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Towards a Catholic-Orthodox Alliance

Robert Moynihan

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Interview with Hilarion Alfeyev, Bishop of Vienna and Austria, Representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, by Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of 'Inside the Vatican', on 24 April 2005, the day of enthronement of Pope Benedict XVI.

What are your hopes for the new pontificate?

As a Russian Orthodox bishop, I hope, first of all, that the new pontificate will be marked by a breakthrough in relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches, and that a meeting of the Pope of Rome with the Patriarch of Moscow does take place. This meeting must be preceded by concrete steps in the direction of a better mutual understanding, and by careful elaboration of a common position on major dividing issues.

I hope, next, that there will be a general amelioration in the relations between the Catholic Church and the world Orthodoxy, and that the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission resumes its work after a five-year pause, or that a new commission for bilateral dialogue is formed in order to discuss Uniatism, primacy and other theological and ecclesiological questions which still divide our churches.

As far as the Catholic Church as such is concerned, I hope that it will continue to preserve its traditional social and moral teaching without surrendering to pressures from the 'progressive' groups that demand the ordination of women, the approval of the so-called 'same-sex marriages,' abortion, contraception, euthanasia, etc. There is no doubt that Benedict XVI, who has already made his positions on these issues clear, will continue to oppose such groups, which exist both within the Catholic Church and outside it.

I also hope that the Catholic Church will continue to combat liberalism, secularism and relativism both in Europe and outside it. Just two days before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, the then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed his fellow cardinals with a sermon which, according to some journalists, broke like a thunderclap. 'We are moving,' he said, toward 'a dictatorship of relativism. that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure.' A sermon on the eve of the conclave was meant to be programmatic, and it is clear that the war against relativism which Cardinal Ratzinger declared did not scare the other cardinals: on the contrary, by electing him as Pope they expressed their readiness to join him in this noble, but extremely painful and difficult combat.

In order for this combat to be more inclusive, I have recently suggested that a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance be formed. This alliance may enable European Catholics and Orthodox to fight together against secularism, liberalism and relativism prevailing in modern Europe, may help them to speak with one voice in addressing secular society, may provide for them an ample space where they will discuss modern issues and come to common positions. The social and ethical teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are extremely close, in many cases practically identical. I have had a chance to compare the 'Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,' published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004, with the 'Bases of the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church,' approved by the Bishops' Council of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000. There are so many striking similarities and so little ifference. Why, then, should we not be able to reveal our unity on all these major issues urbi et orbi?

How does this proposed alliance differ from the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission that you have already mentioned?

It is meant to be something completely different. The commission must be concentrated on what divides us, while the alliance should explore, clarify and then publicly announce the things on which we are united. The commission will be concentrated on the matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, while the alliance should be centred on social and moral issues. The commission will continue the internal Catholic-Orthodox debate, which has already lasted for many centuries, while the alliance should enable us, without necessarily overcoming our internal problems, to form a common front to defend Christianity as such against everything that may challenge it now or in the future.

I was the sole representative of the Moscow Patriarchate at the last session of the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission, which took place in Baltimore in 2000, and I remember how difficult the discussion on the issue of Uniatism was. There was so much frustration, disappointment and bitterness on both sides that not only no agreement was reached, but even the decision on whether the work of the commission would ever be resumed was not taken.

Even if resumed, the work of the Joint Commission will not be an easy one and is likely to continue for many years to come. My fear, however, is that by concentrating exclusively on the dividing issues, such as Uniatism, proselytism and primacy, we are likely to lose precious time that could be used for a common witness to the secularized world. Europe, in particular, has so rapidly dechristianized that urgent action is needed in order to save it from losing its centuries-old Christian identity.

This is precisely why I propose that, parallel to and independently from the Joint Commission, a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance should be formed in order for the official representatives of the two churches to be able to elaborate a common position, in particular, on all major social and ethical issues. The two churches can speak with one voice, and there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of secularism, liberalism and relativism. If necessary, some other issues of mutual interest could be a subject of discussion within the framework of the alliance with the view of presenting a unified position on them.

Why should Protestants be excluded from your proposed alliance?

