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Can Europe Breathe with One Lung? Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue Today

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

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Paper at the VI Gniezno Convention "The Europe of Dialogue. Being a Christian in a pluralistic Europe", 17 September 2005

Christianity must breathe with two lungs, Eastern and Western. This metaphor, which belongs to the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov and derives from the worldview of Vladimir Soloviev, is very popular in Catholic circles. It was used by the late pope John Paul II in his public addresses. Today Ivanov's metaphor is often used with regard to Europe and European Christianity, as well as within the context of the dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. The dynamics of the Catholic-Orthodox relations in contemporary epoch makes the theme of the two lungs of European Christianity particularly relevant.

Catholic-Orthodox relations at the beginning of the new pontificate

The year 2005 was marked by a number of events that may have strong impact not only on the life of the Roman Catholic Church, but also on the entire area of ecumenical relations, in particular on the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

On April 2 Pope John Paul II passed away. He was the most influential religious leader of modernity, and he made an impact on the entire human civilization. Indeed, his influence went far beyond the Roman Catholic Church, which he headed for more than a quarter of a century. His message was heard and appreciated by millions of people all over the world, not only Catholics, but also Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths and, what is perhaps even more remarkable, by people of no faith. By his presence, by his words, by his smile and by his extraordinary openness he was able to attract millions of people to Christ.

His life coincided with enormous geopolitical changes which altered forever the face of Europe. These changes, unfortunately, led not only to the introduction of religious freedom in those Eastern European countries where it had previously been violated, but also to the aggravation of inter-confessional situation in some regions of Eastern Europe. A number of problems arose, in particular, between the Orthodox and the Catholics in Russia and Ukraine, which prevented the leaders of the Orthodox Church in both countries from meeting with the Pope.

The hope for such a meeting and for a new development in the relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches is reinforced by the election of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as the 265th Pope of Rome. Though it was an internal event in the life of the Roman Catholic Church, many people throughout the world, notably within the Orthodox milieu, have certain expectations and hopes related to the new pontificate.

First of all, many Orthodox hope that the Catholic Church will continue to preserve its traditional doctrinal 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.

Secondly, there is hope that the Catholic Church will continue to combat liberalism, secularism and relativism both in Europe and outside it.

Thirdly, there is hope 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 will one day 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.

It is to be hoped, next, that there will be a general amelioration in the relations between the Catholic Church and the world Orthodoxy. In 2000 I represented the Moscow Patriarchate at the session of the Mixed Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission, which took place at Baltimore, USA, and discussed the question of Uniatism. No agreement on this issue was reached, and the discussion, which was full of frustration, disappointment and bitterness on both sides, ended without any decision as to whether or not the work of the commission would ever be resumed.

Just a few days ago, however, the renewed Orthodox delegation to the Mixed Commission met after a five-year break. The meeting took place in Istanbul, on the invitation of His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The delegation agreed with the proposal of the Roman Catholic side to begin the discussion of the theme of primacy in the Universal Church. At the same time, the delegation underlined the necessity to continue, within the framework of ecclesiology, the discussion of Uniatism, which was left unfinished at Baltimore.

A European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance?

The work of the Mixed 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 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. I strongly believe that the time has come for Catholics and Orthodox to unite their efforts and to defend traditional Christianity, which is being attacked from all sides.

This is why a few months ago I proposed to form a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance in order for the official representatives of the two churches to work on a common position on all major social and ethical issues, and to speak with one voice. There is already the Conference of European Churches, where the Orthodox work together with Protestants, Anglicans and Old Catholics; there is the COMECE, where Catholics discuss matters of pan-European importance among themselves. But where is a common Catholic-Orthodox forum?

The proposed 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. Why, then, should we not be able to reveal our unity on all these major issues urbi et orbi?

The rationale behind this 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.

The Catholic-Orthodox Alliance is meant to be something completely different from the Mixed Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission. 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.

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.

On all social and ethical issues the Catholic-Orthodox Alliance could act as an authoritative partner in the dialogue with such European international organizations as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. The Alliance could also represent traditional Christianity in the dialogue with Judaism, Islam and other world religions. Such dialogue is very crucial today, the more so that on many ethical issues both Judaism and Islam are closer to traditional Christianity than modern liberal Protestantism.

Within the framework of the alliance we could also formulate the 'code of conduct' of the Catholics in predominantly Orthodox countries and of the Orthodox in predominantly Catholic countries, which is necessary to solve the problem of proselytism. In this regard the alliance would act as a Catholic-Orthodox Bishops' Conference on a European level. Incidentally, during the Eucharistic congress in Bari in May 2005 Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, advanced the idea of a Catholic-Orthodox 'Council'. The reaction to this idea in the Orthodox world was rather reserved, because the word 'council' in this context bears certain specific connotations: it reminds the Orthodox of the Ferrara-Florence, Brest and other similar 'councils' where the Orthodox were forced into a Unia. It seems to me that at this stage it is far too early to speak about any Catholic-Orthodox 'council' with the aim of reaching a dogmatic or ecclesiological unity. It is much more ralistic, however, to speak about a strategic alliance which would help the Catholics and the Orthodox in Europe to defend not only their 'confessional' interests, but also the interests of traditional Christianity as such.

Uniatism as an obstacle on the way towards unity

One of the obstacles in the dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is the question of Uniatism. The Mixed Commission for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue at its 1990 session in Freising (Germany) stated the following regarding Uniatism: 'We reject it as a method for the search for unity because it is opposed to the common tradition of our Churches.' In 1993, during the seventh plenary session of the Joint Commission which took place in Balamand (Lebanon), the representatives of both Churches confirmed that Uniatism 'can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed or as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking.' Many practical guidelines were developed in order to lessen the tensions that exist between the Orthodox and the Catholics in various regions of the world, where they co-exist. The document also stated the following: 'Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Eastern, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytizing among the Orthodox. It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own faithful and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church.'

The above statements may seem to have solved the problem. Unfortunately, however, the recommendations which were made have so far remained on paper, and the Greek-Catholics do not want to follow them. On the contrary, an active expansion of Uniatism takes place in the Ukraine. Uniatism attempts to go beyond Western Unkraine, which for several centuries was its traditional area of habitat, and to expand to the East, where it was never any prominent. The recent transfer of the headquarters of the Greek-Catholic Archbishop from Lviv to Kiev is a clear testimony to this. From the point of view of the Orthodox, the only explanation for this transfer is that the Greek Catholics want to increase their membership through proselytising among the Orthodox Christians.

We must clearly state that the politics of double standards in unacceptable for the inter-church relations. It is inadmissible that Uniate expansionism be condemned on paper but fostered in practice. Unia is not only a regrettable fact of the past, which deepened the division between Christian East and West, but also a serious obstacle towards unity at present. Only conscious abstention of the Greek-Catholics from expansionism and adherence to the practical recommendations of the Balamand document may reduce tensions between them and the Orthodox and pave the way towards a significant improvement in the whole area of Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Today, as never before, we need a united Christian voice in Europe which is rapidly secularized and dechristianized. It is not a Unia that we need, nor a second Council of Ferrara-Florence. We need a strategic alliance, and we need it hic et nunc. In twenty, thirty or forty years it may simply be too late. The ultimate goal of visible unity must not disappear from our horizon, but we should not hope for its speedy achievement. On the other hand, nothing should prevent us from uniting our efforts in order to defend Christian tradition, without waiting for the restoration of full unity between the two lungs of European Christianity.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Europe website (new window will open).

Posted: 25-Sep-05

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