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Ecumenical Progress: 5 Thoughts on Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, sign the Joint Declaration - AP

Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, sign the Joint Declaration – AP

Leaders of two major branches of world Christianity joined together on November 30, 2014 to issue a joint statement about the need for shared theological reflection, commitment to common purposes, and dialogue with other religious groups to establish understanding and justice. Special consideration was also given to Christians living in war zones in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, are pictured here signing the resolution. Below are excerpts from the text (inset), with comments following major sections.

For more on these perspectives, see past posts The Impact of Pope Francis and How the East Sees the West.

1. There is a common lineage and history, even if they have been estranged for centuries. By establishing these models at the outset, the statement invites an atmosphere of familial ties.

We, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, express our profound gratitude to God for the gift of this new encounter enabling us, in the presence of the members of the Holy Synod, the clergy and the faithful of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to celebrate together the feast of Saint Andrew, the first–called and brother of the Apostle Peter. Our remembrance of the Apostles, who proclaimed the good news of the Gospel to the world through their preaching and their witness of martyrdom, strengthens in us the aspiration to continue to walk together in order to overcome, in love and in truth, the obstacles that divide us.

The history of these two communions extend beyond any existing institutions which have subsequently arisen. Both look to the calling of Jesus’ disciples as the initiating point for the lineage of their leadership. However these two groups have differed, they can recall their shared history in the accounts of the Apostles in scripture. By recalling these common ancestors, each community has a model to follow in pursuing these new relationships.

2. The task of detangling theological positions for the sake of meaningful dialogue is difficult, but one that can be a source of inspiration and witness to the people of the world.

We express our sincere and firm resolution, in obedience to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox. As well, we intend to support the theological dialogue … which is currently dealing with the most difficult questions that have marked the history of our division and that require careful and detailed study. To this end, we offer the assurance of our fervent prayer as Pastors of the Church, asking our faithful to join us in praying “that all may be one, that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).

The differences between Catholic and Orthodox stem from foundational decisions in theology– the nature of Christ’s metaphysique, the function of atonement, the essence of the presence of the spirit of God– that were formed in contextual realities and solidified in stalwart positions in the centuries since, despite changes in the world and theological questions. The statement today reflects a growing desire to move out from behind the entrenched positions and find common ground in theological reflection. The theological depth of these traditions cannot be appropriately conveyed in this post, I recommend Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church (Link) and The Shape of Catholic Theology (Link) by Aidan Nichols for thorough introductions to the tenets of the faith, each written by an eminent scholar from their particular tradition.

3. Christians living in the Middle East who are being persecuted need assistance and the nature of religious freedom requires co-existence.

We express our common concern for the current situation in Iraq, Syria and the whole Middle East. We are united in the desire for peace and stability and in the will to promote the resolution of conflicts through dialogue and reconciliation. While recognizing the efforts already being made to offer assistance to the region, at the same time, we call on all those who bear responsibility for the destiny of peoples to deepen their commitment to suffering communities, and to enable them, including the Christian ones, to remain in their native land. We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for two thousand years. Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes. It even seems that the value of human life has been lost, that the human person no longer matters and may be sacrificed to other interests. And, tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many.  As Saint Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). This is the law of the Christian life, and in this sense we can say that there is also an ecumenism of suffering. Just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity. The terrible situation of Christians and all those who are suffering in the Middle East calls not only for our constant prayer, but also for an appropriate response on the part of the international community.

The recent plight of the church in Syria has been a dramatic incursion of violence against a historically marginalized religious community. To advocate for the fair treatment of minority Christians also requires that consideration is given to religious minorities living in “Christian” territories. The challenge facing the international community lies in how to define and defend this religious space, where fundamentalist sects or violent co-opters of religious traditions leave deep scars in communities that desire peace.

4. The issues facing religious leaders cannot be the domain of Christians alone.

The grave challenges facing the world in the present situation require the solidarity of all people of good will, and so we also recognize the importance of promoting a constructive dialogue with Islam based on mutual respect and friendship. Inspired by common values and strengthened by genuine fraternal sentiments, Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war. Moreover, as Christian leaders, we call on all religious leaders to pursue and to strengthen interreligious dialogue and to make every effort to build a culture of peace and solidarity between persons and between peoples. …

This statement reiterates the positions of both leaders to seek the positive influence of their religious counterparts and in people of faith, generally. This has a profound impact on the local level, as religious communities often live in ambivalence, if not hostility, toward one another. While followers of the Islamic faith are specifically mentioned in the statement (as they constitute the religious majority in the region under consideration), a similar spirit could be extended to other religious traditions and perspectives.

5. The “churches” of these two leaders encompass the faithful within each other’s traditions

Our thoughts turn to all the faithful of our Churches throughout the world, whom we greet, entrusting them to Christ our Saviour, that they may be untiring witnesses to the love of God. We raise our fervent prayer that the Lord may grant the gift of peace in love and unity to the entire human family.

“May the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you” (2 Thess 3:16).

I have hope from these closing paragraph that the spirit of communion is being extended beyond the bounds of individual traditions to see the faithfulness of different perspectives and practices. In a global landscape of increasing diversity in the church, it is essential that we are able to distinguish that the elements in which we differ are largely based on cultural and historical association and that, despite the rigor of our theological traditions, we share more in common with our brothers and sisters than we typically consider. May this spirit of commonality and communion be the guide by which we engage and enjoy the family of God and Church of Jesus Christ.

Please find the full text of the Joint Declaration at this link from Vatican Radio

Michael Shepherd is the editor of Global Theology and an adjunct professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, USA. He is a graduate of that institution and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, USA.


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