A Fascinating Proposal for Catholic-Orthodox Reunion

The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation is a group made up of representatives from both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church who have explored the question of under what conditions full union between what John Paul II referred to as the two “lungs” of the Body of Christ might be possible.  On October 2, at Georgetown, they outlined their vision of a reunified Church.  Now, the Consultation is just that: it’s Catholics and Orthodox spit-balling ideas, and doesn’t have any binding authority.  But their vision of a unified Church is nevertheless thrilling.  Here are the broad outlines they sketch, with my reaction:

6. The Shape of Communion. It is difficult to predict what a structure of worldwide ecclesial communion, sacramental and spiritual, between our Churches, might look like. Some of its main features, however, would include the following:

a) Mutual Recognition: the larger units of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, including patriarchates and other autocephalous Churches, would explicitly recognize each other as authentic embodiments of the one Church of Christ, founded on the apostles. This would include the recognition of our fundamental agreement on central Christian dogmas, as revealed in Scripture and articulated in mutually recognized ecumenical Councils, despite variations in our theological and liturgical traditions.

Certainly, were the Orthodox Church to return fully into the Catholic Church, the existing patriarchal structures would be best preserved.  This is a no-brainer, and there’s a good history of it.  When the Marionite Church fully returned to the Catholic Communion, She retained Her patriarch and internal structure.  It’s the patriarch, not the pope, who decides most of the liturgical day-to-day decisions, and it’s seemingly worked quite well. The pope is their theological and doctrinal head, while the patriarch is the go-to for administrative and most liturgical issues.  Since the Eastern Orthodox would be retaining the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (as the Eastern Catholic churches do), it makes sense to leave in place a central authority which uses that liturgy.

What I’m less okay with is this idea that all we need to do is agree fundamentally on the “central Christian dogmas,” while having variations in theology. This sounds like “Mere (Apostolic) Christianity,” and the Catholic Church has always been quite clear that we can’t reject or ignore portions of the revealed Truth just because they happen to be divisive.  These aren’t our Truths to compromise: we’re in service to another.  We can tinker with the way man runs the Church on Earth: we can’t toy with the Truths entrusted to us.  In any case, general agreement on the big issues is what we already have.  Let’s raise the bar here.

b) A Common Confession of Faith: both our Churches would confess the same basic Christian faith, as expressed in the Christian canon of Scripture and in the Churches’ traditional creeds. The “faith of Nicaea,” professed by the ancient councils as the foundation of Christian faith and practice, is received most fully in the original form canonized at the Council of Constantinople in 381, as understood through the canons and prescriptions of the other ecumenical councils received by Orthodox and Catholic Christians. As we have suggested in our 2003 statement “The Filioque: a Church-Dividing Issue?” the original Greek form of the Creed of 381, because of its authority and antiquity, should be used as the common form of our confession in both our Churches.

The idea, in other words is to not say the Filoque, because it’s divisive. This isn’t unthinkable: at Catholic-Orthodox religious celebrations, it’s my understanding that the Creed is said without it. And, as the document notes, that’s how the Creed originally read. The Filoque is a later addition. But here’s the catch: the Holy Spirit does proceed from the Son, and many of the early Church Fathers, including in the East, affirmed this.  So while we could remove it from the Creed in order to restore it to its original form, we can’t remove it from the Deposit of Faith.  So we’d have to be clear that we weren’t recanting the truth of the Filoque, just honoring the original form. While possible, I’m wary of this one, since it will seem to the uninformed like the Catholic Church just mulliganed on dogma.

c) Accepted Diversity: different parts of this single Body of Christ, drawing on their different histories and different cultural and spiritual traditions, would live in full ecclesial communion with each other without requiring any of the parts to forego its own traditions and practices (see Unitatis Redintegratio 16).

Absolutely. The Eastern Catholic Churches are testament to the success of this approach. We can have different forms of expression of the same common Faith.

d) Liturgical Sharing: members of all the Churches in communion would be able to receive the sacraments in the other Churches; priests and bishops would express their unity in concelebration, and the heads of the other Churches would be commemorated liturgically in the diptychs. In addition, other forms of common liturgical prayer would be encouraged as a regular practice involving both our Churches.

