Orthodoxy in Dialogue has decided to publish this lengthy article without abridgement. It deserves a careful reading and broad discussion by those concerned for restored communion between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Despite the rejection of the “Zoghby Initiative” by the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, we can ask ourselves and each other if any of its individual elements can contribute to a road map forward in the 21st century.


Archbishop Elias Zoghby (1912-2008)

In February 1995 Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Elias Zoghby, former Patriarchal Vicar in Egypt and Sudan and retired Metropolitan of Baalbek, dropped a bombshell into the ecumenical arena with his “declaration of faith”— 

  1. I believe everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.
  2. I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first among the bishops, according to the limits recognized by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.

The “Zoghby Initiative,” as it came to be known, received overwhelming endorsement from the Melkite Synod of Bishops (24 in favor, two opposed), but was rejected by the Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

But Zoghby (1912-2008) had promoted East-West reunion for many years. In the essays collected in A Voice from the Byzantine East (R. Bernard, trans., West Newton, MA: Diocese of Newton Office of Educational Services, 1992; original French edition, 1970) and the monograph Tous Schismatiques? (Beirut: Heidelberg Press-Lebanon, 1981; English translation as We Are All Schismatics, Diocese of Newton, 1996), he presents an ecclesiological vision that goes far beyond the two statements of his declaration of faith.

Archbishop Elias bases his ecclesiology in the first millennium of undivided, but diverse, Christianity. During that period, he says, the Churches founded by the Apostles grew and evangelized the known world, developing liturgically, theologically, and ecclesiologically according to the particular needs of each geographical location and also according to their unique historical-cultural-political situations. A basic agreement on the essential content of the Christian faith, derived from the Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus and the disciples and their successors, and articulated for the universal Church at the seven Ecumenical Councils, united all Christians, despite their wide geographic dispersal and their many divergent local practices.

In summary, he proposes that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches should realize their reunion in the following way:

