Saturday, October 2, 2010
[Emphasis and a few comments added]
1. Prologue. For almost forty-five years, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation has been meeting regularly to discuss some of the major pastoral and doctrinal issues that prevent our Churches from sharing a single life of faith, sacraments, and witness before the world. Our goal has been to pave the way towards sharing fully in Eucharistic communion through recognizing and accepting each other as integral parts of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
2. A Central Point of Disagreement. In the course of our discussions, it has become increasingly clear to us that the most divisive element in our traditions has been a growing diversity, since the late patristic centuries, in the ways we understand the structure of the Church itself, particularly our understanding of the forms of headship that seem essential to the Church’s being at the local, regional and worldwide levels. At the heart of our differences stands the way each of our traditions understands the proper exercise of primacy in the leadership of the Church, both within the various regions of the Christian world and within Christianity as a whole. In order to be the Body of Christ in its fullness — to be both “Orthodox” and “Catholic” — does a local community, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist, have to be united with the other Churches that share the Apostolic faith, not only through Scripture, doctrine, and tradition, but also through common worldwide structures of authority — particularly through the practice of a universal synodality in union with the bishop of Rome?
[There is no question here of one side or the other returning to some pure, patristic, first millennium standard. It’s unfair for each side to reproach the other for departing from such a mythic standard. Church history is full of both “Orthodox” and “Catholic” moments (and even a few “Protestant” ones!), and apologists for each side will use the bits that best fit their case. The problems which arose between the Churches in the second millennium arose because there was no consensus about the relationship between primacy and conciliarity in the first! There must, then, be a model of Orthodox-Catholic communion for the third millennium.]
It seems to be no exaggeration, in fact, to say that the root obstacle preventing the Orthodox and Catholic Churches from growing steadily towards sacramental and practical unity has been, and continues to be, the role that the bishop of Rome plays in the worldwide Catholic communion. While for Catholics, maintaining communion in faith and sacraments with the bishop of Rome is considered a necessary criterion for being considered Church in the full sense, for Orthodox, as well as for Protestants, it is precisely the pope’s historic claims to authority in teaching and Church life that are most at variance with the image of the Church presented to us in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. In the carefully understated words of Pope John Paul II, “the Catholic Church’s conviction that in the ministry of the bishop of Rome she has preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections” (Ut Unum Sint 88).