Rorate Caeli

Why Catholic-Orthodox reunion probably won't happen:
Five recent statements from Patriarch Bartholomew, and a reminder from 2009

Compared to the reign of Benedict XVI there has been less talk in the current Pontificate of the reunification of Catholicism and the Separated Eastern Christians that accept the first Seven Ecumenical Councils (the "Eastern Orthodox") being a lot nearer or even imminent, but it has not entirely died out. We saw a bit of it when Vladimir Putin met Pope Francis last year. We are also seeing a bit of it now on the media, with Pope Francis in Constantinople on a visit that has already produced surprises such as the first papal prayer inside a mosque and the first time that a reigning Pope has publicly asked an Eastern Orthodox Patriarch for his blessing. 

Do these gestures -- especially the second one -- presage an even more momentous step: the imminent reunion of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, or at least a tangible and concrete sign that such a union is imminent? We, of course, cannot predict the future, but if history is any guide what we will see tomorrow is going to be more of the same as in the last 50 years. Perhaps there will be another extravagant gesture, but by no means a declaration that the tragic division between the two is at an end. 

There is also the misconception, never really spelled out but sometimes implied in Catholic reportage on Catholic-Eastern Orthodox dialogue, a reportage usually guilty of being very selective and politically correct with the news, that Bartholomew would reunite Eastern Orthodoxy with Rome were it not for Russian intransigence preventing him from doing so. Aside from the fact that the Russian Orthodox are hardly the only Eastern Orthodox who would refuse to unite with Rome at this time, we can read for ourselves some recent statements made by the Patriarch himself to his fellow Eastern Orthodox, statements that make it clear that Bartholomew is no "unionist". Below are some of those statements. (Emphases ours, and spelling corrected where necessary.)

The first is his speech in 2010 to the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the second largest autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church in the world:

The holy 1st Ecumenical Synod drafted - dear brethren - the first Symbol of the Faith, which was later completed by the holy 2nd Ecumenical Synod of Constantinople in 381, with its five last articles.  Both these holy Synods served the most sacred and loftiest purpose in the lives of Christians, which was none other than the unity, the concordance and the peace of the Church.

Through their dogmatic ruling, which is succinctly crystalized in the sacred Symbol, they outlined the "basics" of the Orthodox belief, every transgression of which places those who dare, outside the corpus of the Church.

At the Fanarion, in the old conference hall of our Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, among other depicted themes is artistically inscribed on its four walls the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, which clearly denotes - in the likeness of a fiery circle - those sacred "basics", which no-one can possibly ignore or overstep.

It only took (much later on) the addition to the Symbol of one and only word: the familiar "Filioque", to create new cacodoxies and schisms and heresies, which, to this day holds Western Christianity a long way away from the Orthodox East.

The second is his speech at Mount Athos on October 2011:

The Ecumenical Patriarch said that he has repeatedly stressed in the past "the essential differences between Orthodoxy and other confessions." Referring especially to the dialogue with the Catholic Church he emphasized that the Orthodox Church always prays "for the union of all" and may not refuse herself when invited to a dialogue on the purpose of attaining this union, "as is desired by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself", but not without substantial conditions: 
"Union is the ultimate goal, but before that there should be the identity in the faith." 
"Speaking years ago to our Roman Catholic brothers I pointed out the path regularly followed by the Roman Catholic Church by accepting more and new doctrines, and in its journey towards our Church, instead of converging towards union, it has departed and driven further apart one another" (University of Georgetown, 21 October 1997), added Mr. Bartholomew. He said further: 
"Furthermore, it is not true that we overlook the preconditions to the union of churches, nor is it true that we overlook the differences which prevent union."

The reference to his 1997 speech in Georgetown is significant as it would seem to indicate that he has not changed the opinions he expressed during that speech, where (among other things) he spoke of the "ontological difference" between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and elucidated a very high bar for reunion between the two.

The third statement was made only last year, during the visit to Istanbul of Patriarch Neophytos of Bulgaria (It will be recalled that the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate withdrew from dialogue with the Catholic Church in 2009, a decision it has not reversed.)

Patriarch Bartholomew said among other things that he neither betrays Orthodoxy, nor does he pursue ecumenist ideas, as it has been said.

