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Balamand and Beyond: The State of Catholic-Orthodox Relations

by the Rev. Ronald G. Roberson, C.S.P.

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In the mid-1960s the long and often hostile isolation between the Catholic and (Byzantine) Orthodox churches finally came to an end. The bishops of Rome and Constantinople, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, broke the ice when they met in the Holy Land in 1964. In 1965 the excommunications that Rome and Constantinople had hurled at each other in 1054 were abrogated and “erased from the memory of the church.” In 1967 the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch visited each other at their sees in Rome and Istanbul. This set in motion a “dialogue of love” that the two church leaders realized had to take place before a meaningful theological dialogue could begin. The two churches had to learn first to trust each other again.

So it was only in 1976 that a joint commission was set up to prepare for the establishment of a formal theological dialogue. In November 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I in Istanbul, they announced the establishment of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It held its first organizational meeting on the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes in 1980. The commission decided to meet in plenary session every two years, with local Orthodox and Catholic churches alternating as hosts.

In its first 10 years the commission made major progress, producing three common theological documents that sketched out wide areas of agreement. Meeting in Munich in 1982, the commission issued a document describing the church and the Eucharist in light of the mystery of the Trinity. At Bari, Italy, in 1987, it adopted a text on the degree of common faith required to have sacramental communion, and on the sacraments of initiation. And in 1988, meeting at the Orthodox monastery of Valamo in Finland, the joint commission elaborated a document on ordination and apostolic succession. It also decided that the next topic of discussion would be conciliarity and authority in the church. The members of the dialogue were carefully laying a foundation of things that Catholics and Orthodox have in common in order to address more divisive issues at a later stage.

Then in 1989 the Iron Curtain collapsed. Religious persecution in Central and Eastern Europe – as we knew it – ended. In Ukraine and Romania the Greek Catholic churches that had languished underground for decades emerged and began to resume a normal ecclesial life. The Orthodox had suffered from a different form of persecution, which included extremely tight government control and lip service to the communist dictators. The Orthodox were now able to shake off government control and function freely once again.

Sadly, these happy events also set the stage for an unedifying clash between Greek Catholics and Orthodox that would warm the heart of the most dour communist bureaucrat. The immediate concrete issues centered on the return of those Greek Catholic churches and properties confiscated by the communists and turned over to the local Orthodox Churches.

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Tags: Ecumenism Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Catholic-Orthodox relations