Pope Benedict XVI, meeting in Istanbul this week with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the world s 250 million Orthodox Christians, pledged to do everything possible to overcome obstacles to bring Eastern and Western branches of Christianity into full communion.
It isn t likely, however, that the 79-year-old Pontiff will be able to do enough in his lifetime to end a rift that dates to the Great Schism of 1054. Many even wonder if unity can be achieved in the lifetimes of the next several popes.
I think people often misinterpret what s happening, said Bishop Mark Maymon, Bishop of Toledo and bishop of the Midwest Diocese of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
Until we [the Orthodox Church] have unity in our own jurisdictions, we are not in a position to have unity with Rome, Bishop Mark said. There are too many theological and dogmatic issues to be addressed.
He did see positive aspects to the Istanbul sessions, saying, I think perhaps it s good in that we can minimize any type of antagonism between the two churches.
The Rev. Basil Khoory, pastor of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Toledo, also said he was encouraged by seeing the leaders of the two Christian branches come together.
It s something we look towards, having unity and the church undivided, not only amongst Catholics but amongst all Christian denominations, Father Basil said.
But there are a lot of things to be worked out, he added. It s a start. You have to dialogue, to discuss problems and differences and look for the similarities. It s a positive thing. From the Orthodox standpoint, we re happy they re meeting and talking and beginning some sort of dialogue.
Richard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, agrees there are formidable obstacles to unity, but he also feels that the meetings are important.
Do I think that this is going to get us down the road to full visible unity in the next five years? No. But that doesn t mean the talks don t have significance. ... One of the most important things that has to happen in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is to create a climate of trust. This is the third pope to visit the ecumenical patriarch in his Phanar [headquarters], so that s a pretty symbolic gesture.
The title of ecumenical patriarch dates from the 6th century and historically belongs to the archbishop of Constantinople, now Instanbul, who is recognized by other Orthodox hierarchs as the first among equals. Bartholomew, 66, was elected in October, 1991, as the 270th archbishop of the Orthodox Church.
Doctrinal issues dividing the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity are substantial, including different views on the Immaculate Conception of Mary, original sin, the Filioque an addition that the Roman Catholic Church made to the Nicene Creed without consulting the Orthodox hierarchs and papal supremacy.
The two sides excommunicated each other nearly a thousand years ago, and it wasn t until about four decades ago that they began talking seriously about unity.
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras declared the Orthodox intention of a serious dialogue at the Second Pan-Orthodox Conference of Rhodes in 1963, and Pope Paul VI met with Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. That same year, the Vatican issued a document pledging its commitment to ecumenical dialogue, and in 1965 both sides lifted their mutual excommunications, or anathemas.
Pope John Paul II met with Ecumenical Patriarch Demitrius I in Istanbul in 1979.
Bishop Mark said talks between Benedict and Bartholomew are just the initial steps on what is bound to be a long and arduous journey.
It is but a preliminary step toward beginning to open dialogue, said Bishop Mark, who was raised a Roman Catholic and converted to Orthodox Christianity while he was a professor at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
He said that although the two branches do not concelebrate or intercommune, they might be able to address jointly some issues on which they share the same stand, such as abortion, bioethics, stem cell research, and euthanasia.
A major dividing point, however, is papal supremacy, Bishop Mark said. Orthodox hierarchs might accept papal primacy, but not universal jurisdiction.
Mr. Gaillardetz agreed that papal supremacy is the biggest doctrinal issue, which makes Benedict s trip to Turkey that much more significant.
The Orthodox Church has always been suspicious of the papacy. They recognize the first among equals and they recognize that the pope has a primacy of honor, but they don t recognize any genuine governing authority of the pope. And largely, I think, that s because historically they look at the Pope exercising his authority as a veritable monarch, and they are never going to accept that, Mr. Gaillardez said.
The Roman Catholic Church has more doctrinal differences with Protestantism, he said, but yet it has warm and fuzzy relationships with most Protestant churches.
On the other hand, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are doctrinally close but have a long history of distrust, Mr. Gaillardetz said.
Pope Benedict s current trip to Istanbul is not about fixing doctrinal sticking points, he said, but a gesture of respect and trust, with one esteemed Christian tradition reaching out to another esteemed Christian tradition.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154