Real steps toward Catholic-Orthodox unity

In an unprecedented move, Catholic and Orthodox representatives have proposed concrete steps for real unity between the churches.

The 24 members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (which includes the U.S. and Canada) concluded a three-day meeting in Washington on Oct. 2 and issued two statements.

The first statement proposes how the Bishop of Rome would function in a reunited Church. The second statement works toward a common date for Easter so that the Resurrection of our Lord can be proclaimed with one voice.

The “root obstacle” to unity is the Bishop of Rome, the first statement acknowledges. “Despite disagreement on the place of the bishop of Rome in the worldwide cohesion of Christianity, however, it seems to us obvious that what we share, as Orthodox and Catholic Christians, significantly overshadows our differences.”

The ‘filioque,’ which the West added to the Nicene Creed to affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father ‘and the Son,’ would be dropped. All would use the profession of faith agreed upon at Nicea.

All members of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches would be able to receive the sacraments of all the Churches. Clergy would be able to concelebrate.

The role of the Bishop of Rome would be renewed and reformed. “In accord with the teaching of both Vatican councils, the bishop of Rome would be understood by all as having authority only within a synodal/collegial context: as member as well as head of the college of bishops, as senior patriarch among the primates of the Churches, and as servant of universal communion.”

Much of the centralism of the Roman Catholic Church developed only in the last century or so. Earlier traditions and practices would be retrieved. “The Roman curia’s relationship to local bishops and episcopal conferences in the Latin Church would become less centralized:  bishops, for instance, would have more control over the agenda and the final documents of synods, and the selection of bishops would again normally become a local process.”

The second statement proposes a common date for Easter/Pascha. Computation would be based on the decrees of Nicea, determining the Equinox from the meridian of Jerusalem. “We have witnessed the growth of secularism and the global effects of tyranny and war.  More than ever, there is a need for a unified Christian proclamation and a witness of the core of our common faith: the Resurrection of Our Lord.”

The dialogue was chaired by Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh and Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans. The statements do not speak on behalf of either Church, but are offered to the leadership of the Churches for their consideration.


    1. Hah! LOL. Thanks for catching this, John. I’ve corrected it. I’m not sure what Freud would say – that I really long for the Pope to be a reformer? Benedict seems to have indicated, eg. in relation to the sex abuse crisis, that there won’t be structural reforms, only spiritual renewal. Maybe the Lord has reserved real reforms for a future Pope.

  1. Although Ut unum sint was very generous in offering to “rethink” the current practice of the papacy, I don’t see the Roman curia in its medeival-to-contemporary evolution going gently into that good night. Synodal rule sounds like bishops’ conferences with authority – look were that’s gone…

  2. DOA. In my opinion, given certain polarizations in the Latin Church, now is precisely the wrong time to decentralize in the West. The Eastern Churches, amongst the hierarchy, have a much more unified world view which does not exist in the West. The fragile communion within the Western Church would shatter.

    1. I see your point, but I’m not sure how much our over-centralization is helping with the problem of polarization. My worst fear is that the gap between the hierarchy and many of the faithful will continue to widen, even as the hierarchy is united under the pope like never before. The over-centralization isn’t overcoming the polarization and may be contributing to it. The success of such hierarchical unity, but without a unified laity, is rather hollow.

  3. Not sure I ageee with Mr. Douglas. In fact, this is a brave and courageous statement and direction that seems to recognize the gifts of the East so that it balances some of the extremes of the West. It exhibits the best in terms of the approach of Vatican II as outlined by O’Malley in his book describing the last council. Notice its use of ressourcement, reaggiornamento, and the signs of the times – especially the two Vatican councils and centralization in the West. There is no use of “law; condemnation” language.

    Would suggest that it outlines a much healthier approach so that the best of centralized leadership (properly understood and defined) focuses on collegial/synodal; senior primate; head of bishops; but ends with the fact that these positions are ones of service in terms of subsidiarity and allowing bishops their proper authority/responsibility to implement in their own dioceses.

