Orthodox pro and con about pope-patriarch meeting


by Priest Anatony Borison, vice-prorector for academic and theological work, Moscow Orthodox Ecclesiastical Academy, and member of editorial board of, 23 February 2016


On 12 February 2016, in the airport of the capital of Cuba, Havana, a meeting of the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the head of the Roman Catholic Church, His Holiness Patriarch Francis, was held. At the conclusion of the meeting, its participants signed a joint declaration, addressed to Orthodox and Catholics, as well as to the whole of humanity, and aimed at the defense of Christians subjected to persecution in various regions of the globe.


Immediately after publication of the text of the declaration, several representatives of the Orthodox community voiced critical reviews both against the document itself and the meeting that was held. On Internet pages there appeared articles claiming to be analytical, whose authors, despite the lack of objective reasons, immediately called the event of 12 February "a betrayal of Orthodoxy," and the joint declaration, "Unia." At the same time, their argument almost always was built not on logic or facts but on speculation, distortion of meaning, or simply on emotions. An absolute majority of critical articles came down to the following: "we are not in a position to prove anything, but nevertheless we are confident of our evaluation of what happened." The authors were not prevented from drawing the conclusions about "betrayal" and "Unia" by either the absence of an event of joint prayer or the fact that signing the declaration did not entail any doctrinal compromises.


However sad it is to conclude, but the people who were positioning themselves in the capacity of defenders of Orthodoxy behaved in the spirit of radical sectarians, closed to any form of dialogue and assured a priori of their own correctness. The similarity with sectarians showed itself also in the kind of assessments that were given of the personality of Pope Francis, in particular, and Catholics, as a whole. It reminds one of the definition by the famous Orthodox theologian and representative of the Russian emigration in America, Protopresbyter John Meyendorf, that he gave of the phenomenon of a "sect": "A sect is a group of people who are convinced that they only will be saved and all the rest will perish and who get great satisfaction from the awareness of this fact." In a similar spirit of intolerance and contemptuous superiority over heterodox Christians are the articles containing criticism against the meeting of 12 February and its concluding document. It should be noted that if such principles had guided the holy apostles, then Christianity would hardly have been spread throughout the Roman empire. The issue is not confessional or moral pluralism but pedagogical wisdom, which was particularly demonstrated by the apostle Paul. (We recall his address before members of the Athenian Areopagus  [see Acts 17.15-34]). Therefore it is necessary to admit that any dialogue and any testimony to the truth should begin with that which unites us with our interlocutors, not the opposite.


Of the thirty points existing in the declaration, as shown by a preliminary survey, the greatest criticism was evoked by points 4-7 which talk about what the Orthodox Church has in common with the church of the Roman Catholics. In particular, the following affirmation is condemned: "We share a common spiritual tradition of the first millennium of Christianity. The witnesses of this tradition are the Most Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints whom we venerate." One should not deny that the schism of 1054 did not arise in a vacuum, but it was the result of growing disagreements (including doctrinal ones) between Christians of the east and west. But one should not deny that the first millennium was that historical period in church history when Orthodoxy was preserved in the east of the Roman empire precisely because of the intransigent position of the Roman church (here one should remember the Council of Sardica, 343-344) that was held at the initiative of Pope Julius I and spoke out in defense of the holy prelate Athanasius the Great, who was the only Orthodox (non-Arian) bishop in the east of the empire at the time. With regret it should be noted that a clear role in the separation of the Roman church from communion with eastern churches was played by the east itself—the guilt for the reorientation of Rome to communion with barbarian rulers should be laid on the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V, who was enthusiastic about the convening of the iconoclastic council of 754 and paid no attention to Rome's request for help when it was besieged by the Lombards.


The fact of the existence of a common doctrinal tradition in the period of the first millennium between Orthodox and Catholics may be confirmed also by the fact that within the framework of the Great Holy Wisdom council of 879-880, the Roman church, through the lips of Pope John VIII, renounced the use of the distorted creed and recognized the error of the presence of the insert in its eighth article, the expression Filioque (and from the Son), which had been foisted on the western church by theologians of Emperor Charlemagne. Subsequently Rome changed its decision, but that happened in 1014, that is, outside the boundaries of the first millennium and under the immediate pressure of the German empire.


The final formulation of other doctrinal differences that today divide Orthodox and Catholics also occurred in the second millennium. These include: the dogmatic provision of the absolute ecclesiastical and civil power of the pope (end of the 11th century), the doctrine of the treasury of merits, purgatory, and indulgences (15th cent.), the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and papal infallibility in matters of faith and morality (19th cent.), and the doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Mother of God into heaven (mid 20th cent.). The Russian church has not forgotten about doctrinal differences that we have with the Catholics, which serve as obstacles to achieving Eucharistic communion. Nobody has cancelled for Russian Orthodoxy the letter of the eastern patriarchs of 1848 or the decisions of the council of Constantinople of 1895 condemning the doctrinal errors of Catholics. The Russian church carefully preserves intact the Orthodox doctrine. Yet it must be stressed that the first millennium (with all the distinctiveness of the development of Christian tradition in the east and the west) on the doctrinal plane is the joint achievement of Orthodox and Catholics (which is evidenced also by the presence of western saints who lived before the schism of 1054 in the Orthodox calendar of saints).


Comments on points 25 and 26, devoted to topics of proselytism and the Unia, seem baseless. Critics of the declaration maintain that the indicated readiness of the Catholic Church to renounce any forms of proselytism and Uniate activity remains on paper alone. Recent events have already confirmed the error of stated claims. This is confirmed by the reaction of the head of the UGKTs, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav, who expressed frank disappointment against the position of Pope Francis: "From our experiences of many years one can say that when the Vatican and Moscow organize a meeting or sign some joint texts, then we (Ukrainian Greek Catholics) should not expect anything good out of this." Yet another proof of the positive achievement in the resolution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic question is the recent statement by the director of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, Metropolitan Ilarion, reporting the imminent creation of a joint Orthodox-Catholic commission for resolution of problems connected with the Ukrainian Unia.


Criticism of points 19-21 of the declaration, devoted to matters of the family and marriage, and the impermissibility of such phenomena as abortion, euthanasia, and manipulation of human life by means of biomedical reproductive technologies look like ordinary nagging. The public (domestic and foreign) knows quite well the strict position of the Russian church that is rooted in evangelical morality, which is reflected particularly in the "Foundations of a Social Concept" and later documents, that was adopted by the church authority. In this sense one cannot even theoretically talk about a change in the position of the Russian church on these questions.


At the present time, the joint declaration signed on 12 February by Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis has received a rather positive evaluation. Therefore in conclusion I would like to note briefly the following. The joint declaration is a fundamentally important step in the direction of a change for the better of the vector of the development of relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the practical result of which is, we will hope, improvement of the situation of persecuted Christians in various regions of the world and also a strengthening and further development of the Orthodox witness in a spirit of love and peace in the non-Orthodox milieu.  (tr. by PDS, posted 9 March 2016)


Russian original posted on site, 8 March 2016


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