In the struggle against relativism the Roman Catholic Church takes an uncompromising stand, but by doing so it further distances itself from Protestants, whose positions are in most cases much more in tune with modern developments. Protestants are, therefore, rather unlikely allies in this struggle. Moreover, there already exist many forums, organizations and agencies promoting the dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on social issues. There are also Protestant-Orthodox forums, such as the Conference of European Churches. What is almost entirely lacking in Europe is any space for a Catholic-Orthodox dialogue on social and ethical issues, while this dialogue would be so timely and so vital.

The rationale behind my proposal is the following: our churches are on their way to unity, but one has to be realistic and understand that it will probably take decades, if not centuries, before this unity is realized. In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. Without being one Church, can we act as one Church? Can we present ourselves to the outside world as a unified structure, as an alliance? I am convinced that we can, and that by doing so we may become much stronger.

Why, then, a European alliance and not a world alliance?

Firstly, because I believe that it is in Europe that the most deadly battles between Christianity and relativism are going to take place in the nearest future. It is in Europe that the onslaught of militant secularism against religion takes the most aggressive forms. It is Europe that most obsessively denies its Christian heritage. It is in Europe that crucifixes are taken away from schools, religious symbols are banned from public places, and Christianity becomes an object of constant criticism, outrage and mockery. It is in Europe that a profound demographic crisis affected Christian population, threatening its very survival. Not that these processes do not take place in other parts of the world, but it is in Europe that they become so stunningly evident.

Secondly, in Europe there is a certain numerical balance between Catholics and Orthodox: 280 million of the former against 210 million of the latter. In some other parts of the world (like, for example, South America) the former outnumber the latter to such a degree that no dialogue on an equal footing is feasible.

How, in concrete terms, do you see such an alliance organized? Who should take the initiative? Who will take part? What kind of structure do you envisage?

It would be ideal if the initiative comes from the top, e.g., from the Pontiff, or from the leadership of the Orthodox Churches, or it could be a joint initiative. The important thing is that it should be an official proposal, and that the official representatives of the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches take part. There are already quite a number of 'grass-root' initiatives, various discussion groups on the level of clergy and laity, but until something is done on the official level, I do not think we may speak about any type of real alliance.

As far as the structure is concerned, it should be developed by the Churches themselves. The Catholic side may consist, for example, of representatives of the European Bishops' Conferences, while the Orthodox side may consist of the representatives of all Local Autocephalous Churches that are present in Europe. ComECE emerges as the most obvious partner to the Orthodox, if such a structure is taken as a basis. One also has to define whether we are speaking about the EU or about Europe in general. I would personally advocate the latter option, in which case ComECE may be enlarged by representatives of the Bishops' Conferences from non-EU countries.

Another type of structure is when the Catholic side consists of those people nominated by the Curia, while the Orthodox of those nominated by each Local Church. This was precisely how the Joint Commission was formed and this, I believe, was one of the reasons for its failure. A model based on local participation seems to me to be more appropriate.

I also believe that the Oriental Orthodox Churches should from the very beginning be a part of the alliance on behalf of the Orthodox family. There is no Eucharistic communion between the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but their spirituality and ethos, as well as their social and moral teachings are quite identical. Moreover, in an ecumenical context the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have already proved to be able to act as one Orthodox family.

Suppose such an alliance is formed, what issues should it address?

Apart from the issues of militant secularism, liberalism and relativism, which I already listed, it should, in my view, concentrate on various aspects of family and sexual ethics, as well as on bioethical questions. The Catholic Church has already made its official position on family, marriage, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, cloning etc. known to the world, so have some Orthodox Churches, notably the Russian Orthodox Church in its 'Bases of the Social Conception.' But where is a united position?

I believe that the modern battle between traditional Christianity (by which I mean primarily the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches) on the one hand and secularism, liberalism and relativism on the other is primarily centred round the question of values. It is not a theological argument, because it is not the existence of God that is debated: it is the existence of an absolute moral norm, on which human life should be founded, that is put into question. The contest has an anthropological character, and it is the present and future of humanity that is at stake.

By defending life, marriage and procreation, by struggling against legalization of contraception, abortion and euthanasia, against recognition of homosexual unions as equal to marital ones, against libertinage in all forms, Catholics and Orthodox are engaged in a battle for survival of the European civilization, of European peoples, of Europe as such. Let us unite our efforts and form a common front of traditional Christianity in order to protect Europe from being irrevocably devoured by secularism, liberalism and relativism.

Reprinted with permission from 'Inside the Vatican'. The web site of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions.

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Posted: 28-Apr-05

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