While Orthodoxy in Dialogue considers the notion that one can be “Orthodox in communion with Rome” to be ecclesiologically indefensible absent Rome’s return to Orthodoxy, we fully support open, fraternal dialogue on this topic and the underlying issues.
The following should be read in conjunction with Father Alexander Schmemann’s A Response to the Vatican II Decree on Eastern Churches of 1966 and Brian A. Butcher, Liam Farrer, and Kevin Basil Fritts’ dialogical Can You Be Orthodox in Communion with Rome? of January 2018. (The latter ranks #4 among all guest articles that Orthodoxy in Dialogue has published in our two years of activity.)

Conference participants. Stuttgart. July 19-21, 2019.

International conference in Stuttgart opens the door for dialogue between Orthodox and Eastern Catholics

Christian unity has gained much through various bilateral dialogues. Indeed, today there is almost every possible combination of bilateral dialogue one could imagine. Yet, a rare exception and omission from the ecumenical table is the lack of dialogue between the Orthodox and the Catholic Eastern Churches (the so-called “Uniates”). Throughout their shared history, these two traditions have lived through a very complex and sometimes tense relationship—not only theologically, but also politically. In most cases these tense relationships remain to this day; indeed, some have increased in difficulty (e.g., in Ukraine).

One of the key stumbling blocks here concerns the widely differing perceptions of what Eastern Catholic Churches represent. Regardless of historical accuracy, many Orthodox refer to these churches as “stolen” (most of these churches did not emerge from so-called processes of “uniatism” or “proselytism”), while on the Catholic side they are seen as bridges to the Orthodox traditions (a perspective which, again, many Orthodox strongly reject).

The Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, in cooperation with the Ecclesiological Investigations Research Network, decided to initiate much needed theological dialogue between these Churches by organizing the conference entitled Stolen Churches or Bridges to Orthodoxy? Impulses for Theological Dialogue Between Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, which took place from 19-21 July 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.

This event brought together official representatives of the two Christian traditions, as well as theologians from different contexts where tensions are greatest. This gathering was truly unique—the very first of its kind. Nothing quite like this has ever been tried before in bringing together Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians from such diverse backgrounds and in such an in-depth and sustained level of engagement. Nearly 90 delegates from 12 different countries were present, including official representatives of both these Christian Churches, as well as scholars (especially theologians and historians). These included a great many younger academics—the voices of tomorrow’s dialogical encounters. Collectively those present delved deeper into the question of what shapes and maintains differing ecclesiological perspectives. Partners in dialogue came to appreciate the sources of divisions and the sensitivities involved in helping to overcome ecclesial stand-offs of key historical moments as well as in recent decades.

The scholarly papers and presentations at the conference were of uniformly high quality, reflecting the efforts of their authors in preparing for these vital exchanges. The harmonious interactions throughout the duration of the conference both further demonstrated the fruits of those exchanges and in turn inspired still greater mutual engagement and understanding—often amidst laughter and merriment. The conference was characterized by a willingness to engage in dialogue, general openness to new ideas, and the opportunity to deal with problems and wounds that we have inherited from the past.

But conference participants also acknowledged the many similarities between the two Churches and ways to build new relationships. The respective liturgies from the differing traditions which took place during the conference were truly moving experiences and highlights for all present. In the Eastern Catholic liturgy, the Eucharistic prayer was recited by nine different priests, each in his own native language—nine differing mother tongues.

One of the key outcomes determined at the conference was to continue this vital dialogue in the future through further events that will provide additional opportunities for encounters between members of these Churches. In order to facilitate this, a formal group called the Orthodox-Eastern Catholic Dialogue Group was established and entrusted with carrying forward this pioneering work.

The next conference is being planned and will be held in Lviv, Ukraine in 2021.

