Orthodoxy Today
The Tragedy of the Vatican’s Recent Declaration on the Roman Church

(The) kingdom (of God), is characterized, as we have shown, by humility and gentleness of heart. It is the combination of these two qualities that constitutes the perfection of the person created according to Christ. For every humble person is invariably gentle and every gentle person is invariably humble (St. Maximus the Confessor, "On the Lord's Prayer," Philokalia II).

With a stroke of the pen and with the full approval of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Levada, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church late last month effectively abrogated the spirit of Pope John Paul II Apostolic Letter on the Eastern Churches Orientale Lumen (Light of the East) of May, 1995. The Vatican released Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church that expressed concepts of Roman supremacy in language not heard for years. A spirit of loving dialogue and mutual healing cultivated over the last half century and especially in the last decade is being sorely tested.

From the outset, let me be clear that I am no expert in canon law, church history, dogmatic theology, or patristics. By God's grace I am a clinical psychologist, I coordinate the Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling Department of my Archdiocese, and I help pastor an Orthodox parish. My focus is pastoral theology (Morelli, 2006d). Having said that, I hold to the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon:

One must follow those presbyters (priests), who are in the Church and who, as we have indicated, have the succession from the Apostles, and who, together with the succession of the episcopacy, by the good disposition of the Father, have received the reliable gift of the truth.

Therefore, in communion with my Bishop by virtue of my calling by God and ordination as a priest, I offer the following comments as pastor and counselor.

Orientale Lumen: The Publican and the Pharisee

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18: 10,11,13).

Orientale Lumen is the document that charted a new course of dialogue between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Churches after centuries of estrangement. Written by Pope John Paul II, the document reflects a profound spirit of humility toward the East and a rigorous call to work to overcome historical animosity and ill will. Pope John Paul wrote:

We cannot come before Christ, the Lord of history, as divided as we have unfortunately been in the course of the second millennium. These divisions must give way to rapprochement and harmony; the wounds on the path of Christian unity must be healed ... Going beyond our own frailties, we must turn to him, the one Teacher.

Note Pope John Paul's admission that both Churches have fallen short. He spoke as the Publican did. Note too the commission to move "beyond our own frailties." There is no hint of the pride of the Pharisee who said he was "not like other men"

The willingness of Pope John Paul to declare the words of the Publican "be merciful to me a sinner" is illustrated later on in the document. He wrote:

Among the sins which require a greater commitment to repentance and conversion should certainly be counted those which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for his People. In the course of the thousand years now drawing to a close, even more than in the first millennium, ecclesial communion has been painfully wounded, a fact for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.

Pope John Paul asserted that the healing has to occur in both Churches; a process that requires each to be open to the operation of the Holy Spirit:

It is necessary to make amends for them and earnestly to beseech Christ's forgiveness. The sin of our separation is very serious: I feel the need to increase our common openness to the Spirit who calls us to conversion, to accept and recognize others with fraternal respect, to make fresh, courageous gestures, able to dispel any temptation to turn back. We feel the need to go beyond the degree of communion we have reached.

From a pastoral perspective, the assertion that healing between the Churches can only take place through the self-acknowledgment of "our own weakness" is very important. It affirms the teaching of the Church Fathers that humility is the primary virtue and no healing of the relationships between people can take place without it. Pope John Paul drew from scripture to amplify this point:

It is significant that Christ said these words precisely at the moment when Peter was about to deny him. It was as if the Master himself wanted to tell Peter: 'Remember that you are weak, that you, too, need endless conversion. You are able to strengthen others only insofar as you are aware of your own weakness. I entrust to you as your responsibility the truth, the great truth of God, meant for man's salvation, but this truth cannot be preached or put into practice except by loving'. Veritatem facere in caritate (To live the truth in love, cf. Eph 4:15); this is what is always necessary. Today we know that unity can be achieved through the love of God only if the Churches want it together, in full respect for the traditions of each and for necessary autonomy.

