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"Willingness to Listen Is Needed"

An Interview with the Eastern Churches Expert Rudolf Prokschi


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2009, P. 501-505
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    John Paul II coined the phrase that Europe must breathe with both lungs: Western and Eastern Christianity. How are the Eastern Churches doing at present? What is the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches? Is the full unity within sight? About that we talked with Professor Rudolf Prokschi (Wien). The interview was conducted by Ulrich Ruh.


HK: Mister Prokschi, you're running an institute for theology and history of the Christian East and therefore professionally dealing with the Orthodox Churches. What particularly interests you in this topic?

Prokschi: My main concern is ecumenism. Since the beginning of the year I'm running the Ecumenical Commission of the Archdiocese of Vienna and am also a member of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria. My main interest is to see to it that Catholic Church and Orthodoxy reach the visible unity. These two churches are not separated by substantial differences in doctrine but ultimately only by organizational issues, to be precise, problems of the church hierarchy.

HK: The doctrinal proximity between Catholic and Orthodox Christians is often invoked. But these churches are at the same time in many ways strange to each other, be it in the mentality, be it in spirituality, which also makes the mutual relations much more difficult. What are the reasons for it?

Prokschi: There are firstly historical factors that have led to the gulf between the Catholic and Orthodox Church. We must not forget that most of the Orthodox Churches had to live for decades under the communist system and that it was impossible to get the ecumenical process going under these conditions. In earlier centuries the Orthodox Churches were, with the exception of the Russian Church, for a long time under Ottoman rule, and under these conditions, too, they could not develop freely. A further important factor is that in the East from the beginning a Christianity developed that was differently moulded than the Western.

HK: What should you as a Catholic today bring along, if you want to get involved with the Orthodox Churches?

Prokschi: The first and most important is a personal love for Orthodoxy. The willingness to listen is needed, even if you do not understand a number of things, at least not at first glance. You must be able to ask about and to marvel at all that exists in Eastern Christendom. Those who approach the issue with prejudices, as I've repeatedly noticed it in the Western reporting on Orthodoxy, block themselves the access. From the tourist's angle it is very tempting to dismiss some customs and ways of life in Orthodox countries and their churches as backwoods.



We gain experiences of foreign cultures and then easily forget that some decades ago such practices were still usual in our country, too.


"We should Refrain from Idealizations of Eastern Christianity"

HK: There is also the other extreme, namely that Western Christians uncritically admire the Eastern Christianity mainly because of its liturgy and spirituality, and glorify it as object of their longing [Sehnsuchtsobjekt]

Prokschi: We should refrain from idealizations of Orthodox Christianity. An example: During a stay with a tour group of "Pro Oriente" many years ago in Moscow we visited in the morning a "Divine Liturgy" which was celebrated with all display of splendour, and in the evening there was in the Catholic St. Louis Church a simple Latin Mass without singing for the group. That was a huge contrast! Many of the tour group were enthusiastic about the Orthodox liturgy and expressed the opinion that the churches were full again, if liturgy were celebrated in this way in our home country. I think this is a downright kneejerk reaction. Not everything can be taken over one hundred percent! Besides, in the Orthodox Church there is also need for action, with the purpose that liturgy becomes more accessible for young people.

HK: The Orthodox Churches have with the Catholic Church an official theological dialogue, which in the last few years has gained speed again after a long break. This month in Cyprus the next meeting of the Joint Commission will take place. With all due respect to the results of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, but are there really reasonable prospects that one will make decisive progresses on this path?

Prokschi: Lately, I increasingly wonder whether those responsible on both sides really believe in their heart of hearts that in the foreseeable future a visible unity can be achieved. Of course, in the ecumenical contacts a lot of progress has been made, and in the meantime we usually associate quite well with each other. What is lacking is the will to achieve unity not only in one or two hundred years but already in our lifetime, and thus to make the full Eucharistic communion between Catholics and Orthodox possible.

HK: Above all the question of papal primacy is unsolved between the two churches. How could an agreement on this thorny issue look like?

