Progress of Theological Dialogue Between Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches May Be an Illusion

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By Evagelos Sotiropoulos

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.”

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.” 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.

(Evagelos Sotiropoulos is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto)