The Primacy Debated in Vienna

For several days, leading Catholic and Orthodox theologians have been meeting in Vienna to discuss the issues which divide the two Churches. The meeting is focusing on the question of papal primacy. The ultimate goal: to end the “Great Schism” of 1054. But, is it possible?

By Robert Moynihan

Progress Toward Unity?

Something important is happening in Vienna.

For several days, leading Catholic and Orthodox theologians have been meeting in Vienna, Austria, to discuss their theological differences in view of moving toward greater unity.

(Photo: A group picture of the theologians meeting in Vienna. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna, and Archbishop Kurt Koch, the new president of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (he replaced Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is not attending this meeting) are in the center flanking Metropolitan Michael of Vienna, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Each Local Orthodox Church is represented by two delegates. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, representing the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, is on the left wearing the white head cover. Next to him Metropolitan John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon. He is the Chairman of the Academy of Athens and a noted Orthodox theologian. There is one woman in the group.)

The eventual goal?

To overcome the “Great Schism” which has separated the Eastern and Western Churches since 1054, almost 1,000 years now.

Participants at the meeting say some progress has been made during the talks.

They say a possible model for the future is that of “sister churches” with separate hierarchies and liturgies, with the Orthodox accepting the Pope as their “titular” head.

The meeting ends on Sunday, September 26.

Dangers for the Faith?

Many traditional Catholics and Orthodox have a certain fear of talks such as these.

Some, in both Churches, are concerned that theological discussions like this may lead one or the other Church to “water down” essential doctrinal teachings for the sake of an external form of union.

In this specific case, some Orthodox may fear they will be asked to accept a type of “papal primacy” they do not in conscience believe in.

Likewise, some Catholics may feel that the Orthodox may be invited into a union with Rome without giving their assent to essential Catholic doctrines on the office of the Pope.

So there are fears on both sides.

And the fears have a certain basis.

For there is always a danger that some aspect or tenet of the deposit of the faith may be placed at risk in the process of such a theological dialogue.

On the Other Hand…

But there is another concern that must also be kept in mind.

Today, in our actual historical context, there is a danger that the enemies of the Church — and the chief enemy behind them — can exploit such fears to keep Christians divided against the wishes and the prayer of Christ himself.

Christ prayed on the night of the Last Supper that all of his followers would always remain “one” — united, not divided.

But divisions between Christians came.

Some argue that divisions are necessary to clarify truth.

Assertions of heretical doctrine do call forth from the defenders of orthodoxy a clear statement of doctrinal truth.

Pope Benedict once said precisely this, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, and the chief defender of doctrinal orthdoxy in the Church, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

So, though the way is treacherous, it would seem a mistake to not at least try to set out upon this path, despite the dangers.

The Purpose of the Meeting

The purpose of this meeting is to examine key doctrinal questions dividing the Churches carefully, and calmly, and to see where the limits lie, from the perspective of each side.

And in this sense, it is a very positive sign that the meeting has been held at all, and that it hasn’t broken up in acrimony, but is continuing toward its conclusion.

For, in the end, the present state of the world counsels openness to such discussions.

In the West, a certain “post-Christian” secular vision is dominant.

At the same time, Islam is undoubtedly spreading its influence widely.

These developments seem to counsel those who profess belief in Christ as the savior of man and the Son of God — Christians, that is — make every possible effort, short of compromising the deposit of the faith, to draw closer together, first in common work and charity efforts, then, eventually, in some form of public Church unity.

Without this, not single tenets of the faith, but the faith itself, whole and entire, may find itself in danger in this world.

The Ultimate Victory

The Christian message offers an entirely new type of existence to men and women.

Preserving and defending the Church is to preserve and defend the vehicle, the means, of this message.

The theology of one of the participants at the Vienna meeting, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has expressed this in a striking and powerful way.

Zizioulas, who studied under the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, received his doctorate in 1965 from the University of Athens and has taught theology at the University of Edinburgh and then the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Zizioulas has argued that full humanity is achieved only as “person” so that one may participate (koinonia) in the personal Trinitarian life of God — participate in the life of the divinity.

He argues that man initially exists as a biological hypostasis (person), constrained as to the types of relationships such a being can have (biological) and doomed to the eventual end of this type of being — death.

He argues that Baptism constitutes an ontological change in the human, creating an ecclesial hypostasis, or person.

This rebirth “from above” gives new ontological freedom as it is not constrained by the limits of biological existence.

Such an ecclesial being is eschatological, meaning it lives in a paradoxical “now,” but “not yet.”

The completion of this rebirth from above is the day of resurrection when the body will no longer be subject to death.

The Proceedings

The 12th Session of the Joint Theological Commission for Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches began its work on 22 September 2010 in Vienna.