Amen! It’s been painful not to be able to receive Christ at Eastern Orthodox Liturgies, and we’ve always recognized their Sacraments.

e) Synodality/Conciliarity: the bishops of the reunited Churches would meet regularly in regional synods, which would regulate the common life and relationships of the Churches in a particular region and provide an occasion for mutual correction and support. Bishops of all the Churches would be invited to participate fully in any ecumenical councils that might be summoned. Synodality would operate at various levels of ecclesial institutions: local, regional and worldwide. Aside from episcopal structures of synodality, the laity would be active participants in this dimension of Church life.

The intent here is to help restore the middle level of governance: something in between local bishop and global Pope/Ecumenical Council.  Probably, this would entail, for the West, taking the Province more seriously. If you’re not familiar, bishops head diocese, and these dioceses are grouped in “provinces.”  Each province has one archbishop.  The archbishop is something of a “first among equals” within the province, and isn’t directly in control over the other bishops, so I can see why this structure would be appealing to the East.

f) Mission: all the Churches would share a common concern for what directly affects their unity, as well as for their mission to non-Christians. As sister Churches, they would also engage in common efforts to promote the realization of a Christian moral vision in the world.

Great idea, obviously. Is anyone against this?

g) Subsidiarity: following the ancient principle recognized as normative for well-organized human structures, “higher” instances of episcopal authority would only be expected to act when “lower” instances were unable to make and implement the decisions necessary for continuing union in faith. This would mean, among other things, that in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, at least, bishops would be elected by local synods or by other traditional methods of selection. Those elected to major episcopal or primatial offices would present themselves to other Church leaders at their level, to their own patriarch, and to the bishop of Rome as first among the patriarchs, by the exchange and reception of letters of communion, according to ancient Christian custom. The bishop of Rome would also inform the Eastern patriarchs of his election.

This one’s a radical idea, but not necessarily a bad one.  In other words, the Pope wouldn’t be the one electing (or even vetoing the election of) bishops at least in the East… and possibly throughout the entire Church.  As far as theology and doctrine are concerned, this idea is sound.  The ancient Church certainly practiced it, and it’s one viable option.  But pragmatically, it’s sort of scary: imagine another Cardinal Mahony ascending the ranks, and turning some section of the world into his own fiefdom, without the pope to keep his theologically-unsound picks for bishop in check.  On the other hand, the current system probably leaves too much power in the hands of papal nuncios, which can cause real problems (as anyone familiar with the picks of Abp. Jean Jadot is aware).

h) Renewal and Reform. Ordered growth is essential to the health and well-being of the Church, and this means both continuity and change. For the Church, an essential aspect of this growth is renewal: the continual rediscovery of its fundamental identity as the Body of Christ, based on its experience of the Paschal Mystery, in the constant readiness to take on new forms of common life and witness and to adapt itself to new historical situations. In the words of a late medieval aphorism, “The Church is always in need of reform (ecclesia semper reformanda).” By making their catholicity concrete through full communion, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches would be realizing this life of reform in a new, undreamed-of way, and would be committing themselves to continuing renewal and growth – but now together. Life in communion with each other would be a life lived in readiness for a new Pentecost, in which people of many nations and cultures are formed anew by the living Word of God.

These are surprising words for a document with Eastern representation: they’re loathe to alter anything, even those things which may be “updated.”  It was something of a scandal when the Catholic Church updated the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite.

After this, they tackled the question of the papacy, which was fascinating as well:

7. The Role of the Papacy. In such a communion of Churches, the role of the bishop of Rome would have to be carefully defined, both in continuity with the ancient structural principles of Christianity and in response to the need for a unified Christian message in the world of today. Although the details of that role would have to be worked out in a synodal way, and would require a genuine willingness on both sides to accommodate one another’s concerns, a few likely characteristics of this renewed Roman primacy would be these:

a) The bishop of Rome would be, by ancient custom, the “first” of the world’s bishops and of the regional patriarchs. His “primacy of honor” would mean, as it meant in the early Church, not simply honorific precedence but the authority to make real decisions, appropriate to the contexts in which he is acting. His relationship to the Eastern Churches and their bishops, however, would have to be substantially different from the relationship now accepted in the Latin Church. The present Eastern Catholic Churches would relate to the bishop of Rome in the same way as the present Orthodox Churches would. The leadership of the pope would always be realized by way of a serious and practical commitment to synodality and collegiality.

