The European religious press is abuzz over recent developments in Orthodox-Catholic relations that indicate both Churches are moving closer together. The diplomatic centerpiece of the activity would be a meeting of Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was first proposed by Pope John Paul II but never realized. Some look to a meeting in 2013 which would mark the 1,700th anniversary of the signing of the Edict of Milan when Constantine lifted the persecution of Christians. It would be the first visit between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow in history.
A few short years ago a visit between pope and patriarch seemed impossible, because of lingering problems between the two Churches as they reasserted territorial claims and began the revival of the faith in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The relationship grew tense at times and, while far from resolved, a spirit of deepening cooperation has nevertheless emerged. Both Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill share the conviction that European culture must rediscover its Christian roots to turn back the secularism that threatens moral collapse.
Both men draw from a common moral history: Pope Benedict witnessed the barbarism of Nazi Germany and Patriarch Kyrill the decades-long communist campaign to destroy all religious faith. It informs the central precept in their public ministry that all social policy be predicated on the recognition that every person has inherent dignity and rights bestowed by God, and that the philosophical materialism that grounds modern secularism will subsume the individual into either ideology, or the state, just as Nazism and Communism did. If Europe continues its secular drift, it is in danger of repeating the barbarism of the last century or of yielding to Islam.
The deepening relationship does not portend a union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Roman Catholics are more optimistic about unity, because they are less aware of the historical animus that exists between Catholics and Orthodox. Nevertheless, while the increasing cooperation shows the gravity of the threat posed by secularism, it also indicates that the sensitive historical exigencies can be addressed in appropriate ways and times and will not derail the more pressing mission.
The cooperation has also caused the Churches to examine assumptions of their own that may prove beneficial in the long run. The meaning of papal supremacy tops the list.
On the Orthodox side the claims to a universal jurisdictional supremacy of the patriarch of Rome have been rejected since (indeed, was a cause of) the Great Schism of 1054 (see here and here). That said, the Orthodox see the pope of Rome as the rightful patriarch of the Church of Rome and could afford him a primacy of honor in a joint council, but not jurisdiction.
On the other side, the Orthodox do not have a Magisterium, a centralized Church structure that speaks for all the Orthodox in the world. This has led to some fractious internal wrangling throughout the centuries, although doctrine and teaching has remained remarkably consistent.
It will come as no surprise for anyone to know that the Orthodox have difficulties with some of the claims made by the Catholic Church concerning the precise responsibilities and the nature of the authority associated with the bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church has long recognized this as a basic difference between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. The rise of militant secularism, however, and the cultural challenges this creates for Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike, have focused everyone’s minds on how they can cooperate to address these issues of ethics and culture.
Protestants have a stake in the outcome as well, particularly as attitudes have softened towards Rome due in large part to Pope John Paul II’s exemplary leadership during the collapse of communism in the last century. Protestant ecclesiology has no real place for priest or pope, which makes the nature of discussions between them and the Catholics or Orthodox entirely different. Nevertheless, as the soul-denying ramifications of secularism become more evident, an increasing number look to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for leadership.
The most visible ambassador for the Orthodox Church is Oxford-educated Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokomansk, who runs the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. Observers report that a deep respect and even genuine fondness exists between Metropolitan Hilarion and Pope Benedict, which has contributed to the recent thaw.
Both of them note with alarm the increasing attacks on the Christian faith in Europe and on Christians themselves in other parts of the world, a development they term “Christophobia.” Metropolitan Hilarion brought these points forward several years back when he first challenged the European Union for omitting any mention of the Christian roots of European civilization in the EU Constitution. That earned him considerable worldwide notice, and he has become increasingly outspoken towards any attempts to silence the Christian testimony or dim the historical memory of Christendom.
From the Orthodox side, it is clear that the leadership that deals with the concrete issues that affect the decline of the Christian West is emerging from Moscow. One reason is the sheer size of the renewed Russian Orthodox Church. The deeper reason however, is that the Russians have direct experience with the suffering and death that ensues when the light of the Christian faith is vanquished from culture.
Decades before the fall of Communism was even a conceptual possibility for most people, Pope John Paul II prophesied that the regeneration of Europe would come from Russia. At the time many people thought it was the misguided ramblings of a misguided man. It is looking like he knew more than his critics. We are fortunate to have these two leaders, Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill, to help guide us through the coming difficulties.