These words are pastorally appropriate. They confess infirmity and express the desire for healing. They are not accusatory and certainly not arrogant, and reveal a sense of longing that the Western Church might pray the prayer of the Publican, "Lord have mercy on me a sinner" while inviting Eastern Churches to take up the same prayer.

This has been the spirit informing the dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Church for nearly a decade. It exists in high level conferences as well as grassroots efforts such as the Orientale Lumen Conferences sponsored by the Society of St. John Chrysostom (www.olconference.com).

Have we forgotten the Publican?

Contrast the charitable words of Pope John-Paul with those in the directive "Aspects on the Doctrine of the Church" released last week:

However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.

Clearly something has changed, or so it seems absent any clarification from the Vatican. Most apparent is the definitive tone of Roman supremacy and the lack of any reference to the necessary humility required for constructive dialogue to take place. Healing relationships is always a very sensitive enterprise and when one party points to the other's problems while not confessing his own, dialogue stops.

I recall that at my first Oriental Lumen Conference in 2005 that I was heartened when a member of the Roman Curia acknowledged that the Vatican realized that the Orthodox Churches would only accept the Papacy as it existed in the first century. He also acknowledged that the curia needed to be dismantled and that the jurisdictional functions that originally rested in the dioceses need to be returned. The Orthodox Churches on the other hand, needed to accept some kind of centralized coordination of Patriarchal Sees so that the Church could more clearly speak with one voice.

If Rome wants to revert to the old approach of lecturing the other churches using the language of "defects" and the like, then in short order the attitude of mutual accusation will return. The progress gained in the last decade will be forfeited. A tragic and disastrous breakdown may occur.

Rome must not forget that for the Orthodox, doctrines surrounding the Papacy present an intractible problem. Papal infallibility for example, was declared by a single Patriarch (the Pope of Rome) and a local council (Vatican I). It has no binding authority on the rest of Christendom. While the Orthodox can affirm a primacy of honor to the Roman pontiff, we do not recognize his jurisdictional claims as authoritative. That is one reason why the most recent statement from the Vatican is so troubling. It seems to dismiss the one issue on which the Orthodox cannot compromise. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, the Russian Orthodox Church representative on the International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches wrote not long ago:

Historically, the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the Christian Church, from our point of view, was that of honor, not jurisdiction -- the jurisdiction of the pope of Rome was never applied to all the churches ... there can be no compromise whatsoever ... on papal primacy.

More recently Bishop Hilarion said "We, the Orthodox, believe that, being not in communion with them, the Roman Catholic Church lacks something in its condition."

Breakdown or Opportunity? A Pastoral Perspective

From a pastoral perspective, the failure of the latest Roman directive lies in the fact that no discussion with the Orthodox Churches took place before it was distributed. A lesson that both sides -- East and West -- need to remember is that statements made in the spirit of the Pharisee, that is, accusatory, condescending, prideful, insensitive, and such, erode the fragile steps of reconciliation.

I hope the Vatican realizes that they need to clarify their statement. I am the president of the Eastern Orthodox Clergy Conference in San Diego. I am active in the Society of St. John Chrysostom and have attended the Orientale Lumen Conference for the past three years. If Rome really believes that the Orthodox "lack something in their condition," then I see no point in continuing dialogue.

Yet, God can make all things new. A return by the Vatican to the spirit of Pope John Paul's letter that fostered the dialogue between East and West can correct its recent missteps:

For us, the men and women of the East are a symbol of the Lord who comes again. We cannot forget them, not only because we love them as brothers and sisters redeemed by the same Lord, but also because a holy nostalgia for the centuries lived in the full communion of faith and charity urges us and reproaches us for our sins and our mutual misunderstandings: we have deprived the world of a joint witness that could, perhaps, have avoided so many tragedies and even changed the course of history.

Let's hope the Vatican sees its error.


Morelli, G. (2006a, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, September 24). Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting4.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, October 31) Conflict and Disagreement: An Analysis of Pope Benedict's Remarks Based on "The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee" and Conflict Management. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliIslam.php.

Morelli, G. (2006d, December 21). The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHealing.php.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: July 13, 2007

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