The Primacy Debated in Vienna

For several days, leading Catholic and Orthodox theologians have been meeting in Vienna to discuss the issues which divide the two Churches. The meeting is focusing on the question of papal primacy. The ultimate goal: to end the “Great Schism” of 1054. But, is it possible?

Participants at the meeting say some progress has been made during the talks.

They say a possible model for the future is that of “sister churches” with separate hierarchies and liturgies, with the Orthodox accepting the Pope as their “titular” head.

The meeting ends on Sunday, September 26.

Dangers for the Faith?

Many traditional Catholics and Orthodox have a certain fear of talks such as these.

Some, in both Churches, are concerned that theological discussions like this may lead one or the other Church to “water down” essential doctrinal teachings for the sake of an external form of union.

In this specific case, some Orthodox may fear they will be asked to accept a type of “papal primacy” they do not in conscience believe in.

Likewise, some Catholics may feel that the Orthodox may be invited into a union with Rome without giving their assent to essential Catholic doctrines on the office of the Pope.

So there are fears on both sides.

And the fears have a certain basis.

For there is always a danger that some aspect or tenet of the deposit of the faith may be placed at risk in the process of such a theological dialogue.

On the Other Hand…

But there is another concern that must also be kept in mind.

Today, in our actual historical context, there is a danger that the enemies of the Church — and the chief enemy behind them — can exploit such fears to keep Christians divided against the wishes and the prayer of Christ himself.

Christ prayed on the night of the Last Supper that all of his followers would always remain “one” — united, not divided.

But divisions between Christians came.

Some argue that divisions are necessary to clarify truth.

Assertions of heretical doctrine do call forth from the defenders of orthodoxy a clear statement of doctrinal truth.

Pope Benedict once said precisely this, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, and the chief defender of doctrinal orthdoxy in the Church, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

So, though the way is treacherous, it would seem a mistake to not at least try to set out upon this path, despite the dangers.

The Purpose of the Meeting

The purpose of this meeting is to examine key doctrinal questions dividing the Churches carefully, and calmly, and to see where the limits lie, from the perspective of each side.

And in this sense, it is a very positive sign that the meeting has been held at all, and that it hasn’t broken up in acrimony, but is continuing toward its conclusion.

For, in the end, the present state of the world counsels openness to such discussions.

In the West, a certain “post-Christian” secular vision is dominant.

At the same time, Islam is undoubtedly spreading its influence widely.

These developments seem to counsel those who profess belief in Christ as the savior of man and the Son of God — Christians, that is — make every possible effort, short of compromising the deposit of the faith, to draw closer together, first in common work and charity efforts, then, eventually, in some form of public Church unity.

Without this, not single tenets of the faith, but the faith itself, whole and entire, may find itself in danger in this world.

The Ultimate Victory

The Christian message offers an entirely new type of existence to men and women.

Preserving and defending the Church is to preserve and defend the vehicle, the means, of this message.

The theology of one of the participants at the Vienna meeting, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has expressed this in a striking and powerful way.

Zizioulas, who studied under the Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, received his doctorate in 1965 from the University of Athens and has taught theology at the University of Edinburgh and then the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Zizioulas has argued that full humanity is achieved only as “person” so that one may participate (koinonia) in the personal Trinitarian life of God — participate in the life of the divinity.

He argues that man initially exists as a biological hypostasis (person), constrained as to the types of relationships such a being can have (biological) and doomed to the eventual end of this type of being — death.

He argues that Baptism constitutes an ontological change in the human, creating an ecclesial hypostasis, or person.

This rebirth “from above” gives new ontological freedom as it is not constrained by the limits of biological existence.

Such an ecclesial being is eschatological, meaning it lives in a paradoxical “now,” but “not yet.”

The completion of this rebirth from above is the day of resurrection when the body will no longer be subject to death.


The Proceedings

The 12th Session of the Joint Theological Commission for Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches began its work on 22 September 2010 in Vienna.

The commission is co-chaired by Metropolitan John of Pergamon, Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Archbishop Kurt Koch, president of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Each Local Orthodox Church is represented by two delegates. Representing the Moscow Patriarchate are Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, DECR chairman, and Prof. Archpriest Valentin Asmus, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Humanitarian University. Archimandrite Kirill Govorun, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s education committee, participates in the meeting as consultant.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna, and Metropolitan Michael of Vienna, Patriarchate of Constantinople, welcomed the participants.

The first day was mainly devoted to the methods of further work on the theme “The Primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the First Millennium.” Participants exchanged views on the status to be given to the document on this theme, which was partly considered by the previous meeting of the Commission.

In the evening, Vienna Burgomaster Michael Haupl gave dinner in honour of the participants in the session.

The 12th session of the commission will work till September 26.

On September 22, 2010, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, DECR chairman, met with the head of the Vienna archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.

Metropolitan Hilarion told the cardinal about today’s life of the Russian Orthodox Church, the trips made by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in Russia and far- and near-abroad countries, the Church’s missionary and educational work as well as the work of the Department for External Church Relations and some other Synodal institutions of the Moscow Patriarchate.

They discussed prospects for Orthodox-Catholic cooperation in Europe in general and a possibility for carrying out joint educational activities and youth events, in particular.

In conclusion of the talk, which was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere, Metropolitan Hilarion presented Cardinal Schoenborn with an icon of the Most Holy Mother of God.

(Here is a link to this information:


Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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