Summary of presentations

  • Dr. Ihor Shaban (Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church) stressed that Ukraine is a multi-confessional European country with a high level of religiosity, which was called by St. John Paul the II “the laboratory of ecumenism.” Analyzing the openness of the Churches to future dialogue, Rev. Shaban pointed out that the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC), which comprises more than 12% of the population of the country, continues to be a denomination which has its clear ecumenical position stated in The Ecumenical Position of the UGCC. He also added that, in fact, the UGCC—the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches—is in no way opposed to any of the Orthodox Churches: “We are complete Eastern Church with its own liturgy, spirituality, and canonical tradition, which seeks to show it to all in the spirit of Christianity.”
  • Father Ihor Rantsya (doctoral student at the Catholic University of Paris and priest at the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Eparchy of Saint Volodymyr the Great of Paris) supposes that the usage of a geopolitically colored concept of the canonical territory in the Catholic-Orthodox and the inter-Orthodox relations is caused by the exaggeration of the territoriality of the Church. The last one is not a territorial circumscription but a Eucharistic gathering of the people of God, whose territoriality has extremely metamorphosed during the last century, so that the attachment of one particular Church to a concrete particular territorial circumscription in an exclusive way does not longer seem to be possible. According to Rantsya, instead of using the concept of canonical territory for limitation of the Greek-Catholic Churches on the so-called Orthodox canonical territories or for competitions between Orthodox Churches for zones of their influences, it is urgent to ecumenically rethink the territoriality of the Church as such in the new civilizational circumstances of humankind.  
  • Ukrainian historian Dr. Ivan Almes (Ukrainian Catholic University) believes that the answer to modern controversial questions can be found in early modern cultural history. That is why he presented an alternative approach to study the church history of multi-religious early modern Eastern Europe. It is not a confessional history, that emphasized on the certain confessional communities because should legitimate determined Church history. Indeed he talked about inclusive research concept that considers the cultural history of specific religious communities with all its problems, achievements, and favorable and inconvenient historical facts. In his opinion, such an inclusive pattern is exactly the concept of “Kyivan Christianity tradition,” the concept that remains as one of quite promising and long-term research issues.
  • Prof. Gerard Mannion (Georgetown University), using the European Union’s and Northern Irish stories of success in building bridges between widely differing peoples, pointed out that differences between people—whether geographical, cultural, religious, ethnic, or national—need not be the cause of division and violence but rather of celebrating diversity, unity in the midst of amazing diversity. What people share in common is much greater than what continues to divide them. If Eastern Catholics and Orthodox engage with some of the stories behind the European Union’s successes and, especially, some of the lessons, both positive and challenging, of the Northern Ireland quest for peace, then they may learn actually to not only acknowledge but even to celebrate that, in all so many ways, they too, in so many different places, are the same but different—there is already unity in diversity.
  • According to the Greek-Catholic theologian PD Dr. Thomas Mark Németh (University of Würzburg), there is a need in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue to take into consideration the status of the Eastern Catholic Churches within the ecclesiological framework of the Catholic Church, which has inner plurality also on the theological level. On both sides, the possible complementarity between Catholic and Orthodox interpretation of doctrinal and canonical issues remains a big challenge. This conference contributed to finding a common language between theologians of different churches. In them sometimes there is—also among the hierarchy—a lack of a clear notion about the role of academic theology. Theologians should develop together their arguing and critical role, foster the practical relevance of theology, and pave the way for growing understanding and convergence.
  • American Eastern Catholic church historian and theologian Prof. Yury P. Avvakumov (University of Notre Dame) pointed to the ecclesiological liminality of Eastern Catholic, or “Uniate,” Churches. Christians live today in a world divided in self-sufficient, impenetrable denominational blocs, “Catholic” and “Orthodox” among them. The Eastern Catholic intellectual tradition, from the medieval Byzantine Unionists to the early modern and modern defenders of union with Rome, does not fit into this conventional confessional paradigm and breaks it up. Caught in the crossfire of confessional struggles and disputes, the “Uniate” Christians remind us that confessional blocs are the inventions of a much later date than most Christians are wont to think today. Only by deconstructing confessionalism and going beyond it, we shall be able to discover fundamental affinity and continuity between Eastern Catholic and Orthodox theological traditions.
