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VATICAN LETTER Aug-18-2006 (870 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Experts hope to get derailed Catholic-Orthodox dialogue back on track

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches has been derailed for six years. In mid-September, 60 ecumenical experts will try to get it back on track.

The Catholic-Orthodox international dialogue commission is meeting in the Serbian capital of Belgrade Sept. 18-25, in what Pope Benedict XVI has optimistically described as a "new phase in dialogue."

That the encounter is taking place at all has been described as a big step forward by Vatican officials. Representatives from 10 Orthodox churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, will attend.

But church officials also recognize that it wouldn't take much to send the whole enterprise off the rails again.

For one thing, the two main topics of the meeting are papal primacy and the role of Eastern Catholic churches -- two of the sorest points in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

In fact, it was the re-emergence of Eastern Catholic churches in post-communist Eastern Europe that so troubled the mixed commission's meetings throughout the 1990s. After an acrimonious meeting in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2000, the dialogue was suspended.

Orthodox leaders who met with Vatican officials in a planning session late last year wanted these two issues high on the agenda, according to Vatican sources. The Orthodox still feel threatened by the resurgence of Eastern Catholic churches and continue to have doubts about how papal authority would work in a reunified church.

The hope on the Vatican side is that these topics will be examined in a new theological framework, that of the church as "koinonia" or communion, and not on the emotional level that has characterized past discussions.

"No one should think this dialogue is going to be easy or will solve these two questions, or other questions, in the short term," said one Vatican official.

But although they are downplaying immediate expectations, Vatican sources pointed to several reasons for cautious optimism.

For one thing, there is a new pope -- a fact that, at least in a psychological sense, represents a new page for dialogue. While Pope John Paul II spoke often and movingly about the need to reunite the Western and Eastern churches, his insistence on visiting traditionally Orthodox countries, with or without an invitation from the Orthodox, sometimes provoked misgivings.

Vatican insiders say Pope Benedict is unlikely to make those kinds of trips. Nor is the pope pressing for a visit to Moscow, as his predecessor did. These sources also said Pope Benedict has taken a more detailed interest in the content of dialogue than his predecessor, who was weakened by illness in his later years.

Another plus is that many of the Orthodox dialogue experts know Pope Benedict, have read his works and trust him as a theologian. For Orthodox leaders who, for historical reasons, viewed Pope John Paul's Polish background as an obstacle, the German pope carries no such handicap.

Vatican officials say there's another reason the Belgrade meeting could go well: Participants will not have to start from scratch. They already have a draft text that addresses papal primacy and Eastern Catholic churches; it was worked out by experts from both sides in 1990, but never discussed by the full commission.

Finally, some experts on the Catholic side believe that Orthodox thinking on papal primacy may be changing slowly.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist and the head of its delegation to Belgrade, hosted an important Catholic-Orthodox symposium in 2003 on the role of the pope. Cardinal Kasper told participants that the climate of discussion on this topic had changed considerably, with greater openness to a papal "ministry of unity" in today's fragmented world.

At the same symposium, Metropolitan John of Pergamon from the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, made careful arguments in favor of a "universal primacy" and said the Orthodox churches could accept it as long as it did not undermine the ecclesiological integrity of any local church.

Metropolitan John is the Orthodox co-chairman of the international theological dialogue commission, and Vatican officials will be closely following what he says in Belgrade.

One critical issue identified by the metropolitan at the 2003 symposium was whether the universal church has ecclesiological priority over the local church. That's a complex question, and it's been percolating inside the Vatican for years.

Both Orthodox and Catholics agree that sensitivity over papal primacy is largely conditioned by history. But it is not forgotten history.

One small example surfaced earlier this year, when Pope Benedict unceremoniously dropped the longstanding title "patriarch of the West." The Vatican said the title was historically obsolete and theologically imprecise and that its renunciation should benefit ecumenical dialogue.

But some Orthodox leaders saw it differently, saying the change in effect emphasized the assertion of a more universal authority by the pope.

The issue has already popped up in some local Catholic-Orthodox dialogues, and Vatican officials will not be surprised to hear it raised in Belgrade.

No one at the Vatican expects the Catholic delegation to come home from Belgrade waving a major agreement with the Orthodox. For many, if the dialogue is still going when the meeting ends, it will be marked a success.


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