Prokschi: You could start with John Paul II's encyclical "Ut unum sint", in which we are invited to consider an exercise of the primacy appropriate to the present time. However, this would imply that the Catholic Church moves. It's quite clear that the Orthodox Church will not submit to the jurisdictional primacy of the pope defined by the First Vatican Council. In this matter no movement of the Orthodox side can be expected. There is a Catholic obligation [Bringschuld], which has not yet really been coped with. In any case, it is not enough to exchange views on the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, and to look for an understanding in that matter. And the creation of new patriarchates in the Western church, as Professor Joseph Ratzinger in his ecumenical perspectives once suggested, could only help if they have got their own jurisdiction. The crucial factor would be the search for a model of primacy acceptable for the whole church of the third millennium. This had to be a primacy that is integrated into a system of synods and councils.


"It is About a Mined Field"

HK: The question has to be asked whether in this context the Orthodox Churches still have to do some homework. Preparations for a pan-Orthodox council have been underway for decades without bringing such a meeting of all Orthodox Churches within reach ...

Prokschi: A pan-Orthodox council would urgently be needed, because there are jurisdictional controversies within the Orthodox Church, which can only be solved if all the churches come together. It is not enough to invoke time and again the fraternal unanimity; what is needed is a mechanism that makes it possible to reach clear decisions that are observed by all churches. Think of the problems of the Russian Orthodox Church with regard to Estonia and especially Ukraine: Ukraine is a particular area of tension for the simple reason that the Moscow Patriarchate has there its greatest potential of parishes and young priests [Priesternachwuchs]. Nevertheless, it is ultimately difficult to explain why the Orthodox Church in Ukraine could not become an autocephalous church.

HK: The situation in Ukraine is even more complicated because there exists, in addition to competing Orthodox Churches, also a strong Greek-Catholic, with Rome "united" Church with a marked self-confidence. All the Eastern Churches are in a delicate situation between the Orthodox and Catholic Church. In view of the further development of the Catholic-Orthodox relations what do you think the result of this situation will be?



Prokschi: One may well ask whether the Uniate Churches are to remain an independent "intermediate form" or to become even stronger, or whether the goal is to end their separate existence in the event of a Catholic-Orthodox unity resp. on the way to it. This is controversially discussed also among the Uniates. In any case, we have to do here with a mined field, for the simple reason that centuries of a turbulent and tragic history cannot be obliterated - just think of the Union of Brest-Litovsk, which took place four hundred years ago.

HK: How then should the "Latin" Catholic Church appropriately behave to their "united" brothers and sisters?

Prokschi: One thing seems certain to me: If the Uniate Churches should really be a model of how the Catholic Church deals with the Orthodox Churches, we would have even more credibly to respect the structures of the Uniate Churches, their independent existence, their synods. Such a policy would reduce Orthodox fears. But if the Orthodox Churches would get the impression that the association with Rome meant total subordination, this would be a heavy burden on the way to the intended unity. Besides, it is ecclesiologically highly problematic that a congregation of the Curia, namely the Congregation for Eastern Churches, serves as supervisory authority of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Actually, they should be immediately under the Pope's control.

HK: After all, there is a special compendium of laws for the Eastern Catholic Churches. The CIC does not apply to them but the "Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium" (CCEO), which was promulgated in 1990. Is not this a step in the right direction?

Prokschi: Only partly. On the one hand this Code means without doubt an upgrading of the Eastern Catholic Churches. On the other hand it has frequently been criticized rightly that by the CCEO all Eastern Catholic Churches with their very different traditions have been forced into one code of laws, and this was then even promulgated in Latin. Anyway, in the CCEO e.g. the admission of married men to the priesthood is embodied, whereas in the Western Latin tradition this point is sacrosanct.

HK: Not only the Eastern Catholic Churches are partly marked national churches. For the Orthodox Church, too, the loyalty to a certain nation is characteristic. The Serbian Church's close ties with Serbian nationalism, for instance, have clearly shown these problems. Should not Orthodox Churches, in view of many an aberration, counteract a too narrow view of their self-conception as national churches?

