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Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church

First, the representation of the Orthodox Churches was almost complete, demonstrating the effectiveness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s efforts to increase participation. It should be kept in mind that at Emmitsburg, the Orthodox churches of Jerusalem, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia and the Czech and Slovak Republics were not represented, and the churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Russia, Cyprus, Poland and Finland each sent one representative instead of the allotted two. At the previous meeting in Balamand in 1993, the Orthodox churches of Jerusalem, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, and Czech and Slovak Republics were not present, and the churches of Poland, Albania and Finland sent only one representative.

By contrast, at Belgrade all of the autocephalous and autonomous churches were represented by two members each, except for the churches of Antioch and Finland which sent one representative, and the Bulgarian Orthodox delegation which was not present due to illness. This much more ample representation of the Orthodox Churches at Belgrade is a very positive sign. Indeed, the participation of all the Orthodox Churches will be essential if the dialogue is to make real progress towards the reestablishment of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Second, at Belgrade the dialogue was able to overcome the impasse that had been reached at Emmitsburg on the topic of uniatism, and return to the theological agenda that had been set out in the 1978 plan for the dialogue. The course of the dialogue since 1990 has revealed the wisdom of the original plan, and shown that the departure from the plan because of events in Eastern and Central Europe had led to a dead end. The status of the Eastern Catholic Churches cannot be resolved without first dealing with the theological questions that lie at the heart of the division between Orthodox and Catholics: Does the fact of their full communion with other churches throughout the world place any limitations on the independence of local or national churches? If there must be such limitations, what are they? What kind of authority, if any, must be held by the local church that serves as the center of the universal communion in order for that church to fulfill its role? It is questions such as these that must be answered before the problem of uniatism can be resolved.

Thus the mere fact that the international commission was able, at long last, to consider the text originally prepared for the 1990 Freising meeting is an enormous step forward. This document, entitled, “The Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Conciliarity and Authority in the Church,” begins to address precisely those questions that made agreement on the issue of uniatism impossible. The document could not be finalized in Belgrade, and it appears that there were disagreements among the Orthodox themselves regarding the document’s treatment of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate among the Orthodox Churches and the methodology of the dialogue.

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