ATHENS, Greece — It’s a goal that has eluded
Christianity for nearly 1,000 years: mending the rifts between the Roman
Catholic and Orthodox churches. Pope Benedict XVI has already declared
a “fundamental commitment” to heal the divide, and earlier
this month engaged in an indirect round of talks with the Russian Orthodox.
In spiritual terms, it’s an epic invitation to repair the broken
foundation of the faith — at a time when the European Union is erasing
the last Cold War separations and some Christian leaders appeal for greater
cooperation to challenge the rise of militant Islam.
But then comes a reality check. Even the smallest steps toward reconciliation
can kick up disputes that require the finesse of a diplomat and the perspective
of a historian to overcome. And, in the end, any serious bids at rapprochement
will force the Vatican to confront some core differences such as honoring
Orthodoxy’s traditions of autonomous leadership and married clergy.
Greek theologian Athanasios Papathanasiou calls it “the pain of
It’s made more acute because the ancient divide reaches beyond religious
differences, which are mostly over liturgical points and joint recognition
of sacraments. The bigger gulf, clerics and theologians say, is one of
conflicting perceptions and priorities.
When Vatican leaders look east, they see a patchwork of Orthodox churches
with a shared fellowship in the roots of Christianity. On May 29 in Italy’s
Adriatic port of Bari, Benedict declared a “fundamental commitment”
to advance dialogue with the leaders of the world’s 200 million
Orthodox and 1.1 billion Catholics.
The Orthodox view of the West, however, is often shaded by historical
grievances — both religious and political — and deep suspicion
of Vatican motives and power.
“It’s not an even equation,” said Thomas Groome, director
of the Boston College Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.
“The deeper skepticism to any improved relations resides within
No clear vision exists about what type of unity is even possible or desirable.
For the faithful, one important landmark in the future would be a formal
pact on mutual recognition of baptism, marriage and other aspects of church
life. But that would need the Orthodox to speak in a single voice —
something that’s nearly impossible at the moment. The Orthodox world
is divided among more than a dozen autonomous churches and other congregations,
each with different views.
The Vatican, too, could be pushed into some unfamiliar spots.
Closer bonds with married Orthodox clergy don’t present a distinct
problem. The Vatican’s priestly ranks include married Eastern Rite
clerics and some Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism. It could,
however, put added pressure on the Vatican to reconsider its ban on married
A bigger challenge is sorting out the main reason for the split 10 centuries
ago: the clout of the papacy versus the Orthodox view of equal distribution
of power among its churches.
“Can Rome devise a new way of thinking of primacy that does not
lead to dominance over any other churches?” said Anton Vrame, director
of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley. “That
is the question only Benedict and the Vatican can answer.”
It may not be needed for a long time. Church experts from both sides believe
any increased collaboration in coming years may be slow and safe —
such as possible joint declarations on social issues or sharing resources
for aid work and Christian education. A hint of common ground emerged
last month in Ukraine, where Catholic and Orthodox leaders put aside their
many internal disputes to urge the government to keep Christian-oriented
classes in schools.
Last month, the head of Russia’s small Catholic community, Archbishop
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said the pontiff seeks to join forces with Orthodox
to battle “aggressive secularism.” Similar dialogue is ongoing
with the two churches and the many Protestant denominations.
“Don’t expect big things in a short time,” said Brother
Jeff Gros, a
spokesman on interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops. “If anything, this will be a gradual evolution.”A
World Council of Churches conference last month outside Athens, bringing
together clerics and scholars from nearly every Christian denomination,
demonstrated the sensitivities.
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, welcomed
more than 700 delegates with a call for greater contacts among Christians.
But he added some direct swipes against the West — a point-by-point
litany of past and present wounds felt by most Orthodox.
They go back to the Crusades, including the 1204 sacking of Constantinople,
the ancient center of Greek Byzantium and now — as mostly Muslim
Istanbul, Turkey — still the spiritual center of Orthodoxy. Christodoulos
zeroed in on the main contemporary obstacle: The growing Eastern Rite
churches that follow most Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican.
Many Orthodox see these churches as Roman Catholic encroachment and attempts
to poach followers. Hard-line Orthodox go further. To them, all non-Orthodox
Christians are heretics.
Rifts between the two ancient branches of Christianity began as early
as the fifth century over the rising influence of the papacy and later
over wording of the creed, or confession of faith.
The split was sealed in 1054 with an exchange of anathemas — or
damnations — between the Holy See and the patriarch of Constantinople.
Centuries of cultural separation deepened the estrangement and the Protestant
Reformation in the 16th century further fragmented Christianity.
Pope John Paul II turned his attention to the Orthodox world late in his
nearly 27-year papacy. He traveled to several predominantly Orthodox nations
and built close ties with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the “first
among equals” among Orthodox leaders. In Greece in 2001, John Paul
apologized for “sins of action and omission” by Catholics
The mutual outreach wasn’t enough to win over one of the most powerful
figures in Orthodoxy, the ailing Russian Patriarch Alexy II. He refused
to allow a papal trip to the world’s most populous Orthodox nation.
Benedict appears content to move slowly on any proposals to visit Russia,
but one of his first meetings as pontiff in April was with the Russian
church’s top foreign affairs envoy.
This month offers another chance for high-level messages.
On June 16, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the
Rev. Samuel Kobia, was scheduled to visit Benedict at the Vatican. Kobia
then headed for talks with the Russian Church leaders from June 18-24.
The Geneva-based group includes the Orthodox churches. The Vatican is
not a full member, but participates on many levels. The pope —_
then German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — served on a WCC panel in
Meanwhile, a joint commission is expected to be formed by next year to
“set out an agenda” on improving relations, said Father Brian
Farrell, a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting
The council president, Cardinal Walter Kasper, also urged a pan-Christian
synod — Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — to “form
an alliance to rediscover the Christian roots of Europe.”
Among the Orthodox, Russia is the heavyweight. But it’s not the
only voice. Smaller Orthodox churches have power to shape the dialogue.