by Jonathan Luxmoore for The Tablet. The focus of this papacy has been on the East. When Pope John Paul promoted a dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, at first things went well. Then came the fall of Communism, and the relationship broke down. The Tablet‘s correspondent in Poland examines the reasons, and sees implications for the stability of Europe.
When Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople made a month-long tour of 16 cities in the United States in October and November, he was feted with honours at Washington’s Jesuit-run Georgetown University and greeted with splendour in Baltimore’s Catholic cathedral. As so often in inter-Church relations, however, the conciliatory declarations belied bitter realities.
Ironically, the sharp downturn in Catholic-Orthodox relations during the past six months came into the open after one of the Pope’s most impassioned appeals for Christian unity. The occasion John Paul II picked was a Eucharistic Congress held in May at Wroclaw in Poland. “In this our second millennium, when the unity of Christ’s disciples has suffered tragic divisions between East and West, prayer for the rediscovery of full unity is a special obligation”, the Pope said. “Can we bear joint and effective witness to Christ if we are not reconciled with one another? Can we be reconciled with one another without forgiving one another?”
The appeal was delivered three weeks before the Second European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz, Austria, on 23 June. The meeting was co-organised by the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) and the non-Catholic Conference of European Churches (CEC), and all year there had been talk that the assembly would be inaugurated by a sensational encounter between the Pope, Bartholomew and Alexis II of Russia in Vienna. But the expectations came to nothing. Bartholomew pulled out of the Graz assembly, declaring that he did not want to be drawn into “a tug-of-war over superiority”. A week later, he broke a 20-year tradition by refusing to send representatives to the celebration of the Feast of SS Peter and Paul in Rome. Meanwhile, Alexis went to Graz, but devoted his speech to an attack on foreign missionaries in Russia.
The slump in relations has since had effects locally. Russia’s new “Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations”, enacted and signed in September, is expected to have serious consequences for religious minorities in the year 2000, when a two-year deadline expires for their re-registration. Its contradictions have already opened the door to arbitrary and repressive local government actions.
Catholic-Orthodox conflicts are reverberating elsewhere too. Leaders of Romania’s Orthodox Church are angry about a draft law passed in the Senate this June. It requires Orthodox parishes to give back some of the 2,000 churches belonging to the minority Eastern-rite Greek Catholic Church, taken over when Romania’s ruling Communists outlawed Greek Catholicism in 1948.
In predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria, an international conference of legally recognised minority Churches was broken up by pro-Orthodox nationalists last May.
In Greece, where Orthodox Christians make up 97 per cent of the population, nonOrthodox denominations are technically illegal and relegated to second-class status.
Even in Egypt, Catholic bishops have warned of deteriorating ties with Orthodox counterparts, as the effects of the latest debacle are felt around the world.
Patriarch Bartholomew said he felt that the scheming surrounding the planned summit in Vienna this June had been “incompatible with the. spirit of reconciliation”, while the Russian Orthodox Church‘s Holy Synod said it believed that the meeting had not been “adequately ptepared”. But Bartholomew has also tried to improve contacts with the Catholic Church — even paying an historic week-long visit to Rome in June 1995. Other Orthodox patriarchs would like to patch up ties with the Pope too. But they are answerable to their local synods, who reflect domestic pressures and tend to be less interested in ecumenism.
The most important grievance of Orthodox leaders against the Catholic side concerns the Pope’s primacy. Although most Orthodox admit the Bishop of Rome should exercise a “unifying office”, they insist that this cannot be done at the cost of their own apostolic authority. Some say the progress achieved in Catholic—Orthodox dialogue since Vatican II has been reversed under John Paul II. Instead of recognising the Orthodox as separated “sister-Churches”, endowed with the Holy Spirit, the Vatican has made allegiance to Rome a criterion for all “true Churches”.
“The papal office has become the greatest barrier and threat to Christian unity”, even the conciliatory Patriarch Bartholomew admitted in 1996. “The Pope’s encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, would undoubtedly have been accepted with gratitude if the Church and its theologians were prepared to see the Pope as a co-ordinator and senior leader, without extreme and theologically mistaken demands for a world primacy in the jurisdictional sense — or even worse, for personal infallibility.”
Some Orthodox objections are closer to home. “Since 1991, the Roman Catholic Church has been actively engaged in setting up structures in the territory of Russia, Belarus and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States”, the Russian Synod complained in June. “The Orthodox regard such activity in a country with a 1,000-year Christian tradition as having a proselytising character.”