  • Orthodox theologian Andrey Shishkov (the Synodal Biblical and Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church) confirmed in his keynote address that the main Orthodox historical narrative formed in the 19th-20th centuries and fueling modern Orthodox identity describes the history of Orthodox-Catholic relations as a continuous series of attempts by the ecclesiastical Rome to colonize Orthodoxy. In this narrative, Uniates are described as collaborationists and those against whom the laws of segregation operate. The emergence of an Orthodox anticolonial narrative is closely connected with the assertion of the romantic paradigm in Orthodox ecclesiology, which is closely linked with the political philosophy of romanticism and the rise of nationalism. Shishkov noted that the moral problem of this kind of ecclesiology is that it looks on the non-Orthodox “Other” as lawless, and not just competitors or enemies. He proposed to overcome the romantic paradigm in Orthodox ecclesiology using methodological tools of post-colonial and post-structural studies, and also an object-oriented ontology approach.
  • Professor Emeritus Petros Vassiliadis (Orthodox), of the International Hellenic University, boldly recommended that the Greek Catholics in Ukraine, after the recent developments with the granting of autocephalous status to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, can really become bridges to the eventual unity of the One Church of Christ. Presenting a quite positive assessment of Uniatism, not only in the predominantly Greek-speaking Orthodoxy, but also in the Orthodox diaspora, he appealed to the bishops of the Old and the New Rome to encourage development with the New Skete example being one, though not the only, thoroughly ecumenical precedent that will certainly promote full eucharistic unity between the Christian East and West.
  • Father Vladimir Fedorov, an Orthodox archpriest from St. Petersburg, articulated that the answer to the main issue of the conference should not only be ecclesiological, but, probably above all, missiological. The critical state of Christianity in Russia and in the world calls for urgent and close missionary collaboration between the Orthodox and Catholics. The Concept of the Missionary Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church (2007) outlines five areas of the Church’s mission, one of which is reconciliation. The past should be recognized and studied, the mistakes and sins confessed and mutually forgiven for the sake of the hoped for Triumph of the Gospel. “Brethren, even to them that hate us, let us forgive all things on the Resurrection…” (Paschal Matins).
  • Catholic theologian Peter C. Phan celebrates the life and work of the Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970), who was born in St. Petersburg and emigrated to Paris in 1923. Evdokimov considered his exile to the West as God’s providential call for him, and for the Russian Orthodox Church, to enter into dialogue with the Catholic and Protestant Churches. An observer at the Second Vatican Council, Evdokimov drew from his extensive ecumenical experiences and neo-patristic theology to formulate ways to overcome the obstacles that separated the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, especially the Filioque, the papal dogmas, and Mariology. Animating Evdokimov’s ecumenical efforts was the deep conviction that under church divisions there lies the unity and equality of the three divine Persons, the icon of which is the one Church composed of many churches united with each other in fundamental equality and differences.
  • Orthodox theologian Dr. Vladimir Latinovic (University of Tübingen) reminded conference participants that there are many more similarities between the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches than differences, and that it is a matter of choice whether we focus on one or the other. Seeking doctrinal common ground did not so far produce the desired unity, so perhaps we should instead in the decades to come focus more on joint actions and collaboration in all fields where this is possible, with the hope that this will eventually move us closer together. As a church historian he pointed out that there were rarely periods in the history of Christianity in which East and West enjoyed full doctrinal unity, and called this alternative method “ecumenism of choice.”
  • Orthodox theologian Dr. A. Edward Siecienski (Stockton University, USA), citing historical examples of Eastern Catholic churches actually serving the cause of unity, put forward three possible roads for these churches going forward. First, they could increasingly serve as the Orthodox voice within the Catholic communion of churches, following the examples of Patriarch Gregory II Youssef at Vatican I and Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh at Vatican II.  Second, the Eastern Catholic churches could pursue the idea of “dual communion” such as existed in Ukraine in the decades after Florence.  Third, they could combat one of the most serious barriers to unity—Orthodox hostility to all things Catholic—by entering into full communion with the Orthodox while sharing with them their experience of, and emotional ties to, the See of Peter.
