Relations Between the Catholic Church and Ancient Churches of the East

Author: Fr Johan Bonny

Relations Between the Catholic Church and Ancient Churches of the East

Fr Johan Bonny
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

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 East1was 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 Church.

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 themes:

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 Churches"; and

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 Saint Marc Centre in Nasr City.

During the meeting, the participants on two occasions had the honour of meeting Pope Shenouda III, first on the evening of 28 January when they attended his weekly discourse in the Coptic-Orthodox Cathedral of Cairo, and then on Thursday, 29 January, when Pope Shenouda took part in a session of the Commission's work at Saint MarcCentre.

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 Orthodox Church.

2 On the preparation of the Cairo meeting, cf. L'Osservatore Romano,Saturday 24 January 2004, p. 4.

3 Encyclical Letter UtUnum Sint,n. 63.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 April 2004, page 10

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