Proceeding Toward Reunion at Last

This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.

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The “dialogue of love” between Rome and the Orthodox Churches that offered so much promise after nine centuries of ecclesial estrangement seems to be running out of breath as we enter the third Christian millennium. A dramatic breakthrough is needed to restore the flagging spirits, in particular, of the rambunctious Orthodox participants.

Taking a cue from the irenic tone of the Second Vatican Council, the second Pan-Orthodox Conference on the island of Rhodes in 1963 expressed an interest in a dialogue “on equal footing” with the Roman Catholic Church. Historic encounters promptly ensued, including the warm embrace of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem in 1964, the mutual nullification of the anathemas of A.D. 1054 a year later, and an exchange of visits by pope and patriarch to one another’s sees in 1967.

The formation of preparatory commissions for an official theological dialogue in the mid-1970s signaled a shift from symbolic hospitality to the far more difficult task of achieving doctrinal agreement on the contentious issues that sundered the unity of the Church in the eleventh century. It marked an auspicious beginning indeed. The first plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue, which met in Munich in 1982, was composed of strictly equal teams of experts: two representatives (one bishop and one theologian as a rule) from each of the 14 autocephalous (i.e., “self-governing”) ancient Orthodox patriarchates and national churches and an identical total appointed by the Vatican. To accentuate the positive and build some momentum, the commission agreed to begin with issues that unite, rather than divide, the two communions. Accordingly, the international dialogue has produced “agreed statements” on the mystery of the Church and the Holy Eucharist; faith, sacraments (“holy mysteries” in Orthodox parlance), and Church unity; and the sacrament of holy orders.

Meanwhile, regional dialogues in Europe and the United States have mirrored the International Commission. The U.S. version actually anticipated the senior circuit by some 17 years and has yielded remarkable fruit, especially the surprising agreed statements on mixed marriages and the spiritual formation of children in Orthodox/ Roman Catholic families.

Ironically, however, the demise of communism in Eastern Europe —  a common scourge of both Catholics and Orthodox for decades — has rekindled in that region a spirit of rivalry, or at least a mutual suspicion. The reemergence of the Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, particularly in Ukraine, Romania, and Slovakia, where they were virtually liquidated by the Communist regimes with the tacit approval of the respective Orthodox hierarchies, has emboldened their largely embittered leaders against their Orthodox countrymen. For their part, the Orthodox fear a resurgence of “uniatism”  —  Rome’s classic strategy of co-opting Orthodox churches individually by offering them an ersatz identity as ecclesial entities “in union with” (i.e., under the final authority of) Rome, while retaining their Byzantine liturgical traditions and canon law.

So profound is this concern among the Orthodox that it has drastically undermined the international dialogue. The first fissures appeared at the sixth plenary session in Munich/Riesing in June 1990 (where the agenda was changed to the topic of “uniatism”) and the seventh plenary session at Balamand, Lebanon, in June 1993 (where six of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches declined to send representatives).

More recent political events in eastern Europe have further eroded the dialogue of love. As a show of solidarity with the struggling Serbian Orthodox Church, caught between NATO’ s military might and its own hostile government headed by the erstwhile Communist, Slobodan Milosevich, the Orthodox side postponed the latest meeting of the international dialogue scheduled in Baltimore last summer. Patriarch Alexey II of Moscow continues to withhold his consent to a papal visit to Russia or Ukraine. The Orthodox Church of Greece wants no part of a similar visit to Athens. The gracious hospitality afforded Pope John Paul II by Patriarch Teoctist during the pope’s visit in May to Bucharest, Romania, thus appears more an aberration than a bellwether of things to come.

And yet Rome could single-handedly reverse this unhappy trend and possibly pave the way to union by acting boldly on the most intractable theological issue that divides Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Not the papacy itself: I’ve already proposed a possible solution to that largely visceral matter in these pages (see “Shoes of the Fishermen,” December 1997). The real dogmatic difference revolves around the insertion of the Latin compound word filioque into the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed originally formulated in Greek by the bishops assembled at the first and second ecumenical councils (325 and 381). The Latin addition has the Holy Spirit “proceed from the Father and the Son” (filioque) instead of proceeding from the Father alone, as in the original Greek. There is no room here to rehearse the arguments for and against that pesky term. Let it suffice to note that the Orthodox are convinced that the insertion radically, albeit unintentionally, changes the meaning of the Creed (by demeaning the Personal dignity of the Holy Spirit) and remain adamant that the filioque must be disavowed by Rome.

The key to a solution to this impasse lies, ironically, in the most egregious instance of filioquist imperialism: the Council of Ferrara/Florence in 1438 to 1439. Accorded the status of an ecumenical council by Rome, this abortive attempt at reunion was doomed to failure when Metropolitan Mark of Ephesos, alone among the Orthodox hierarchs in attendance, refused to sign what amounted to a capitulation by the Orthodox to the Catholic theological justification of the filioque. he final decree of that council was the high-water mark of filioquism: “The holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, … and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration.”  The Orthodox counter that the Father alone is the “principle”  (Greek: arche) and “source”  (Greek: pege) of the Son and the Spirit, so these truth claims are logically incompatible. As long as the Council of Ferrara/Florence is deemed “ecumenical” and therefore doctrinally binding on the worldwide Church, reunion between Rome and the Orthodox is impossible.

If, however, Rome were to downgrade that council —  and the Council of Lyons, which in A.D. 1274 issued a similar decree including the filioque — from ecumenical to a regional council of the Patriarchate of the West; if the doctrinal statements produced by those councils and the five councils before Lyons and those after Ferrara/Florence were relegated to the status of theologoumenon (respectable theological opinion) instead of dogma (revealed truth); if Rome were to remove the filioque from all translations of the Creed as a sign of universal doctrinal unity: the Orthodox Churches would have no compelling theological reason to perpetuate the schism between Rome and Orthodoxy. For then Rome would, with such confident humility and genuine servanthood, have demonstrated its true primacy among the Churches.

Lest this modest proposal sound far-fetched, I hasten to claim no less an advocate than Pope Paul VI himself. In 1974, on the 700th anniversary of the ill-fated Council of Lyons, the Roman pontiff described that assembly not as an ecumenical council but rather as “the sixth of the general synods held in the West.”  The precedent is already set. If Pope John Paul II were to issue an official “clarification” of this matter, it would surely be the crowning achievement of his pontificate —  and of the millennium.


For the Church’s account of the history and significance of the filioque, see the CCC here.


  • Rev. Alexander Webster

    Father Alexander F.C. Webster, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June 2010 as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics.

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