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Infallibility refers to the power of the pope to teach without error when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals, ex cathedra.

The Catholic position regarding papal primacy can be historically explained and justified (despite the fact that absolute monarchies have generally passed away in the secular spheres of government). On the other hand, the Orthodox cannot accept the form of governance that has evolved in the Catholic Church. Despite the apparent impasse, it would be a cynical act of desperation to declare the problem unsolvable.

When Vatican II took a creative approach in formulating a new vision of the church, the traditional doctrine was upheld and the church freed itself from unnecessary fetters. The solution to this presumed unsolvable dilemma has already borne much fruit. Cannot the same be done with the Petrine ministry?

Some have proposed that the pope bind himself and his successors to legal restraints that would not permit them to act in certain cases independently of the college of bishops. However, such a proposal is questionable and might prove to be only a “quick fix” that would not provide for a lasting Christian unity.

Perhaps the greatest defect in such a proposal is that it seeks to establish Christian unity by starting at the top. Similar attempts were made during the 13th and 15th centuries, but, even though agreements between the churches were signed, true unity was never realized.

Lasting unity will likely be achieved only by beginning at the grassroots level. Only after an atmosphere of serenity and trust has been created can institutional questions such as the renewal of the papacy be addressed.

Unity of Christians. Perhaps the issues of reunion of churches should be postponed to a time when Catholics and Orthodox have become accustomed to living together. Instead, attention should be given to the unity of Christians. Such an approach requires the conversion of individual Christians to the quest for unity. Individual acts of love, generosity and self-sacrifice without expectation of reciprocity or immediate results will contribute more to the ecumenical movement than any official agreements.

A painful question concerns the sharing of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Catholic Church has already approved of sacramental sharing on an individual level in certain situations: Catholics are, under certain circumstances, permitted to receive the Eucharist from an Orthodox priest. Likewise, Catholics permit Orthodox to receive the Eucharist from a Catholic priest when an Orthodox priest is unavailable. (The Orthodox Church has not yet made comparable provisions regarding its faithful nor does it permit Catholics to receive the Eucharist from an Orthodox priest.)

The current arrangement regarding sacramental sharing is a pastoral accommodation to the circumstances of particular individuals that could well be generalized. Further, since Catholic and Orthodox faithful are permitted to receive communion in both churches, perhaps someday Catholic and Orthodox priests could be permitted to concelebrate the Eucharist in both churches. Decisions regarding matters of such importance would naturally rest with the appropriate authorities of both churches.

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Tags: Unity Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Pope John Paul II