An Orthodox Response to the Roman Catholic Decree on Ecumenism


On Saturday January 17 I had the pleasure of being part of an ecumenical panel and giving a response from the Orthodox perspective on a keynote address on Roman Catholic ecumenism. The year 2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council, and the day was marked by a conference held at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in Vancouver. Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, gave the morning keynote address on the conference’s topic, “Christian Unity: Have We Answered the Call?”, and a number of people were asked to give a brief response, including Dr. Hans Boersma of Regent College, and Dr. Richard Leggett, of the Anglican Church of Canada. My own response is printed below.

It is a great joy for me to be with you at this ecumenical conference which celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism. I often think that the best ecumenism is done in the catacombs. That is, as the world around us grows ever darker, ever more secular, and ever more hostile to the historic and traditional Christian Faith, we can discover more easily what it is that unites us and makes us different from the world. After all, when the world marginalizes, mocks, or even persecutes Christians, it doesn’t much care whether or not they are Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant. A martyr is a martyr is a martyr, whatever denominational confession he makes and whatever team jersey he wears. The persecuting world cares more about our common Christian Faith than it does about our confessional differences and distinctives.   All the more reason for us to learn more about each other now. We may possibly be sharing a cave together in the future. That is not to suggest that these distinguishing distinctives do not matter. They do. And they will give us something to talk about if we ever find ourselves huddling together in that cave.

For the present however we are not huddling in any cave, but holding our heads high in Vancouver. And we have come together to talk about the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, and to discuss the question “Christian Unity: Have We Answered the Call?” Perhaps rather than sharing my rather minimal experience with our ecumenical partners (I gave a talk on icons once in a Roman Catholic church in New Westminster, give a lecture on Orthodoxy each year in Regent College, and attended the local Coptic church when their Pope visited last year—all told, a rather slim portfolio) it might serve our time better if I offered some reflections on the Decree on Ecumenism and the progress made since its promulgation fifty years ago from an Orthodox point of view.

The first step of course is to examine Christian Unity as defined by the Decree on Ecumenism. As an Orthodox, I would also like to look at the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches from the Second Vatican Council, and also the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

It is hard not to like the original Decree on Ecumenism. Prior to this Orthodox and non-Catholics were classified as heretics and schismatics, and were confidently consigned to hell. I remember an anecdote shared with me by an Eastern Rite Catholic priest (which anecdote may be apocryphal) of some Protestants having an audience with the Pope in the days prior to Vatican II. They asked him to offer a prayer for them, and in response he prayed in Latin the prayer offered over incense in the Mass, “May you burn for His glory”. Since the prayer was offered in its original Latin, the Protestant pilgrims had no clue as to its meaning, but were delighted that the Pontiff took the time to pray with them. Apocryphal or not, the story does give a sense of the flavour of the bad ol’ days of what passed for ecumenism before the Second Vatican Council. So the change from “heretic” to “separated brother” and even “sister church” is a welcome one. One especially appreciates the graciousness and humility of the Decree. In talking about the separation of Catholic from non-Catholic, the Decree says,

“In subsequent centuries more widespread disagreements appeared and quite large Communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church—developments for which, at times, men of both sides were to blame. However, one cannot impute the sin of separation to those who at present are born into these Communities and are instilled therein with Christ’s faith. The Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church”.

The Decree has especially kind words for us Orthodox. In that decree we read:

“Everybody also knows with what love the Eastern Christians enact the sacred liturgy, especially the celebration of the Eucharist…in this liturgical worship, the Christians of the East pay high tribute, in very beautiful hymns, to Mary ever Virgin…Although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all—by apostolic succession—the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship”.

It is perhaps unnecessary here to rehearse at length the details and history of the ongoing “Dialogue of Love” between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which began in 1965 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met together in Jerusalem to pray and to “consign to oblivion” the mutual anathemas of 1054. The act, of course, had largely symbolic value, since the bishops upon whom anathemas were lifted had been dead for over a thousand years. But the Orthodox would be the last people to deny the significance of symbolism. After so many chilly years, such a thaw was very welcome, and it began a theological dialogue between the two communities which remains ongoing.