  • “The rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches requires a new formulation of the doctrine of Roman primacy. This formulation must be grounded in the common tradition of the first thousand years of Christianity” (Voice, p. 71).
  • “Only the union of Latins and Orthodox on the level of equality can bring together the apostolic tradition in its fullness and make Catholic unity complete…. [Orthodoxy] must, therefore, share equally in the government of the reunited Church, just as must the Latin Church, under the primacy of Peter, of course”  (Voice, p. 56).
  • The “East-West Christian dialogue should be accompanied by an even greater effort at the decentralization that was begun at the Second Vatican Council, and in the Orthodox Churches it should accompany an effort of extremely qualified centralization around Peter’s successor and in the framework of traditional collegiality” (Voice, p. 57).
  • “All of the Churches ought to be governed by their own bishops; Eastern Christians have never conceived of Church government in any other way…. The pope and his colleagues must not be entrusted habitually and normally with the government of all the Churches” (Voice, p. 69).
  • The Pope cannot “exercise, normally and habitually, in the Eastern Patriarchates, the role he exercises in the Latin Church in his capacity as Patriarch of the West” (Voice, p. 70).
  • “In recalling, with theologians and ecumenists, that the faith is essentially the same in the Roman Church and in Orthodoxy, we understand that doctrine elaborated after the schism by one of the two unilaterally, that is, in the absence of the other, cannot be part of what is essential in this faith” (Tous Schismatiques? [hereinafter TS; citations from the French edition], p. 51).
  • Thus, doctrine and discipline defined at the General Councils of the West after the Schism oblige only the Latin Church, and definitions made at Orthodox synods after the Schism oblige only the Orthodox Church (TS, p. 51).
  • “It is our understanding of Church history and Tradition that the Church is to be governed by the bishops who are in communion with the Pope, but not exclusively by the Pope to the exclusion of the Episcopate” (Voice, p. 75).
  • There can be no practical progress toward resolution of the problem of primacy and reconciliation of the Churches “as long as the actual government of the Catholic Church has not been wholly and uncompromisingly transferred from the hands of this minority [the Roman Curia] to those of the pastoral Episcopate, the only agent truly responsible for the Church of Jesus Christ” (Voice, p. 74).
  • In ruling his Diocese of Rome and the dioceses of Italy whose metropolitan he is, the Pope “ought to be assisted by his local clergy” (Voice, p. 110).
  • “The responsibilities of ruling the Latin Patriarchate of the West ought to be assumed by the Latin episcopate or their delegates near the Holy Roman See, assembled in Patriarchal Synod around the pope in the exercise of his powers as Patriarch of the West” (Voice, pp. 110-11). 
  • “Where the whole Church is concerned, the responsibility for its administration ought to fall upon the universal Catholic episcopate (or the representatives commissioned by them) to coordinate, under the world-wide primacy of the Pope, the life and activities of the entire Church” (Voice, p. 111).
  • In order to make reunion with Orthodoxy possible, as well as to adapt to the free and democratic conditions of the modern world, the Roman Church must return to the synodal type of Church government that even it lived under in the first Christian millennium. This means national or local church “government by genuine Bishops’ Conferences with real power,” not merely consultative or advisory bodies (Voice, pp. 144-45).
  • Episcopal authority must be reaffirmed and restored because it comes directly from Jesus Christ Himself, who founded the Apostolic College in accord with divine will. “Christ gave the ‘presidency’ of the Apostolic College to Peter only after having entrusted all the Apostles with a clear-cut, well-defined mission. The leader of the Apostles was designated, then, to be head of a College which had already been constituted, a College already enjoying authentic and inalienable powers.” The Pope is the first bishop in the Church because he succeeds Peter, who was “a member of this College when he received the mission of strengthening his brethren” (Voice, p. 83).
  • The rights and privileges of the Patriarchs must be recognized, respected, and revitalized, for “the Patriarchate is the only genuine guardian of each Church’s patrimony and one of the only checks on the spread of heterodoxy” (Voice, p. 104).  In the Christian East, the Patriarchs are the agents of the episcopate, members of it and chosen by it. Archbishop Elias quotes Archbishop Peter Medawar as saying that the patriarch is “the most eminent guardian of the deposit of the faith,” having “major responsibility for its true and integral diffusion…. He is the official spokesman of his Church and of its peoples in all circumstances…. In conformity with the ancient law, the patriarchs have the right and even the obligation to carry the burden of governing the Universal Church together with the Holy Father and to do so in a more outstanding and formal manner than the other bishops” (Voice, p. 118).
  • The reinterpretation of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should be based on the Eastern understanding of his position as primus inter pares, which is sacramental rather than juridical. That is, the pope is first among equals because he, the patriarchs, and all the bishops are equal by virtue of sharing the fullness of priesthood, which is episcopacy. This understanding does not exclude the possibility that the pope, like the patriarchs, may have certain powers that other bishops do not have (TS, p. 47), but these powers come from the rank of his see among the dioceses of Christendom, not from his personal succession to Peter (TS, p. 59), and they originate in canonical custom and legislation, not in divine institution or essential doctrine of the faith (TS, p. 47).
  • Referring to Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council, Archbishop Elias writes that “if the role of the Church of New Rome entails a veritable responsibility, witness, and diakonia in the service of the unity of Orthodoxy, one cannot be dealing simply with primacy of honor or precedence when one speaks of the Bishop of Rome, recognized by Orthodoxy as the first among all bishops” (TS, p. 48).
  • In the reunited Church, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, so extensively elaborated by the Latin Church, would complement local autonomous episcopal collegiality, so zealously safeguarded by the Orthodox Churches. Excessive decentralization, the strength that has considerably weakened the Orthodox, would counteract excessive centralization, the weakness that has inordinately strengthened Rome (Voice, pp. 56-57).
  • “Thus we would say that these rights reserved to the Bishop of Rome must be defined by mutual agreement of the Roman and Orthodox Churches. Since this matter must not in any way become a part of the essential deposit of faith required for canonical communion, it must be settled by the reunited Churches” (TS, p. 47). This statement, of course, reflects Archbishop Elias’ conviction that the shared faith of the first millennium suffices for restoration of communion.
  • In fact, he says, “it is easier to agree on what concerns God than on what concerns men, knowing churchmen and their powers and privileges…. Reaching accord on doctrine will be easy once we reach accord on the division of powers” (TS, p. 109).
  • In matters of doctrine, the shared faith of the first millennium suffices; everything else amounts to different non-essential formulations and elaborations of the same essential truths. And, since doctrinal formulations can never fully express the truth of what we believe, much less the truth of the Mystery of God, it is wiser to avoid dogmatic definitions as far as possible. “If one is obliged to do so—which should be very infrequently after the stabilization of the depositum fidei—one should do so with Christian modesty, and without a priori exclusion of other formulations that could be equally legitimate and maybe even more adequate…. Revealed truth can be formulated in different ways and in different contexts. Factors such as cultural, historical, and other situations can influence these formulations without changing the Truth, which always remains the same” (TS, p. 17).
  • Just as differences in doctrinal expression need not stand in the way of communion, so also differences in ecclesiology can be accommodated. “Until the 11th century, Rome and Orthodoxy each had its unique ecclesiology, at least germinally, and unity was not broken. One can conceive of these two different ecclesiologies in the Church without questioning the Faith and without altering communion” (TS, p. 29).
  • We can even regard these differences as necessary for the wholeness of the Church, because “the Catholic Church, that is the Universal Church, can only consist of the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church reunited, since neither of them can claim to possess the whole Christian patrimony, spiritual, ascetical, liturgical, patristic, or doctrinal” (TS, p. 14). The wholeness of the Church comprises legitimate diversity in essential unity.
  • Archbishop Elias conceives of Church unity in terms of East and West, and favors preservation and developement of the legitimate diversity of worship forms, theological expression, and church governance suited to peoples and countries. Jesus Christ is incarnated in each race, and each race shows forth in its own way the image and likeness of God. Thus, its expression of Christianity must be locally developed, not imported (TS, p. 13). In this context, he seems to regard the re-entrance into Catholic communion by the churches of the Reformation and their descendants as a matter for the Western Church to deal with (Voice, p. 86). However, as expressions of legitimate diversity they figure in his larger vision of Christian unity: “No Church or group of believers however humble it may be, should be compelled to accept union by assimilation or disappearance…. Indeed, we envision the true unity of the distant future to include several different rites in which almost everyone can find a home: an Anglican Catholic rite, a Presbyterian Catholic rite, perhaps even a Jewish Catholic rite, and many, many more; with some of them containing even smaller subdivisions” (Voice, p. 104).
  • Therefore, achieving the reunion of the Christian Church requires dedicated, humble, sacrificial effort on the part of all Christians, who should feel the pain of separation and who suffer from, as well as sometimes contribute to, its sinfulness (Voice, pp. 65-66). However, the Church of Rome, since it is the head of the Churches, bears special responsibility for healing schism and restoring unity. This is its God-given mandate; this is the proper exercise of its primacy (TS, p. 103). Fulfilling this role will require major changes in Roman self-understanding, a process begun at Vatican II, accompanied by fundamental changes in Roman dealings with other Christians, for “every attempt at unity centered in a pyramidal Church, built around an absolute juridical authority, and founded on submission to the Pope, instead of on co-responsibility with the older brother who is in Rome, would be doomed to failure” (TS, p. 69).