In other words, the pope should know when to leave well enough alone, and allow the local authority to run things as it chooses. Again, the history of the Eastern Catholic Churches shows a willingness to abide by this from the Catholic side. It’s possible that the authors of this text have something more in mind, but it’s not all together clear to me. Are they wanting the Eastern Orthodox to have the relationship that the Eastern Catholics now have with the pope? Or are they wanting both Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox to have a new relationship with the pope, something in between what the two current possess? I’m a bit concerned about the second possibility, because it seems to be almost nominal assent towards Roman primacy.

b) In accord with the teaching of both Vatican councils, the bishop of Rome would be understood by all as having authority only within a synodal/collegial context: as member as well as head of the college of bishops, as senior patriarch among the primates of the Churches, and as servant of universal communion. The “ordinary and immediate” jurisdiction of every bishop within his particular Church, would be “affirmed, strengthened and vindicated” by the exercise of the bishop of Rome’s ministry (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 27; cf. Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus 3). In a reunited Church, this understanding of papal and episcopal authority, as complementary and mutually enhancing, would have to be expanded to include the much more complex patterns of local, primatial, and patriarchal leadership that have developed in the Eastern Churches since patristic times.

The document makes clear this is already the vision the Catholic Church has of the pope: it’s just not how that relationship appears to the non-papally inclined. So this one’s a no-brainer, too. The pope is, as one of his titles proclaims, “Servant to the Servants of God,” called with Peter to “strengthen thy brethren,” not lord over them (Luke 22:31-32).

c) The fundamental worldwide ministry of the bishop of Rome would be to promote the communion of all the local Churches: to call on them to remain anchored in the unity of the Apostolic faith, and to observe the Church’s traditional canons. He would do this as a witness to the faith of Peter and Paul, a role inherited from his early predecessors who presided over the Church in that city where Peter and Paul gave their final witness.


d) His universal role would also be expressed in convoking and presiding over regular synods of patriarchs of all the Churches, and over ecumenical councils, when they should occur. In the Western Church, this same presiding function would include convoking and leading regular episcopal synods. In harmony with the Pope’s universal ecumenical ministry, the Roman curia’s relationship to local bishops and episcopal conferences in the Latin Church would become less centralized: bishops, for instance, would have more control over the agenda and the final documents of synods, and the selection of bishops would again normally become a local process.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but this seems less about unity between the East and West, and more about Western bishops saying, “Butt out!” to the pope. Certainly, given how much more liberal bishops are than the pope, this would be a goal they’d persue. And to be quite blunt, if Western bishops were to receive this additional authority, they’d need to learn some courage and fortitude.

e) In cases of conflict between bishops and their primates that cannot be resolved locally or regionally, the bishop of Rome would be expected to arrange for a juridical appeal process, perhaps to be implemented by local bishops, as provided for in canon 3 of the Synod of Sardica (343). In cases of dispute among primates, the bishop of Rome would be expected to mediate and to bring the crisis to brotherly resolution. And in crises of doctrine that might occasionally concern the whole Christian family, bishops throughout the world would have the right to appeal to him also for doctrinal guidance, much as Theodoret of Cyrus did to Pope Leo I in 449, during the controversy over the person of Christ that preceded the Council of Chalcedon (Ep. 113).

Good idea, and a good example supporting it: the East did historically submit tough cases to the pope to have them resolved. 


To use an example from law, the federal courts are made up of district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court.  Each circuit court serves as an appellate body over a defined region, and reviews the decisions of the district courts upon request.  Now, the Supreme Court, wisely, often lets these circuit courts do their own thing, even if “the Supremes” might have come out differently had they heard the case themselves.  This approach lets them tackle only the most important issues.  Eastern Orthodoxy today looks like a system of circuit courts with no Supreme Court in which to appeal.  There’s structure and organization, but it’s a headless structure.  Modern Catholicism, on the other hand, has seen one of the historic patriarchies (Rome) grow enormously for reasons owing as much to do with history as theology (yesterday, Columbus Day, should give you at least one hint as to how Rome’s region got so huge). Since there’s so much need for appeals from the local diocese, so little intermediate authority to handle it, and the pope only has so many hours in the day, the Roman Curia has grown up as something of a bureaucracy to handle this.  Within the Curia, papally-appointed bishops handle cases from around the world.  There are merits to this approach: you can get the best and brightest bishops to handle cases they’re extremely good at (Ratzinger’s stint as head of CDF is the perfect example here).  But taking the collegality and synodal nature of the Apostolic Church seriously means that we should probably look long and hard at this current structure to see if there’s a better manner in which regional bodies can resolve disputes and conflicts, preserving only the most intransigent disputes for Il Papa.  As a result, the promise of a reunited Church, with the intermediate bodies of the Patriarchs back in their proper place is a sweet sound.

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