So there has been much progress since the 1960s, and much to celebrate. But some obstacles remain. It is tempting, of course, not to mention these obstacles, lest focusing upon continuing disagreements spoil a celebratory atmosphere. Maybe one should (in the words of the song), “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mister In-Between”. But there is a cost to refusing to deal with the negative and the remaining obstacles—namely the cost of not actually resolving them. Surely the best way to celebrate the ecumenical progress made since the promulgation on the Decree on Ecumenism is the keep plugging away so that we make even more progress and draw even closer together. And this plugging away involves looking at areas of remaining disagreement on the road to restoring Eucharistic communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

It might be helpful here to say a brief word about the Orthodox approach to restored communion. The Orthodox agree with the historic position of our Roman Catholic brethren that Eucharistic communion is the fruit of unity, and not an instrument used to achieve it. That is, there is no such thing properly as inter-communion, just communion. According to Orthodox theology, receiving the Eucharist does not just unite us to Christ, but also with His ecclesial Body, re-establishing and reconstituting the communicants each week as the Body of Christ. In other words the Eucharist is the sacrament of ecclesial incorporation par excellence, so that to receive Communion with someone is to share membership in the same Body, the same Church. Since the Orthodox regard our ecumenical mandate not simply as manifesting unity which is imperfectly expressed, but rather as recovering unity which was actually lost through schism, we accordingly regard Catholics and Protestants as separated to some degree from the one indivisible Body of Christ, which is Orthodoxy. In this sense we are in full agreement with the section of the Decree on Ecumenism quoted above, except that we identify “the Catholic Church” with Orthodoxy, not with the Roman Communion. Until the schism between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism has been overcome and healed, Eucharistic communion between the two communities is not possible. As previously said, Eucharistic communion is the fruit of unity and the expression of it. In this way, if you will forgive the analogy, it is like sex in marriage. Sex is meant to be the expression of matrimonial unity, so that until one is sacramentally united in marriage, one should abstain. No cheating before the wedding, or opening Christmas gifts before Christmas. And no receiving the Eucharist together before the two churches have been sacramentally reunited either. For us Orthodox, inter-communion is like sex before the marriage. No cheating is allowed.

There remain some problems to be overcome before Eucharistic communion can be restored between the two communities. In terms of this Conference’s title, we are still in the process of answering the call to unity, and from the Orthodox perspective, answering it involves dealing with several issues. I will focus upon what for the Orthodox are the two main ones. We leave aside for today the long-vexed question of the Filioque. Briefly, we seem to have reached an agreement that the original form of the Nicene Creed did not have it, and at least one Catholic-Orthodox dialogue group agreed that it might be fruitfully omitted in future Roman Catholic catechetical material.   It may be now regarded as a theologoumenon, or theological opinion. Whether or not it is a correct opinion we may leave until later. After all, we need something to discuss if we end up sharing that ecumenical cave.

Not surprisingly one obstacle to reunion is that of the papacy and the nature of papal primacy. Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics acknowledge that Peter was the leader among the Twelve, and that Peter continues to lead the Church. We differ obviously as to what is now meant by “Peter”. For our Roman Catholic friends, Peter means the Pope, and the chair of Peter is the Roman See. For us the chair of Peter lies in every diocese, and every ruling bishop is the successor of St. Peter. In other words, when Christ said, “You are Peter”, He was not establishing the papacy, but the episcopate. The Roman Catholic position is of course that by “Peter”, one now means effectively the Bishop of Rome. This is clear enough in the Decree on Ecumenism, which speaks of “the faithful preaching of the gospel by the apostles and their successors—the bishops with Peter’s successors at their head”.   It is thus in the Bishop of Rome as the head of the bishops that the Church is guided. Thus in the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches, those eastern rite Catholic Churches are “entrusted to the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in supreme governance over the universal Church”.

This view of papal primacy continues in the 1995 encyclical by Pope John-Paul II Ut Unum Sint. In that document we read:

“Among all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, the Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God established as her ‘perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity’ and whom the Spirit sustains in order that he may enable all the others to share in this essential good”.

