Donate to RNS

Pope seeks to heal Catholic-Orthodox schism

But he's got his work cut out for him.

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.