Interview With Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev
VIENNA, Austria, NOV. 6, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox can be fruitful, though many hurdles still exist on the road to Eucharistic communion, says a leading prelate.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, commented in this interview on Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to Turkey, as well as on other topics.
Zenit News: Soon Pope Benedict XVI will visit Turkey, because he wants to strengthen the bonds between Rome and Constantinople. What is the significance of this journey as to the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue?
Bishop Alfeyev: It is to be hoped that this visit will further improve the relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. These two churches broke communion with one another in 1054, therefore it makes them especially responsible to restore unity.
In speaking about the possible impact of this meeting on Orthodox-Catholic relations as a whole, one should remember that the Orthodox Church, insofar as its structure is concerned, is significantly different from the Roman Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Church has no single primate. It consists of 15 autocephalous churches, each headed by its own patriarch, archbishop or metropolitan.
In this family of Churches the patriarch of Constantinople is "primus inter pares," but his primacy is that of honor, not of jurisdiction, since he has no ecclesial authority over the other Churches. When, therefore, he is presented as the "head" of the Orthodox Church worldwide, it is misleading. It is equally misleading when his meeting with the Pope of Rome is considered to be a meeting of the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Historically, until the schism of 1054, it was the Bishop of Rome who enjoyed a position of primacy among the heads of the Christian Churches. The canons of the Eastern Church -- in particular, the famous 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon -- ascribe the second, not the first place, to the patriarch of Constantinople.
Moreover, the ground on which this second place was granted to the patriarch of Constantinople was purely political: Once Constantinople became "the second Rome," capital of the Roman -- Byzantine -- Empire, it was considered that the bishop of Constantinople should occupy the second seat after the Bishop of Rome.
After the breach of communion between Rome and Constantinople, the primacy in the Eastern Orthodox family was shifted to the "second in line," i.e., the patriarch of Constantinople. Thus it was by historical accident that he became "primus inter pares" for the Eastern part of the world Christendom.
I believe that, alongside with contacts with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it is equally important for the Roman Catholic Church to develop bilateral relations with other Orthodox Churches, notably with the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter, being the second largest Christian Church in the world -- its membership comprises some 160 million believers worldwide -- is eager to develop such relations, especially in the field of common Christian witness to secularized society.
Zenit News: Do you think that this journey will open new horizons for the talks between the Christian and the Muslim worlds?
Bishop Alfeyev: Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is necessary and timely. It is quite unfortunate that some attempts by Christian leaders to encourage this dialogue have been misinterpreted by certain representatives of the Muslim world.
The recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's academic lecture in Regensburg is a vivid example of such a misinterpretation. The aggressive reaction of a number of Muslim politicians, as well as of many ordinary followers of Islam, has been regarded by some observers as overly exaggerated.
Some analysts asked: Are we not moving toward a world dictatorship of Muslim ideology, when every critical observation of Islam -- even within the framework of an academic lecture -- is brutally and aggressively opposed, while criticism of other religions, especially Christianity, is permitted and encouraged?
I should add, perhaps, that several theologians of the Russian Orthodox Church, even those normally critical of the Roman Catholic Church, expressed their support for Pope Benedict XVI when the controversy over his Regensburg lecture broke out. They felt that what he said was important, although, indeed, it was not quite in tune with modern unwritten rules of political correctness.
Zenit News: The Pope did away with the title "Patriarch of the Occident." What does this gesture mean? Is there any ecumenical meaning to it?
Bishop Alfeyev: Well, I was the first Orthodox hierarch that happened to comment on this gesture. Several weeks later, official comments were also made by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In my remarks I argued that repudiation of the title "Patriarch of the Occident" is likely to be considered by the Orthodox as confirming the claim, reflected in the pope's other titles, to universal Church jurisdiction.
Among the many designations of the Pontiff, that of "Bishop of Rome" remains the most acceptable for the Orthodox Churches, since it points to the Pope's role as diocesan bishop of the city of Rome.
A title such as "Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province" shows that the Pope's jurisdiction includes not only the city of Rome, but also the province.
"Primate of Italy" indicates that the Bishop of Rome is "first among equals" among the bishops of Italy, i.e., using Orthodox language, primate of a local Church. Following this understanding, none of the three titles would pose a problem for the Orthodox in the event of a re-establishment of Eucharistic communion between East and West.
The main obstacle to ecclesial unity between East and West, according to many Orthodox theologians, is the teaching on the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. Within this context -- unacceptable and even scandalous, from the Orthodox point of view -- are precisely those titles that remain in the list, such as Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.
According to Orthodox teaching, Christ has no "vicar" to govern the universal Church in his name.
The title "Successor of the Prince of the Apostles" refers to the Roman Catholic doctrine on the primacy of Peter which, when passed on to the Bishop of Rome, secured for him governance over the universal Church. This teaching has been criticized in Orthodox polemical literature from Byzantine time onward.
The title "Supreme Pontiff" -- "Pontifex Maximus" -- originally belonged to the pagan emperors of ancient Rome. It was not rejected by the Emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity.
With respect to the Pope of Rome, "Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church" is a designation that points to the Pope's universal jurisdiction -- a level of authority which is not recognized by the Orthodox Churches. It is precisely this title that should have been dropped first, had the move been motivated by the quest for "ecumenical progress" and desire for the amelioration of Catholic-Orthodox relations.
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