This papal ministry is essentially an exercise of authority. We see this from the original Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches when it refers to “the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in supreme governance over the universal Church”. Note the phrase “supreme governance over the universal Church”. For us Orthodox that is precisely the problem and the fundamental difference between a Roman Catholic mindset and an Orthodox one. For us, all primacy is exercised not over the Church, but within it. The preposition is significant, for it witnesses to different and conflicting understandings of primacy and episcopal leadership in general. It is true that Ut Unum Sint describes this primacy as being situated: “within the College of all the Pastors”, and that it “consists precisely in ‘keeping watch’ (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular Churches”.   The encyclical states clearly that,

“All this however must always be done in communion. When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of Bishops, who are also ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ’. The Bishop of Rome is a member of the ‘College’, and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry”.

Fair enough. But at the end of the day, it seems that it is the Primate of the Church whose will is done. That is after all what the famous phrase “universal ordinary jurisdiction” of the first Vatican Council means. It is why at each election of a new Pope the pundits debate where this new Pope will lead the church, since it is recognized that he is the one who does the leading. Even in Ut Unum Sint, it is still the Pope’s duty “to admonish, to caution and to declare at times that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith”. In other words, the Pope is still the boss, the one who does most of the admonishing, the cautioning, and the declaring.

In any church, there must be both primacy and conciliarity, both a place for leadership and for consensus. These realities are found both in Roman Catholicism and in Orthodoxy. The issue for the Orthodox is how they relate to one another. Specifically, how does primacy interact with conciliarity? In a perfect world, there would be no conflict—all the bishops of a given locale would meet, led by their primate, and everyone would reach an easy serene consensus. In this cheery world “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (as in Acts 15:28)—so we all shared a drink and went happily home. But in the real world, conflicts arise, and consensus is not so serenely achieved. The Primate may not be on the same page as his episcopal brothers. So then what? And even when consensus is achieved among the bishops, what about the agreement and reception by the faithful throughout the world? What about their consensus? The Fathers of Nicea reached a consensus among themselves about Arius in 325, but its reception among the faithful was not secured for another generation. For us Orthodox, no council of bishops could be declared a true or ecumenical council in advance of its worldwide reception and acceptance by the faithful.

We see therefore that primacy and conciliarity are not always happy partners. In the event of conflict, which trumps which? The Orthodox answer is clear: conciliarity trumps primacy. Or put another way, the primacy is there to serve the conciliarity, not the other way round, and the primate can never there correct the assembled council or blue-pencil edit their texts without their blessing.  Our problem with papal primacy as classically exercised is that primacy always seems to trump conciliarity. We have no problem with a universal primate, but to truly be “the first servant of unity”, he must allow conciliarity to trump his primacy.

Admittedly, allowing conciliarity to trump primacy makes for messy situations and slow progress. This perhaps accounts for why the Orthodox seem to move as such a glacial speed. Orthodoxy can appear to be inefficient and chaotic in certain ways. But efficiency isn’t everything. The Emperor once did his best to make us more efficient (for example, by enforcing the decisions of councils with secular force of arms), but it was, not to put too fine a point on it, a mixed blessing. Not all efficiency is good. Anyway, papal primacy as currently expressed is the first obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox reunion, and one issue to resolved.

A second is scarcely less important—that of liturgical phronema, or mindset.  The issue here is not, let me stress, the difference between eastern and western rites, and the question of which one is preferable. In fact the Orthodox have long protested the reduction of differences between east and west to matters of rite and ritual. The model of Unia (I avoid the term “Uniate”, since it is now considered derogatory), and the idea that Orthodoxy could happily fit into the Roman Catholic world if allowed to retain its liturgical tradition and its married priests, is indeed problematic, but it is not the problem I addressing here. I am not now referring to the question of the Unia model for unity, but of what may be described as liturgical minimalism.

For there to be true unity between Orthodox and Catholics, there does not necessarily need be a common Eucharistic rite. In a reunited Church, we acknowledge the room for and legitimacy of a plurality of rites.  But Orthodox and Catholics do need a common liturgical approach, so that Orthodox visiting Catholic churches or Catholics visiting Orthodox ones feel they are still living in the same church and are sharing the same approach to liturgy and life. Currently it seems that our approaches to liturgy are very different and largely incompatible.