The commission is co-chaired by Metropolitan John of Pergamon, Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Archbishop Kurt Koch, president of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Each Local Orthodox Church is represented by two delegates. Representing the Moscow Patriarchate are Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, DECR chairman, and Prof. Archpriest Valentin Asmus, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Humanitarian University. Archimandrite Kirill Govorun, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s education committee, participates in the meeting as consultant.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna, and Metropolitan Michael of Vienna, Patriarchate of Constantinople, welcomed the participants.

The first day was mainly devoted to the methods of further work on the theme “The Primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the First Millennium.” Participants exchanged views on the status to be given to the document on this theme, which was partly considered by the previous meeting of the Commission.

In the evening, Vienna Burgomaster Michael Haupl gave dinner in honour of the participants in the session.

The 12th session of the commission will work till September 26.

On September 22, 2010, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, DECR chairman, met with the head of the Vienna archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.

Metropolitan Hilarion told the cardinal about today’s life of the Russian Orthodox Church, the trips made by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in Russia and far- and near-abroad countries, the Church’s missionary and educational work as well as the work of the Department for External Church Relations and some other Synodal institutions of the Moscow Patriarchate.

They discussed prospects for Orthodox-Catholic cooperation in Europe in general and a possibility for carrying out joint educational activities and youth events, in particular.

In conclusion of the talk, which was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere, Metropolitan Hilarion presented Cardinal Schoenborn with an icon of the Most Holy Mother of God.

(Here is a link to this information:

Reuters Report on the Meeting

And here is the full text of a Reuters report on what has happened thus far.

Catholic, Orthodox report promising progress on unity

Fri Sep 24, 2010 11:36am EDT

By Boris Groendahl

VIENNA (Reuters) – Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians reported promising progress Friday in talks on overcoming their Great Schism of 1054 and bringing the two largest denominations in Christianity back to full communion.

Experts meeting in Vienna this week agreed the two could eventually become “sister churches” that recognize the Roman pope as their titular head but retain many church structures, liturgy and customs that developed over the past millennium.

The delegation heads stressed unity was still far off, but their upbeat report reflected growing cooperation between Rome and the Orthodox churches traditionally centered in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches,” Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon told a news conference. “If we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain.”

Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity, said the joint dialogue must continue “intensively” so that “we see each other fully as sister churches.”

The churches split in 1054 over the primacy of the Roman pope, the most senior bishop in early Christianity. The Orthodox in Constantinople, now Istanbul, rejected Roman primacy and developed national churches headed by their own patriarchs.


The Vatican has sought closer ties for years but the Russian Orthodox Church — whose 165 million followers are the largest branch of the world’s 250 million Orthodox — responded slowly as it emerged from over seven decades of Communist rule.

Roman Catholicism is Christianity’s largest church, with 1.1 billion of the estimated 2 billion Christians worldwide.

Pope Benedict has close ties to the spiritual leader of the Orthodox, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, and hopes to meet Russian Patriarch Kirill, who has shown great interest in better ties since taking office in February 2009.

Benedict and Kirill are both conservative theologians who say Europe should return to its Christian roots. The Orthodox are closer to Catholicism in their theology and liturgy than the Protestant churches that broke from Rome in the 16th century.

Unity will require change on both sides, the delegation heads stressed. “I won’t call it a reformation — that is too strong — but an adaptation from both sides,” John said.

For the Orthodox, he said, that means recognizing there is a universal Christian church at a level higher than their national churches and the bishop of Rome is its traditional head.

The Catholics would have to strengthen the principle of synodality, by which a church leader consults bishops before making important decisions, he added.


Both those points are sensitive. The Orthodox traditionally prize their decentralized structures and reject the idea of a pope while the Catholic hierarchy is a pyramid with clear lines of authority from local churches up to the powerful pontiff.

To work this out, they are studying Christianity’s early history to see how the Latin-speaking West and Greek-speaking East worked together for 1,000 years before the Great Schism.

“The basic discussion is about how these churches lived in the first millennium and how we can find a new (common) path today,” Koch explained.

Koch said Pope Benedict recently showed his readiness to accept diversity in the church by inviting disaffected Anglicans to become Catholics while keeping some of their traditions.

John said a next step along the way to unity will be a pan-Orthodox council to work out relations between national churches and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has spiritual leadership but no practical authority over them.

“We hope that very soon we will be able to invoke such a council,” John said. He said the joint theological commission could probably meet again in 2012 to discuss the theological aspects of closer unity.

(Reporting by Boris Groendahl, writing by Tom Heneghan; editing by Noah Barkin)

© Thomson Reuters 2010 All rights reserved.

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