  • Orthodox theologian Prof. Dr. Theodoros Alexopoulos (University College of Teacher Education of Christian Churches in Austria), focusing on the Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and seeking doctrinal common ground with the Orthodox Church, brought to light several constructive points which could help the rapprochement of the Greek Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church, especially on the issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, he reminded conference participants that the Filioque issue, being in its very nature a theological and philosophical problem, still remains along with Primacy the thorniest of all the issues to be discussed and examined in the future by the Joint International Commission on the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church.
  • Antoine Arjakovsky (Collège des Bernardins, Paris) stated that he believes this important Stuttgart conference has the possibility to unlock one of the main barriers preventing the ecumenical dialogue from becoming a joint ecumenical work. He suggested that for this we need a manual of ecumenical science, a tool capable of transforming our confessional and secularized knowledge, those of a Zizioulas like those of a Habermas, into a reconciled and reconciling knowledge. He stated that he does not believe anymore that there would be on one side “hard science” and on the other side “human science.” This Ecumenical science, grounded in the vision of Father Sergius Bulgakov and Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, would offer a vision of the world, an epistemology that recognizes the sapiential character of physics or biology, a philosophy that discovers the personal dimension of uncreated Wisdom and also a theology that integrates the trinitarian dimension of created wisdom.
  • Orthodox theologian Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis (Volos Academy for Theological Studies, Greece) insisted on the importance of the non-theological factors in explaining the serious misunderstanding between the Latin Catholics/Greek Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox with regard to Uniatism, which is radically rejected, with few exceptions, by many Orthodox of any rank or ethnic origin: while the former consider Uniatism a bridge towards the Orthodox, the latter look at it as a reason for further division and conflict, or even as a betrayal of the ancestral or traditional faith. He also reminded that the Orthodox are still experiencing  today Uniatism as a collective trauma, as a wound, inflicted upon them by the rising West, at a moment of political, economic, and national weakness, i.e., during the Ottoman occupation, when the leadership of Eastern Christianity was struggling to survive and to avoid the Islamization of its flock. He then appealed to the need for a common reading of history, or for an ecumenical historiography, as well as to the healing of memories between Latin Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, between Greek Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. He concluded by suggesting the importance of strong self-criticism, and the prevailing of theological and ecclesiological concerns over historical traumas, bitterness, rancor, and resentment, in order to improve mutual understanding and better ecumenical cooperation.
  • The historian Dr. Nadezhda Beliakova (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Science) noted the significance of everyday religious practices of the Eastern Rite Christians in Western Ukraine during the persecution in 1970-80, and claimed that the study of history of female religious activities (as in Orthodox and Greek-Catholics communities) shows the practice of lower/local ecumenical communication. She thinks that the discussion about female ministries in the Eastern Rite Churches (mostly in an Eastern Europe context) and the Orthodox experience of the ministry of deaconesses, can be a new possibility for the dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
  • Peter De Mey from KU Leuven (Belgium) pointed to the differences between two smaller documents of the Second Vatican Council produced by two different bodies. The Oriental Commission wanted to safeguard the privileges of the Eastern Catholic Churches and still hoped for the return of the Orthodox. The Secretariat for Christian Unity insisted to write about Orthodox-Catholic relations in “their” decree as well, and this in a much more ecumenically open way. In the difficult relationship between the Catholic secretaries of these conciliar bodies, one of them became aware that “even among us Catholics there is a need to dialogue, perhaps even before starting the dialogue with the others.”
A small photo gallery from the conference can be viewed at the website of the Orthodox-Eastern Catholic Dialogue Group.

Vladimir Latinovic holds an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Orthodox Theology of the University of Belgrade and a PhD from the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen. He lectures in patristics and church history at the University of Tübingen and serves as director and vice-chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and as chair of the Network’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) unit.

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