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Relations between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Oriental Orthodox Churches accept the first three ecumenical councils, but rejected the Christological definition of the fourth council, held in Chalcedon in 451. Today it is widely recognized by theologians and church leaders on both sides that the Christological differences between the Oriental Orthodox and those who accepted Chalcedon were only verbal, and that in fact both parties profess the same faith in Christ using different formulas. This new understanding was the result of official meetings between Popes and heads of Oriental Orthodox Churches, and unofficial meetings of theologians sponsored by the “Pro Oriente” Foundation in Vienna, Austria.

The work of the first Pro Oriente meeting in 1971 laid the groundwork for a historic Common Declaration signed by Pope Paul VI and Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1973. Avoiding terminology that had been the source of disagreement in the past, the declaration made use of new language to express a common faith in Christ. Since that time Popes and Patriarchs have repeatedly asserted that their faith in Christ is the same. In their 1984 Common Declaration, Pope John Paul II and Syrian Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas stated that past schisms and divisions concerning the doctrine of the incarnation “in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith” because the disputes arose from differences in terminology and culture. As a result of all this, it can be safely said that the different Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Christological formulas are no longer a reason for division.

Progress has also been made in the area of ecclesiology. Both sides clearly recognize each other as churches, and the validity of each other’s sacraments. In their 1984 common declaration, Pope John Paul II and the Syrian Patriarch even authorized their faithful to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick in the other church when access to one of their own priests was morally or materially impossible. Until 2001, when a similar accord was reached with the Assyrian Church of the East, this was the only reciprocal agreement of this type.

In the midst of these contacts, a commission for dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church was set up in 1973, a dialogue with the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in October 1989, and another with the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in 1991. A national consultation between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox as a group in the United States has been meeting since 1978. This was the only example of such a dialogue anywhere in the world until 2003 when the Catholic Church and all the Oriental Orthodox churches agreed to establish a formal theological dialogue at the international level. So far it has met twelve times and has published two agreed statements: “Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church” (2009) and “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and its Implications for our Search for Communion Today” (2015).

The Catholic-Oriental Orthodox relationship has already proved its importance by providing an example of how past disagreements over verbal formulas can be overcome. This was not done by one side capitulating to the other, but by moving beyond the words to the faith that those words are intended to express. Catholics and Oriental Orthodox now agree that, by means of different words and concepts, they express the same faith in Jesus Christ.



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