However we may respond to this vision of Church unity—and as an ideal it has great appeal—our task here is to consider what it says to us today. Can anything be salvaged from it as we attempt to move forward in Orthodox-Eastern Catholic-Roman Catholic relations?

We must begin to answer by flatly calling it a fantasy that ignores most of the secular and ecclesiastical history of the Christian age. Yes, the Churches should reunite on the basis of the common faith of the first millennium, should accept legitimate diversity in worship and doctrine and discipline, and should govern themselves synodally under the benign primacy of the Bishop of Rome, first among equals, presiding in the service of charity. But at this time, and for the foreseeable future, such reunion seems at best highly improbable.

Nationalism, pluralism, colonialism, imperialism, and dogmatization of local customs and theological opinions contribute to the unlikelihood of reunion on these terms, as do centuries of carefully nurtured misunderstandings and even enmities. If the Churches truly hope one day to achieve reunion, they must strive diligently to resolve these misunderstandings and to heal these enmities, not simply at the level of international theological dialogue, not even at the level of the hierarchy or of clerical formation, but at every level of church life.

Agreement on theology by theologians has no meaning until the parishioners in church on Sunday can affirm it and apply it in their daily dealings with other Christians. As long as Catholics define themselves essentially as being “under the Pope,” and as long as Orthodox define themselves essentially as not being “under the Pope,” both sides ignorant not only of the others’ faith but of their own, theological dialogue will remain so much wasted breath, and reunion will remain a beautiful fantasy.

Despite Zoghby’s dream that the Melkite Orthodox Church of Antioch, having split itself apart, should begin to heal itself by re-establishing communion between its two branches, neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy will allow this to happen. If these two Churches re-establish communion, the other Churches with whom they are in communion will find themselves de facto in communion—without, both sides argue, proper preparation.

But we can discern elements of Zoghby’s vision behind some of the words and actions of Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and other Church leaders, paralleling the deliberations and agreements of inter-Church theological dialogues.

As much as we might wish to be like Zacchaeus, willing to climb up a tree—perhaps even to go out on a limb—to overcome our limitations, perhaps we must be more like the paralytic, lying by the pool for 38 years waiting for the Lord to intervene and heal us so that we can move forward.

An earlier version of this paper appeared in SOPHIA, Vol. 38, No. 2, Winter 2008.

Father James K. Graham is a priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton for the Melkites in the USA. He holds an MDiv “With Highest Distinction” from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and St Gregory the Theologian Seminary of the Eparchy of Newton, and an MA in English from California State University, Sacramento. He serves as a parish priest and as copy editor of SOPHIA, the journal of the Melkite Eparchy. He has contributed to Eastern Churches Journal, SOPHIA, and The Catholic Voice of the Diocese of Oakland.

See also David Brown’s “Rome’s Response to the Zoghby Initiative” here.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue provides a forum for a wide range of perspectives. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement, in whole or in part, with an author’s views.






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