Church leaders have cautiously welcomed a document issued by a joint Roman Catholic-Orthodox commission dealing with the papacy, among other things, as an important move towards overcoming a 950-year rift between the two Christian traditions.
"We must be clear this is only a first step, a modest step" said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, after the 14 November publication of the document agreed at a meeting the previous month in Ravenna in northern Italy.
A central issue considered at the 8-14 October meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox theological commission concerned the role of the papacy, one of the issues that led to the schism between the two Christian traditions in AD 1054. The Catholic Church teaches that the Pope has a leading role among Christians but Orthodox Christians reject papal jurisdiction.
Still, both sides at the Ravenna meeting accepted that before 1054, the Bishop of Rome had the first place among the other bishops. But the document stated that today’s Catholic and Orthodox negotiators disagreed, "on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome".
The document also says that there must be "synodality", that is, responsibility exercised by all the bishops together, on the universal level. However, the fact that the Orthodox were willing to discuss how authority in the church was exercised on the universal level was a "real breakthrough", Cardinal Kasper said in an interview with Vatican Radio.
Some Italian newspapers reported that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were "on the eve of reconciliation". But the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, told Ecumenical News International it was "quite misleading" to say, as some media reports had suggested, that the Orthodox now accept the primacy of the Pope.
"The Orthodox cannot accept a view of the Pope, as bishop of Rome, which sets him ‘over and above’ other bishops," Fitzgerald said. "The Orthodox would say that the nature of the authority of the bishop of Rome which developed from the Middle Ages is unacceptable."
Cardinal Kasper in his Vatican Radio interview noted that the next meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox commission would deal with the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, and then go on to deal with the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils.
The First Vatican Council of 1870 promulgated papal infallibility and the universal jurisdiction of the papacy. "This will not be an easy dialogue," said Kasper.
The Ravenna meeting was marked by a walkout by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in a protest at the presence of an Orthodox church from Estonia that the Moscow Patriarchate does not recognise.
Kasper said he was concerned by this. "It’s an inter-Orthodox problem. We can’t interfere but we are saddened and worried because for us it is important that the Russian church participates in our future dialogue,"
Still, Fitzgerald said the significance of the Ravenna document was not diminished by the Russian walkout. He said the talks were seeking to establish a "theological consensus in dealings with the Catholic Church", something that was not linked to the perspective of any one Orthodox church.
Ecumenical News International
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