"With this tactic (the dialogue) we are not betraying Orthodoxy, as we have been accused, nor do we support ecumenist perceptions; rather, we preach to the heterodox and to everyone the Orthodox truth", he stated characteristically.

The Ecumenical Patriarch made an extensive reference to the reactions that exist on the matter of the theological dialogue, both in Bulgaria and in other countries, noting that these actions aspire to a mutual understanding and in time acceptance, "by the heterodox of the one Orthodox faith".

"They (the dialogues) do not aspire - as was written in both Bulgaria and elsewhere - to the creation of one, mutually accepted 'aggregate' of beliefs. That is, there is no attempt through this so-called ecumenical movement to attain the acceptance of one 'Christian syncretistic confession'; only a deeper penetration into the Christian Orthodox faith and the communal collaboration of all those who invoke the name of Christ", stressed  Patriarch Bartholomew.

He also added that:

"We Orthodox, who possess the fullness of the Truth, are not afraid - as it is thought - that we shall be influenced by the views of our heterodox brethren on dogmatic issues."

The fourth statement in our list is his speech to the assembled "First Hierarchs" of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in March 2014. During this long speech, among other things, Bartholomew declared:

As we know, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autocephalous regional Churches, which move within certain boundaries defined by the Sacred Canons and the Tomes conferring their autocephaly while at the same time being entitled to full self-administration without any external interference whatsoever. This system, which was bequeathed to us by our Fathers, constitutes a blessing that we must preserve like the apple of our eyes. For it is by means of this system that we may avoid any deviation toward conceptions foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology concerning the exercise of universal authority by any local Church or its First-Hierarch. The Orthodox Church comprises a communion of autocephalous and self-administered Orthodox Churches.

It is quite clear that not only does Bartholomew have no plans of surrendering on any doctrinal questions especially on matters of ecclesiology, but he also believes that the differences between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are dogmatic in character, involving real heresies -- an assertion with which Catholic Traditionalists agree (albeit with the heresy being on the other side), but many Catholic "conservatives" and liberals deny or try hard to explain away as mere semantics or "misunderstandings". 

Let us also recall what Constantinople's top ecumenical leader, Metropolitan John of Pergamon, said in 2009:

"...the ongoing theological Dialogue has yet to span an extremely long course, because the theological differences that have accumulated during the one thousand years of division are many; and secondly, that the Committee for the Dialogue is entirely unqualified for the "signing" of a union, given that this right belongs to the Synods of the Churches."

The important thing here is that any decision on reunion with Rome will have to be taken by the Synods of the Eastern Orthodox Churches; as is well-known, they do not have a Pope who can make any such decision on their behalf. And how many are those Synods? At present there are fourteen** autocephalous, "canonical" Eastern Orthodox Churches that recognize each other as being part of one Eastern Orthodox communion: the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia; and the Churches of Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia. (A fifteenth, the "Orthodox Church of America", is of disputed status but its clergy and faithful are recognized as Orthodox by the other fourteen.) Yes, for any Union to take place, these fourteen Churches -- each of which has its own sitting Holy Synod -- will first have their say; it will not be enough for Bartholomew, or the "four ancient Patriarchates" (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) to make the decision.

How about the "Pan-Orthodox Council" scheduled in 2016, which has some Catholic ecumenists in a delirium of excitement? Sorry, but reunion with Catholicism is not even on its agenda -- this was already stated in 2011 and earlier this year by the Moscow Patriarchate.

In short, barring a miracle of cosmic proportions, actual reunion between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, or even a concrete timetable for it, remains in the indefinite and distant future. Or, in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew himself, speaking last year (the fifth statement in this list):

Speaking at a meeting at the university of Kadir Has in Istanbul, Hurriyet reports, Bartholomew I said he believed 'there is a possibility for the next generations to see the churches of the East and West reunited'. 'This will probably not happen during my life', he added. 

**Some Catholic journalists and commentators writing about Ukraine mention the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyivan Patriarchate" as if it is a "canonical" Orthodox Church; but the fact is that none of the fourteen Eastern Orthodox Churches mentioned here recognize it or concelebrate with it.