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Churches confront 1000-year schism

Churches confront 1000-year schism


by Christopher Pearson
The Australian
September 19, 2009

ARE the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity at long last about to settle their differences?

According to Catholic Archbishop of Moscow Paolo Pezzi, "it is possible, indeed it has never been so close". In an interview with Corriere della Sera that appeared on Monday, he said the end of the schism "could happen within a few months".

"Basically we were united for 1000 years. Then for another 1000 we were divided," he was quoted as saying. "Now the path to rapprochement is at its peak and the third millennium of the church could begin as a sign of unity. There are no formal obstacles but everything depends on a real desire for communion. On the part of the Catholic Church the desire is very much alive."

Said Pezzi, "On issues of modernity, Catholics and the Orthodox feel the same way. Nothing separates us on bioethics, the family and the protection of life." On doctrinal matters, the two churches were essentially in agreement, although "there remains the question of papal primacy".

My first reaction on reading Pezzi's remarks was to wonder whether he'd been carried away by a burst of ecumenical enthusiasm. Was it conceivable that enmities, entrenched since 1054 and still to this day treated like freshly opened wounds in the monasteries of Mount Athos, could be so swiftly healed?

Then I thought about Pezzi's see, Moscow, which inevitably makes him something of a points man with the patriarchate and especially well placed to comment on the state of the rapprochement with the largest of the Orthodox national churches. Was he perhaps rhetorically minimising the remaining differences in order to remind both sides that, with sufficient goodwill, reunion was increasingly close to attainable?

Certainly the election of Benedict XVI has been a fillip for closer ties between Eastern and Western Christianity. His speeches at the beginning of his reign on the priorities of unity and ecumenism were particularly well received in the Orthodox world because they knew full well it was they he was wooing, rather than the Protestant denominations with which union was inconceivable.

From the Moscow patriarchate's point of view, Benedict's election also provided a clean slate to work with. The fact that John Paul II was a Slav only complicated matters, conjuring up as it did the vexed historical relations between Poland and Russia.

Where the Russian church in particular had mixed feelings about the previous pope's involvement in the collapse of communism and was mostly indifferent to his philosophical writings, members of itshierarchy have often said how much they admire Benedict as a theologian andthe foremost living exponent of Augustinian thought.

This year has also seen the election ofPatriarch Kirill I as leader of the Russian church. He was formerly the bishop in charge of the Moscow patriarchate's department of external relations and has ahistory of amicable dealings with the Pope, both in recent years and when he was a cardinal.

It's worth noting that the day after Pezzi's interview appeared, Archbishop Igor Hilarion, the new head of external relations, began a five-day visit to Rome for high-level talks and a meeting with the Pope.

Hilarion said on Tuesday: "We have frank and rather efficient dialogue and our objective is to present the Christian vision to today's world."

A consideration that no doubt weighs with the Orthodox bishops, when wondering how far rapprochement may reach, is Benedict's approach to turning around the liturgical chaos he inherited.

They see liturgy as a given, to be modified with great care and only in cases of undoubted necessity. It's no exaggeration to say that most of them found the ritual reforms of Paul VI incomprehensible concessions to modernity.

Perhaps that was Pezzi's main point when he said both churches now felt the same way about modernity. Benedict's own liturgical practice, unlike John Paul II's, is a model of sobriety and restraint, incorporating plainchant and elements of the older rite which he has de-restricted for the growing minority who want it. For the wider church he has often spoken of the need for "a reform of the reform" and a return to tradition and the rubrics rather than Rafferty's rules.

Whether the Eastern churches decide that an attempt at reunion is worth the bother may well depend on how they judge the chances that this Pope and his likely successors can restore a measure of liturgical order and corresponding doctrinal uniformity. The East has always insisted on the Latin axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, which can be roughly translated: as we worship, so shall we believe.

For them, orthopraxis is the best guarantee of doctrinal orthodoxy and 1970s-style attempts to reduce the significance of the liturgy to "a community sharing a meal" are utterly anathema.

Much will also depend on how Benedict deals with the Traditional Anglican Communion, which has made a formal, unconditional submission to be received into union with Rome. This is a case in which the Orthodox are particularly interested because, like them, the TAC allows its priests to marry.

How sympathetically the Vatican accepts large numbers of Western-rite married clergy while upholding its own discipline of clerical celibacy will be a test of its institutional bona fides. Since the Greek Catholic rites already have married clergy this may not turn out to be much of a problem, but the TAC also has married bishops -- many of them with undoubtedly valid episcopal orders via the Polish National Church -- and how the Vatican handles them in the course of the next six months or so, as the details of their reception and their subsequent ecclesiastical status are sorted out, will be much discussed in Athens and Belgrade.

Pezzi nominated one outstanding item in need of resolution; the papal primacy. Whether it proves a sticking point will depend a lot on the goodwill of the parties, because it's not hard to imagine Rome accepting a primacy that was almost entirely symbolic for the sake of unity and being able to present a united front in proclaiming the gospel. No doubt various models of how largely autonomous regional churches might work have long been under consideration and preconditions for intervention identified in the event of an outbreak of heresy or schism.

Another problem which has long bedevilled relations between Rome and Orthodoxy is the question of jurisdiction. The Orthodox have a markedly territorial approach, not least in the Catholic Ukraine and Pezzi's see of Moscow, which is also evident in quite recent ecclesiastical turf wars over converts.

This sort of approach may have been a satisfactory solution in mission districts in the 20th century when, for example, the inhabitants of colonies and nation-states were arbitrarily divided up between the mainstream churches on a geographical basis. However, in a pluralistic age, when the whole world has turned into a collection of mission districts, it no longer seems remotely plausible. If there is to be an undivided, universal church, with all the promise of hybrid vigour and mutually enriched traditions it holds out, it will have a multiplicity of rites and an interweaving of parallel jurisdictions.


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