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Unity depends on mutual efforts

It is shocking to note bitter hostility to an upcoming papal visit to Greece and the Ukraine -- hostility so deep in those strongholds of Christian Orthodoxy that observers hint not only of anticipated rudeness but also of possible violence (see page 3).

It is equally troubling to note that Pope John Paul II, even as he professes eagerness to improve relations with Christian Orthodox churches in the East, continues a process of centralization of authority that has marked so much of his papacy.

That process of appropriating authority traditionally vested in local dioceses is at the root of tensions with the Orthodox, both historic and contemporary.

The centralization is also, and rightly, deeply resented by many Catholic bishops around the world.

The breach between the two ancient branches of Christianity is rooted in historic transgressions on both sides (though the Orthodox remain far more sensitive to that history than Christians in the West). And steps toward unity are likely to depend on mutual efforts.

As Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert on Orthodoxy, has said, “The problem with some Orthodox is not that they don’t know what to believe, but that they don’t know how to behave.” Taft told NCR there is a growing tide of fundamentalism within Orthodoxy that does not shrink from “vulgar rudeness” in dealing with perceived threats to Orthodoxy’s strongholds.

The Orthodox should listen to the voices of their more rational leaders and learn how to behave. Slurs against Catholicism and the pope are all too common in Orthodox circles, even in the United States. Threats of angry protests against the pope and even possible violence betray, at the least, a tradition in Orthodoxy, particularly in Greece, of hospitality to visitors. At most, they betray the basic Christian principle of respect and love -- for one’s enemies, let alone for those who share a belief in Christ.

If some Orthodox Christians have a behavior problem though, Roman Catholicism, in the eyes of the Orthodox and of many Catholics as well, has a problem with belief, especially as regards papal authority.

Orthodoxy vests authority in the historic seven ecumenical councils of the church, the most recent held in 787, where every bishop had an equal vote. In Orthodoxy, all bishops are fundamentally equal, though some, like the pope, as bishop of Rome, may hold more prestigious sees.

The centralization of power under John Paul not only violates Christian tradition, it puts him at risk of personal hypocrisy -- though it’s best that Catholics, not Orthodox, use that word. The pope’s 1995 call for dialogue on the exercise of papal authority in today’s world, a call set forth in his encyclical Et Unum Sint, rings hollow.

As Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, pointed out in a major address at Oxford University in 1996, members of the Roman curia during the current papacy have assumed authority previously vested in local bishops. The result, Quinn said, is that the papacy has lost credibility with Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Reform is needed, Quinn said, not only for the good of the Roman Catholic church, but as an aid to Christian unity.

The Orthodox could hardly have said it better. In his talk, Quinn voiced many objections the Orthodox have to the papacy in its current form.

Pope John Paul II is fond of saying that the two historical branches of Christianity, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, should find a way to restore their historic unity so that Christianity will once again breathe “with both lungs.” Orthodoxy, the weaker branch in terms of numbers, understandably may resist such papal cozying up, particularly at a time when its key difference with Rome -- centralization of authority in the office of the pope -- is more evident than ever.

If the pope values the doctrinal tenacity of the Orthodox Christians, perhaps he should recognize that it may be due to a clearer focus in Orthodoxy on the earliest, most central teachings of the church. Orthodoxy’s development has been far less encumbered than has Catholicism’s by layers of bureaucracy, multiplication of canonical laws and imposition of teachings from the top.

In this Easter season, it would be a good thing if Catholics respectfully reminded the pope to attend to his own call for dialogue aimed at renewal of his office.

It would be good, too, if Orthodox Christians decided in this Easter season to set aside long-nursed grievances and put into practice the words of their own beautiful Easter vigil: “It is the day of Resurrection. … in the Resurrection, let us forgive all things.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001