On September 21, 2016, the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church met in Chieti and released an agreed statement with the long title, Synodality and Primacy during the first Millennium: Towards a common understanding in service to the Unity of the Church”. It did not chart the way forward toward consensus, but did agree upon a common understanding and interpretation of the past—a not inconsiderable achievement.
This achievement was significant because Roman Catholicism, represented by its polemicists, formerly held to a view of history in which the Orthodox East of the first millennium embraced a view of the papal primacy more or less identical with that of post-Vatican I, in which the eastern part of the Church submitted to the Pope as the head of the Church with jurisdiction and canonical rule over its totality. In this view of history, the East rejected its former attitude of complete submission to the Pope’s authority and was therefore guilty of the sin of schism and rightly anathematized as heretical and schismatical. The only path forward therefore for the East was one of repentance and return to their former submission to the Pope. That is what passed for ecumenism in the old days.
The Roman Catholic Church has since modified its view of history. In the words of the Catholic Herald reporting the meeting in Chieti, “The document has accepted a reading of the first Millennium which is more in tune with the way Orthodoxy has tended to see it than that favoured by Catholic apologetics until recent times…It recognises that even in the West the understanding of Roman primacy was the result of a development of doctrine, particularly from the fourth century, and that this development did not occur in the East”. This is a great step forward, since any further progress toward unity must at least agree upon what did or did not actually occur in the past. Both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy regard the praxis of the early church as in some way authoritative, so it is imperative that they agree about of what the praxis consisted. The consensus achieved at Chieti is therefore to be welcomed and celebrated.
But not, I think, over-stated. That is, as even the Catholic Herald discerned, it is far too early for those hoping for an imminent reunion of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy to uncork the champagne. When and if the hoped-for reunion takes place, it will not take place because a few people have met someplace to produce an agreed statement. If it takes place at all it will take place because everyone everywhere throughout the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy sees that the two groups have become so similar in their approach to life, in their dogmas, and in their spirituality that staying apart is manifestly stupid. That is, the unity will be apparent as a reality on the grass-roots parish level, and not simply on the level of ecclesiastical bureaucracy with delegates meeting somewhere in the stratosphere to produce yet another agreed statement (which statements already exist in enough profusion to wallpaper the Vatican or the Phanar).
Some people (who always seem to end up on Facebook) have suggested that before reunion can take place the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, the former must first renounce its attachment to the papal dogmas pronounced at Vatican I, its views of ancestral sin and the Immaculate Conception, its view of Purgatory, etc., etc. Others have retorted that such an insistence simply sets conditions whereby a reunion will never occur, and is therefore ill-considered, if not actually churlish. But surely reunion is not the issue? Rather truth is the issue, and reunion can only be based upon agreement in the truth. Orthodoxy must not insist upon (for example) Roman Catholicism abandoning its views on Purgatory because it wants to rub the Pope’s nose in the polemical mess of history, but because those views are in fact erroneous. It would be happy if the Roman Church abandoned those views even if reunion never took place, simply because truth is preferable to error.
The sad and sober fact is that the hoped-for reunion is miles away because the Roman Catholic communion differs from Orthodoxy in many things which are essential to the fullness of life and the healthy functioning of the Church. One thinks here for example of the Roman Catholic Church’s virtual abandonment of its ascetical tradition, wherein Lenten fasting is made optional in North America and the Eucharistic fast reduced to one hour prior to receiving the Eucharist. One thinks of its legalistic view of divorce and remarriage, of its centralism whereby the Pope is made the pilot of the entire Church in a kind of cult of celebrity. These things are objectionable not simply because they are barriers to reunion, but because they are barriers to spiritual health, and Rome should dump them even if they never spoke another word to the Orthodox.
Roman Catholics do not need to embrace the entire liturgical tradition of Orthodoxy and begin celebrating the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as is currently celebrated among us. Their own classic Roman Mass is valid and wonderful as it is (or was). The Orthodox do not insist that Rome “return to Orthodoxy” in the sense that it scrap everything western to embrace everything eastern in its stead. But Orthodoxy does or should insist that Rome return to its own primordial western traditions of the first millennium, when it functioned efficiently as part of the historic Pentarchy, as the elder brother among its other patriarchal brothers. When this occurs, with all the liturgical, ascetical, canonical, and dogmatic consequences this implies, all will see that there no longer remains any reason for East and West to remain out of communion. The reunion then will not be a controversial possibility to be debated, but an obvious reality to be celebrated and sealed. But until this occurs, reunion between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism will not be a godly possibility, and such a reunion would only result in a schism among the Orthodox. And any heart, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, which desires the unity of East and West, will regard such a future schism with horror.