    Many over the years have said that the greatest scandal (more than sex abuse; abortion; HV; etc.) is the disunity between East and West. Now is the time for trust – not a time to make excuses and sideline this as an academic exercise. It would capture the spirit of today’s world and could be a model for the continued and frequent disagreements that the world confronts e.g. Palestine; Muslim-Christian; immigrant; First World vs. Third World; health/poverty/starvation.

  4. From Clerical Whispers – Progess between Orthodox and the West may be an illusion!

    In September, the 12th session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church was held in Austria.

    Reports described dialogue outcomes enthusiastically, saying significant progress had been achieved, including the possibility of becoming “sister churches” with the bishop of Rome as titular head. Metropolitan Hilarion, however, speaking on behalf of the Moscow Patriarchate, quickly squelched speculation of a “breakthrough.”

    In 2007, it should be noted, the Vatican affirmed that Christ established only one Church and that this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.

    The foundation for this — historically inaccurate as I think it is — is the idea that the true Church is governed by the successor of Peter (i.e., the pope) and bishops in communion with him. This is why the focus of the dialogue last month in Vienna was so important.

    The trouble, though, is that the position of the pope has been promulgated for so long that many hold it to be not only authentic, but also unquestionable.

    Take broadcaster Michael Coren, for example. Host of his own television show on CTS and a columnist for Sun Media, he wrote recently that the Pope is “the only human living link we have with Christ” and that popes “who have been personally flawed have never taught heresy. Because they can’t…

  5. cont…..

    Really? No.

    In the Orthodox Church — the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church — all bishops continue the direct and unbroken line of succession transmitted by the Apostles themselves.

    As for the second statement, the filioque (the addition to the Creed that the Orthodox say is heretical) was initially rejected by popes, but later made official doctrine, highlighting that Roman Catholicism, according to the Orthodox, has or is teaching heresy.

    (The filioque refers to the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; the Orthodox say the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father.)

    Putting such issues aside, if Church leaders actually reached some sort of agreement, would both sides comply with compromises that betrayed their respective traditions? This is a particularly pertinent point for Orthodoxy in which authority is much more decentralized compared to Rome.

    But ecumenism, the move towards greater Christian unity, has historically been employed for political, as well as religious reasons. This was case, for example, with the two formal attempts at rapprochement between east and west, although neither one lasted very long. Those agreements are instructive for discussions going on today.

    The first attempt at reunion at Lyons in 1274 was succinctly summed-up by the Emperor’s sister when she said, “Better that my brother’s Empire should perish, than the purity of the Orthodox faith.”

  6. cont….

    The second attempt at Florence in 1438-9 wasn’t even proclaimed in public in the east for more than a decade after it was signed.

    Although the Great Schism took place in 1054, the truth is an estrangement existed between east and west for 200 years before then.

    The excommunication process was a gradual one, with the two sides having become strangers to one another due to different languages and political and cultural traditions. For 1,000 years since, these differences have continued and deepened and won’t be settled through theological dialogues alone.

    Notwithstanding the bridges that are being built between east and west, the role of the pope needs to be somehow reconciled with what it was in the first centuries of Christianity.

    Otherwise, a roadblock to rapprochement will exist, because while the Church is infallible, there is no such thing as personal infallibility — even for the Bishop of Rome.

  7. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I agree with sober pessimism of Bill DeHaas’s posts. I frankly don’t expect any significant breakthroughs in ecumenism in my lifetime – which doesn’t prevent me from praying for them nevertheless! What we can do seems so small, and yet we do it – pushing for communion under both forms, the original order of the sacraments of initiation (BCE), the legitimacy of Protestant hymns in Catholic worship, less Roman centralism, more episcopal authority including synods and national conferences, a more biblical and traditional understanding of the crucial ministry of the Bishop of Rome instead of the very recent understandings (19th century and since) which are now being asserted by some, and so forth. All of this seems insignificant, but I don’t give up. If I can plant a few seeds here and there, maybe the fruits will appear long after I’m gone.
    At its best, the now ascendant Catholic conservatism is rebalancing things, retrieving treasures, making worship more vibrantly spiritual. At its worst, it is deepening divisions and making eventual reunion all the harder, complete with self-satisfied and uninformed arrogance. I wish we had more of the former type of conservatism, and I wish the latter type would just go away.

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