VATICAN CITY — Catholics and Orthodox need to explore ways authority can be understood and exercised so that it is not an obstacle to unity, a group of top-level theologians said.
Members of the official Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church met near Chieti, Italy, Sept. 16-21 and approved a document called “Synodality and Primacy in the First Millennium: Toward a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church.”
“Primacy” refers to the authority of the lead bishop or pope, and “synodality” refers to the authority exercised collegially by the College of Bishops in the West or a synod of bishops in the Eastern churches.
While Orthodox patriarchs are recognized spiritual leaders and exercise authority over some areas of church life, they do not have the kind of jurisdiction the pope has over the Catholic Church and especially over its Latin-rite dioceses.
Monsignor Andrea Palmieri, Catholic co-secretary of the commission and an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Catholic News Service Sept. 23 that the document was being translated and would be published “as soon as possible.”
Twenty-six Orthodox bishops and theologians — two each from 13 of the 14 Orthodox churches — and 26 Catholic bishops and theologians participated in the meeting. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not send representatives.
Representatives of the Orthodox Church of Georgia disagreed with “some paragraphs” of the document, according to the commission’s final statement. Their objections will be included in a footnote to the document, according to a report on the meeting posted on the website of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Although the ministry of authority developed differently in the church of the East and West, full unity existed for more than 1,000 years.
“While recognizing diversity present in the church’s experience, the commission acknowledged the continuity of theological, canonical and liturgical principles, which constituted the bond of communion between East and West,” the statement said.
“This common understanding is the point of reference and a powerful source of inspiration for Catholics and Orthodox as they seek to restore full communion today,” it said. “On this basis, both must consider how synodality, primacy and the interrelatedness between them can be conceived and exercised today and in the future.”
After approving the text, which underwent several revisions since it first was prepared in 2012, commission members began discussing themes for their next meeting. The final statement said the commission’s coordinating committee will decide the theme when it meets next year.
In its report on the commission meeting, the Russian Orthodox Church said its representatives urged a discussion on “uniatism,” the term it uses to describe the development and ongoing presence of the Eastern Catholic churches, which are in full communion with Rome but share a spiritual and liturgical heritage with the Orthodox churches.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, told commission members the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches “still constitutes a stumbling stone in the Orthodox-Catholic relations.”
The Catholic-Orthodox commission has looked at the issue several times in the past. It adopted a statement in 1993 saying that the Eastern Catholic churches have a right to exist and individual Christians have a right to follow their consciences in choosing a church affiliation.
However, it also said the model used in the 16th and 17th centuries — a form of partial union where large groups of Eastern Christians declared their unity with the Catholic Church while others maintained their identity as Orthodox — was not a model to pursue in the future.