One difference of approach can be found in the matter of fasting. Orthodoxy requires its faithful to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy every Wednesday and Friday, and throughout the four fasting seasons of the Church year. As well as this, Orthodox must fast entirely from midnight before receiving Holy Communion the next morning.   Such a mindset finds incomprehensible making the Lenten fast optional (as I am told is sometimes done), or reducing the Eucharistic fast to one hour before the Mass. This latter seems to us a lot like not fasting at all, and more akin to not eating in between meals. This is not to suggest that all who call themselves Orthodox keep the fast as prescribed, but they know that if they don’t, they are cheating and colouring outside the lines.

Another difference can be found in the current state of the Novus Ordo Mass, which can be served quite casually in about half an hour or so. In my local experience one often finds no chanting, no incense, casual ceremonial, and (to Orthodox eyes) inappropriate liturgical use of the laity. This change from the more historic and stately High Mass strikes most Orthodox as essentially the Protestantization of the Mass, and indeed it is sometimes difficult to know whether one is listening to a modern Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran service.  The only sure way to know whether or not it is a Mass is to listen to see whether or not the celebrant prays for the Pope. One could mention the famous Clown Masses that sometimes show up on Youtube.   Granted that Clown Masses and their liturgical kin are abuses, their existence seems to witness to a different underlying phronema, a different approach to history and tradition.

My intention in all this is not polemics. After all, my own Orthodox house has more than enough glass in it, and we Orthodox are in no position to throw any stones. My sole purpose in mentioning these things is to identify which things are the real and grass-root obstacles to restoring Eucharistic communion. If we are going to honour the past by making progress in the future, these difficult issues will have to be faced. Most Orthodox laity (let’s be honest) do not understand the issues of filioque and would not care much even if they did. The insertion of the filioque into the Creed would not scandalize most of them so much as would a half hour Liturgy without incense, or the abolition of a fast. It is good for theologians to talk together, and to produce papers, and to meet together for conferences. But for a really interesting time, bring together a devout Catholic grandma and a devout Orthodox yaya, and let them talk about their differences. That would be a dialogue worth recording. And it would highlight as nothing else could the path to unity we need to tread.

Having said all that, it is good and needful for us to come together. Christendom has long since disintegrated around us. Culture and cultural history no longer unite us. Only our faith in the living and triumphant Christ does. We meet together ultimately because we love Him, and because He commands us to love each other.   We cannot yet share the Eucharistic Chalice, but we can share the love of the Lord. And without that love (dare I say it?) even the Chalice will not save us. Perhaps I may permitted to end with a last look at the catacomb cave with which we began, and with the words of St. John, the apostle of love:

“Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren…Let us love one another, for love is from God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”












  1. Interesting. Seems like the underlying source of the differences of “liturgical phronema, or mindset.” was spoken well by Fr. Schmemann in the two essays that are “appendices” at the back of “For the Life of the World”.

  2. As the Roman Catholic Church in Rome moves ever closer to adopting what is already prevalent in well more than half of her Churches, that being Modernist/Liberal Theology, including and not limited to the acceptance and normalcy of Homosexual Marriage, then restoring Eucharistic communion is no more than a pipe dream. At least I pray as much!
    (my first hand experience) Not that the S.F. Bay Area of California is unique in this respect, but to find a Roman Catholic organization in that area that does not outright embrace homosexuality, and the (within the Church) marriage thereof is a rarity.
    Yes, I know… “But they do not truly represent “The Church”. Well then, push them all out of, “The Church.” Yea, right… that will never happen!
    I can only pray that we Christian Orthodox here in North America will keep our parish’s clean!

  3. Dear Father

    I am writing as a Catholic Seminarian. Thank you for your post and another I just read on Pentecostalism. You may be glad to hear that a visiting Eastern Catholic to my Seminary, which celebrates a devout Novus Ordo with good music, incense and solemnity, said “this is like Western Orthodoxy!”

    I pray we all advance in true unity in Christ through love. God bless you.

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