogue for the Churches"; c) the commission "hopes that through this process it will be able to develop further its quest for full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches". Lastly there is an appeal to the Churches in dialogue. The communiqué adds: "Members will report to their Churches which will indicate how to overcome this obstacle for the peaceful continuation of the dialogue".

Nevertheless, the Baltimore session was not useless. It made explicit the true nature of the disputed problem. And the exact knowledge of the terms of the disputed problem facilitates, sooner or later, its solution.

The Joint Commission challenged the Churches in dialogue. On behalf of Catholics, the Holy Father made several preliminary comments on the result of the meeting. Through the Catholic delegation led by Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, who went to the Phanar (30 November 2000) for the feast of St Andrew the Apostle, St Peter's brother, he sent a festive Message to the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I.

First of all, the Holy Father stressed the importance of the fact that the meeting took place. "Such a meeting is in itself an important event, which was an occasion to emphasize the complexity of the issues being studied; to our deep regret, however, we must note that it did not allow us to make any real progress in our dialogue".

Secondly, the Pope emphasized that "the commission appropriately drew attention to the need to continue the dialogue and to seek more suitable ways to explain and examine the questions under discussion".

The Pope therefore reconfirmed the CatholicChurch's commitment: "I can assure Your Holiness that I am determined to continue the dialogue of truth and charity".

Not only this, but he made an appeal "to the Catholic and Orthodox faithful to intensify and strengthen their fraternal relations wherever they live, with concern for mutual and trusting respect". He urged thelocal Churches to encourage "close and disinterested collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, avoiding any acts or gestures which might constitute forms of pressure or even give that impression". In this regard, the, Pope assured the Patriarch that "this desire and orientation have been expressed to the particular Catholic Churches so that they will be firmly committed in this direction".

In the Holy Father's reflections, the dialogue of charity and theological dialogue are closely interwoven. It is clearly demonstrated by the dialogue's history. When dialogue is not prompted by charity or motivated by prayer, it becomes arid and perhaps a source of new divisions.

To underline certain expressionsin the dialogue of charity, prayer and fraternalecclesial relations formulatedthis past year, it should be remembered that almost all the Orthodox Churches agreed to send delegations to Rome for the Jubilee, especially for the two major ecumenical celebrations: the opening of the Holy Door at St Paul-Outside-the-Walls (18 January 2000) and the "Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th Century" (7 May 2000).

The path of theological dialogue involves the history of the various Churches and their different theological, spiritual and disciplinary traditions through their individual believers' awareness. That is why the process of dialogue, being so delicate, often has to move slowly. Ultimately the restoration of full unity is the work of the Holy Spirit who opens believers to the whole Truth. In his Apostolic Letter Novomillennio ineunte John Paul II "puts out into the deep" upon the ocean of faith. He writes: "I look with great hope to the Eastern Churches, and I pray for a full return to that exchange of gifts which enriched the Church of the first millennium. May the memory of the time when the Church breathed with 'both lungs' spur Christians of East and West to walk together in unity of faith and with respect for legitimate diversity, accepting and sustaining each other as members of the one Body of Christ".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 April 2001, page 10

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