Pope seeks to heal Catholic-Orthodox schism

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Residence of the Patriarch of Constantinpole

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Residence of the Patriarch of Constantinpole

Residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople

Residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople

Pope Francis made news on his trip to Istanbul last weekend by visiting the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople and pledging that in its efforts to achieve full unity with Eastern Orthodoxy the Catholic Church “does not intend to make any demands, other than the profession of a common faith.” Thereby, wrote Vatican Insider’s Gianni Valente, “Francis gave Orthodox Churches the perfect chance to come out of the cocoon-like and sometimes gelatinous environment of ecumenical good manners and take the first concrete steps to overcome the most serious effects of the split that came about in the second millennium.”

Don’t hold your breath. For the Orthodox, profession of a common faith means resolving four issues — in ascending order of gnarliness:

1. Communion. Catholics use unleavened bread; the Orthodox, leavened. Both sides must be prepared to swallow Communion in both kinds.

2. Worship. Because of the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, Orthodoxy does not permit statues to be venerated; Catholicism does. Can the Orthodox, icon-venerators though they be, live with statue-venerating Catholics?

3. The Trinity. Between the 6th and the 9th century, the Western church assumed the position that the Holy Spirit proceeded not only from the Father (as articulated in the classic version of the Nicene Creed that emerged from the Council of Constantinople in 381) but also “and from the Son.” The insertion of this phrase (“filioque“) into the Catholic version of the creed has been a serious bone of theological contention between the Eastern and Western churches for over a millennium, and while efforts have been made to bridge the divide, it will not be easy because the Orthodox choke on the filioque.

4. The Papacy. This is the biggie. Where the Orthodox are prepared to recognize the pope as the first among equals, Catholics consider him the church’s universal sovereign. Unless and until the place of the papacy in the wider church is sorted out, there will be no unity between East and West.

In that regard, Francis did not make his ecumenical project easier a month ago when, in a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, he described bishops as constituting “one single College, gathered around the Pope, who is the guardian and guarantor of this profound communion that was so close to Jesus’ heart and to his Apostles’ too.” And, he concluded:

No Church is healthy if the faithful, the deacons and the priests are not united to the bishop. This Church, that is not united to the bishop, is a sick Church. Jesus wanted this union of all the faithful with the bishop, including the deacons and priests. And this they do aware that it is precisely in the bishop that the bond is made visible with each Church, with the Apostles and with all other communities, united to their bishops and the Pope in the one Church of the Lord Jesus, that is our Hierarchical Holy Mother Church.

These words, which went unremarked in Catholic circles, have caused consternation in Orthodox ones. “Therefore,” wrote blogger John Sanidopoulos Sunday, “according to Pope Francis, the Orthodox Church ‘is a sick Church,’ and the restoration to health of such a Church only takes place by united with ‘the Pope in the One True Church of the Lord Jesus,’ namely the Roman Catholic Church.”

As I said, don’t hold your breath.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Mark,
    “Pope seeks to heal Catholic-Orthodox schism”
    The word “heal” in the title of this article seems a bit misleading. Just from the content of the article itself, I get the impression that the Pope is looking for capitulation. His emphasis on “union of all the faithful with the bishop” leaves little doubt that he considers himself the rightful head of the Church, and will brook no compromise on the subject.

  • The Orthodox bishops are not interested. Even if they were, they’d be shrewd to put it on the back burner until Francis and his clown car denizens have left the ring.

  • ctd

    (1) Whether the host is leavened or unleavened is a matter of tradition, not doctrine. Many of the Eastern Catholic churches used leavened bread. It’s a non-issue.

    (2) The “veneration” of statues and icons are not comparable, whether it be from a Catholic or Orthodox perspective. Another non-issue.

    (3)The filioque is an issue, but it is not as great as Silk would make it out to be. For the Catholics, the inclusion or absence of the filioque is non-essential, as is demonstrated by the Eastern Catholic churches that do not use it.

    Silk is right that the papacy is the big issue, but Pope Francis’ views of the papacy move in the direction of a more Orthodox view. Sanidopoulos misconstrues Francis’ words. He did not say that the Orthodox churches were “sick.” The pope stated that a church not united to its bishop is not healthy. This would be true for both Orthodox and Catholic churches. The pope did not say that churches not united with the pope were unhealthy.

    It seems like the more I read Mark Silk the more it appears that he does not know what he is talking about. This post confirms that trend.

  • Jim

    the host is unleavened because it was Passover……matza….

    the statue is not venerated…the person is venerated

    If Francis lives a thousand years, he might reunite east and west.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Jim,
    “the statue is not venerated…the person is venerated”
    And the relics?

  • David Freyer

    Was it not the Roman church, through self-serving pride and disagreement with the Truth (filioque), that decided to tear itself away from the Truth of Jesus Christ’s Early Christian Church, universally now known as the Orthodox Church?

    While the Pope may be considered as First Among Equals, it does not mean he is the Church’s head. It means he is the Church’s voice in matters of Faith, Truth, and Canon Law, but only in concert with his equal Bishops..
    It is the Roman Church that must be humble enough to admit its sins, and seek forgiveness of its equal Orthodox Bishops, before the Eastern and Western Churches can come together in faith and The Canons to realize the Church as started by Jesus Christ and spread throughout the known world by His Twelve Apostles.

  • but Pope Francis’ views of the papacy move in the direction of a more Orthodox view. –

    No. Francis does not like not getting what he wants and has acquired a history of abuse of power already.

  • Rick

    I couldn’t agree more. Silk clearly has none of the necessary background information to write an informed article on Catholic-Orthodox relations. He should stick to some other area of religion where he can avoid making the basic errors he committed in this article. His interpretation of Francis’ words about sick churches went beyond a fundamental misapprehension of Francis’ ecclesiology – it created a slam against Orthodoxy where none was stated or intended.

  • Rick

    Sadly, this comment betrays the negativism, condescension and lack of humility that so often infects Orthodox comments on Roman Catholicism and the Pope. The bias is so intense that it is almost impossible to say anything positive about either, and no resolution is possible until there is complete capitulation to everything Orthodoxy demands. It is the equivalent of unilateral surrender in another context. A little less judging and a little more openness would go a long way in bridging the divide.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    With good will from each side the problems listed here could be easily solved. For example many Orthodox theologians agree that some prominent Church Fathers (who they revere) had no trouble with the filioque–just the manner it was inserted which could be considered a procedural question like the leavened bread controversy


    This would be true if the Church were only popes and bishops. But what about us lay Catholics or Orthodox in the pews? Aren’t we anything? Francis needs to look over his ecclesiology again.


    I should have added: who needs these theologians to mess things up? They are as good as the scribes Jesus mentions in the Gospel.

  • Alecto

    The biggest divide is not the papacy, but the insistence by Catholics on what the papacy represents: infallibility, which wasn’t formally adopted into Catholic doctrine until the late 19th century. This belief is not part of the whole of Christian tradition, continues to separate Catholic from Protestant as well and is the one belief non-Catholics cannot and will never accept. The head of every Christian church is God, based on salvation in Jesus Christ, not the infallibility of whomever happens to occupy Vatican apartments at the time.