Having seen 200,000 of its priests, monks and nuns slaughtered under Communism, and its hierarchy intimidated and manipulated, Russia’s Orthodox Church thinks Catholics have exploited its current weaknesses by setting up parishes and dioceses in new areas.
A particularly sore point is the re-emergence of the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, which preserve an Orthodox liturgy and spirituality while being in communion with Rome. In June 1993, an agreement was reached at Balamand in Lebanon by negotiators from the Vatican and nine Orthodox Churches that Eastern-rite Catholicism should be rejected “as a method of searching for unity”, along with any attempt to convert people “from one Church to another in order to ensure their salvation”. But Orthodox leaders accuse the onceoutlawed Greek Catholics of reclaiming far more churches than their present numbers merit — especially in Romania.
Many Orthodox Christians fear Catholicism will gain ground by default, as a better organised “Western” faith. Fr Alexander Hauke-Ligowski, a Polish Dominican who heads Kiev’s Catholic academy, thinks this explains why hostility to Catholics forms an important part of the movement for opting out of ecumenical organisations current among Orthodox clergy. This attitude is likely to grow stronger following a decision by Georgia’s Orthodox Church last May to withdraw from the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches and World Council of Churches.
Grievances like these help to explain why the Pope’s meeting in June with the patriarchs failed to materialise — just as another much-rumoured encounter between John Paul and Alexis at Hungary’s Pannonhalma monastery fell through 18 months ago. Orthodox spokesmen insist they are not opposed to top-level talks in principle. But like any East-West summit, they must be preceded by progress, they say. Otherwise, they will be turned into media events and merely confuse world opinion — hypocritical gestures which paper over differences and avoid any real conversion of heart.
The Catholic Church has ready answers to such Orthodox complaints. As the millennium approaches, Catholics say, it is vital that Christians show unity, and that denominational leaders set an example for ordinary church members. Top-level meetings are warranted, even if disagreements remain. Rather than just complain about decadent Western influences, Christians should be uniting to combat them.
As for papal primacy, the Catholic side replies it is ready for dialogue. Far from reversing the progress of recent decades, they assert, the Pope has merely corrected the over-hasty steps taken by his predecessors, showing that unity cannot be achieved at the cost of church order.
Catholics reject Orthodox charges of proselytism, too. The Catholic Church has not set up territorial dioceses in Russia, they point out, only provisional “apostolic administrations”. Nor has it tried to “convert” Orthodox Christians. Parishes have been formed where Catholics live; and since many Catholic communities were deported under Communism, it is hardly surprising that these are often in new areas. In January 1997, the Catholic Church had 91 registered parishes and 102 mostly foreign priests in European Russia. How can these be seen as a threat to the Orthodox Church, which had 16,000 parishes and 14,000 priests?
As for the revival of the Eastern-rite Greek Catholic communities, the Catholic side insists this is a simple matter of justice. Churches that belonged to Greek Catholics when their persecution began in the Communist era should be given back if this is demanded.
But so far Romania’s 778 Eastern-rite parishes have received back just 97 of the 2,000 churches they owned before the Second World War. Tension has been especially high in Ukraine, where 3,000 Eastern-rite parishes celebrated their Church’s fourth centenary in 1996. Orthodox Churches claim the loyalty of two-thirds of the 53 million citizens, but only 20 per cent called themselves Orthodox in a 1996 survey.
At the same time, the importance of ecumenism has never been greater — and not only as a gesture to the third millennium.
Negotiations on NATO’s admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are under way, while parallel formal talks on their accession to the European Union are scheduled to open next March. Since all three countries are predominantly Catholic, their priority treatment could suggest a new division in the heart of Europe — between a more advanced Catholic West and a poorer, less stable Orthodox East. After the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, particular dangers may exist where this border runs internally, such as in Belarus and Ukraine. Hence the pressing need for church leaders to foster tolerance and co-existence more than ever.
There have been tentative signs of progress. The Pope met Orthodox leaders during his bold visits to Sarajevo and Beirut in April and May, and made ecumenical contacts a feature of his Polish pilgrimage in May-June. For the most part, however, the on-off signals look set to continue. Until real agreements are reached, and firm steps taken to modify public hostilities on both sides, no Catholic-Orthodox breakthrough can be expected.