Rorate Caeli

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar
Full communion? Not yet, and not anytime soon. Why today's encounter was not a breakthrough.

(For the background to this article, please see Why Catholic-Orthodox reunion probably won't happen: Five recent statements from Patriarch Bartholomew, and a reminder from 2009.)

As scheduled, Pope Francis today attended the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew in honor of the Apostle Andrew, whom the Church of Constantinople claims as its founder. The Divine Liturgy was followed by speeches -- first that of the Patriarch, then of the Pope. Afterwards they signed a joint declaration; it is already their second joint declaration this year (the first one having been signed in May, in Jerusalem).

In the last several hours, some of the "usual suspects" have been running wild over one sentence in the Pope's speech. (We will also not be surprised if, in the coming days, some eminent prelates, theologians and Catholic 'talking heads' celebrate today's statements as "historic"; nowadays, ecumenical dialogue seems to need all the cheerleading it can get.) The following is the relevant portion of that speech:

In particular, in that Decree the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy” (15).  The Decree goes on to state that in order to guard faithfully the fullness of the Christian tradition and to bring to fulfilment the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christians, it is of the greatest importance  to preserve and support the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches.  This regards not only their liturgical and spiritual traditions, but also their canonical disciplines, sanctioned as they are by the Fathers and by Councils, which regulate the lives of these Churches (cf. 15-16). 

I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.   Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit.  I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.  Further, I would add that we are ready to seek together, in light of Scriptural teaching and the experience of the first millennium, the ways in which we can guarantee the needed unity of the Church in the present circumstances.  The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, “the Church which presides in charity”, is communion with the Orthodox Churches.  Such communion will always be the fruit of that love which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (cf. Rom 5:5), a fraternal love which expresses the spiritual and transcendent bond which unites us as disciples of the Lord.

There really isn't anything new in this speech, or in the joint declaration that followed. The most that can be said about it is that it uses more direct language compared to similar statements by previous Roman Pontiffs. That the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches must first establish unity on the basis of a shared profession of faith, or of a common confession of doctrine, is and has always been the position of both sides of this dialogue. The numerous documents that have been issued on this matter by both Rome and Constantinople (and some other Eastern Orthodox Churches) as well as by the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue bear witness to this. 

This has not prevented some from immediately seizing on the one sentence highlighted above and proclaiming, as one website has it, that "the Pope’s message was unprecedented and crystal clear: the Catholic Church is prepared to put aside any demands and claims to supremacy". Frankly we fail to see where in this speech or in the joint declaration the Pope indicated that he was giving up the claims of the Catholic Church regarding the authority and primacy of the Apostolic See of Rome, or that the Roman primacy need no longer be part of the common profession of faith. Was it because Pope Francis also said that "we are ready to seek together, in light of Scriptural teaching and the experience of the first millennium, the ways in which we can guarantee the needed unity of the Church in the present circumstances"? But there is nothing new here either: John Paul II (most famously in Ut Unum Sint) and Benedict XVI (especially in his November 2009 letter to Bartholomew) said the same thing, and whatever one might think of these two Pontiffs, neither of them ever jettisoned papal primacy. 

(Some will protest that they weakened papal primacy by emphasizing collegiality, but this is not the same thing as actually abandoning papal primacy, and without question they never reduced it to a level acceptable to the Eastern Orthodox.)

The joint declaration itself is quite restrained about ecumenical advances, simply saying:

..we intend to support the theological dialogue promoted by the Joint International Commission, instituted exactly thirty–five years ago by the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios and Pope John Paul II here at the Phanar, and which is currently dealing with the most difficult questions that have marked the history of our division and that require careful and detailed study. To this end, we offer the assurance of our fervent prayer as Pastors of the Church, asking our faithful to join us in praying “that all may be one, that the world may believe".

And then there is the speech of Patriarch Bartholomew, where we find the following passages:

These Apostles transmitted this common faith to the Churches founded by their preaching and sanctified by their martyrdom. This faith was also jointly experienced and articulated into doctrine by our Church Fathers, who assembled from East and West in ecumenical councils, bequeathing it to our Churches as an unshakable foundation of our unity. It is this same faith, which we have together preserved in both East and West for an entire millennium, that we are once again called to deposit as the basis of our unity in order that, "being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2.2), we may press on with Paul "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" (Phil. 3.13).
Your Holiness, Your hitherto brief tenure at the helm of Your Church has already manifested You in people’s conscience today as a herald of love, peace and reconciliation. You preach with words, but above and beyond all with the simplicity, humility and love toward everyone that you exercise your high ministry. You inspire trust in those who doubt, hope in those who despair, anticipation in those who expect a Church that nurtures all people. Moreover, You offer to Your Orthodox brothers and sisters the aspiration that during Your tenure the rapprochement of our two great ancient Churches will continue to be established on the solid foundations of our common tradition, which always preserved and acknowledged in the constitution of the Church a primacy of love, honor and service within the framework of collegiality, in order that "with one mouth and one heart" we may confess the Trinitarian God and that His love may be poured out upon the world.
Unfortunately, the Eucharistic communion of our Churches that was interrupted one thousand years ago does not yet permit the convocation of a joint Great Ecumenical Council. Let us pray that, once full communion is restored, this significant and special day will also not be prolonged.

As expected, the Eastern Orthodox side is more restrained. While his speech is overwhelmingly friendly and positive, Bartholomew also speaks of East and West having had the same faith for a millennium -- implying that this faith, without which there can be no reunion of the Churches, is no longer shared by both sides. He speaks in rather vague terms of what he hopes can be actually accomplished with Pope Francis. Most importantly, Bartholomew speaks of a common Ecumenical Council between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops to be possible only after full communion has been restored. Our readers will recall that as late as the 15th century both Churches tried to restore full communion by holding a Council first -- what became known as the Council of Florence-Ferrara. Such a "union Council" is now ruled out by Bartholomew as a possible method of reunion.

As we predicted yesterday, today's speeches are "more of the same" -- insistent calls for deepening dialogue and collaboration on a variety of matters, but no concrete "road map" for actual reunion of the Churches.

Alas, when it comes to the question of Catholic-Eastern Orthodox dialogue, wishful thinking and delusions of immediate reunion are far too strong in Catholic circles (just as an extreme and unreasoning hostility to Rome and the West can be found too frequently in Eastern Orthodox circles). Could this is be due to the anti-dogmatic malady that has spread among far too many Catholics? The idea that so long as one professes to be in full communion with Rome, then one may, in reality, believe as one pleases? To this mentality, the idea that there must be doctrinal agreement first between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox seems to be alien and hostile. To the Catholic Traditionalist (and to the Eastern Orthodox, by and large) on the other hand, there can be no true reunion without a real agreement on matters of dogma, including but not limited to the Roman Primacy.