Prokschi: Absolutely. In that regard, the Orthodox Churches could incidentally learn something from the Catholic Church: The church is always universal Church, too. It is not acceptable to identify a nation with a particular faith community. Against partly outrageous arguments of some Orthodox national churches one has time and again to remind of the early Christian Epistle to Diognetus where it says that Christians live in all countries and peoples, and that they can do it because their real home is in heaven. Christians are therefore not tied to a particular country, a certain nation. Of course, in the process of Christianity's actual inculturation there takes place a connection with these entities. But the Orthodox Church must be very careful in some countries, that she is not politically monopolized by national or even nationalistic aspirations. Despite the positive relationship with the nation, churches have always to remain open.


"It is Unacceptable to Identify a Nation with a Religious Community"

HK: Until twenty years ago most of the Orthodox national churches had to live under communist regimes. They have survived Communism, but not without damage, even with a certain degree of collaboration. How far has in the meantime in the Orthodox Churches the essential process of coming to terms with the past under communism progressed?

Prokschi: There are still substantial deficits. It's not about pointing now a finger at others and confronting them with their mistakes. But the alternative cannot be to hush this period up, as it unfortunately happens too often. Many Christians have been imprisoned under the Communist regime or even killed for their faith, others have timidly kept a low profile, whereas others have come to terms with it. In retrospect I can from a safe position not condemn certain people out of hand and accuse them of wrong conduct. But simply to say that was just a part of one's history and one wanted to let bygones be bygones doesn't seem honest to me. This is above all a challenge for the intellectuals in the individual countries.

HK: In some cases it went beyond coming to terms with the regime. Orthodox bishops have apparently worked for the secret service ...

Prokschi: Anyone who had achieved during the period of communism a bishopric had to make compromises in this or that way. Failing this, he would not have got any leading position in the church. He had at least to refrain from critical statements against the regime, especially with regard to discrimination and persecution of Christians.



If some church people have gone so far that they informed on brothers and sisters, this is of course particularly bad.

HK: It is partly a legacy of the communist decades that representatives of the Orthodox Church still nurture strong reservations against the "West". They reproach the West and its churches for being infected by liberalism and secularism. What should we think of it?

Prokschi: Some charges against the West from the Orthodox side are certainly justified. In Western Europe the process of secularization is considerably more advanced than in the Orthodox world. But exactly those issues that one critically holds against us should be closely looked at in one's own country. Think, for example, of the abortion practice, not least in Russia. I admit indeed that Patriarch Cyril is quite correct when he points out that God's commandments could be undermined by the Western understanding of human rights, and that is why they are problematic. But vice versa one has to ask the question to what extent basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, in Russia are already realized.


"The Orthodox Churches Want to Contribute to the European Union"

HK: Some years ago the Russian Orthodox Church has submitted a comprehensive document that contains fundamentals of her social teaching. Is not it a sign of progress when an Orthodox church reflects on Christian social ethics and thus takes its social responsibility seriously?

Prokschi: The "Social Doctrine" or, as one should better translate, "Social Concept" of the Russian Orthodox Church has basically to be judged favourably. Of course, the individual issues of this paper can be discussed. For example, in the chapters on the church and nation, as well as church and state the idea is still implied that there should actually be a symphony between an Orthodox ruler and an Orthodox patriarch. This is described as ideal, but you have to say that it virtually has never been realized in history. In most eras tensions rather prevailed between state and church authorities.

HK: In most former communist-ruled countries the Orthodox churches today live in conditions of democracy, market economy and cultural pluralism. Since 2007 the predominantly Orthodox countries Bulgaria and Romania are even members of the European Union. How do the Orthodox churches cope with their new political and social environment?

Prokschi: On the one hand, it is amazing how quickly the Orthodox Churches in the countries concerned got to like the market economy and its possibilities. On the other hand, there are still some reservations about the democratic system. At the same time, the Orthodox churches certainly want to contribute something to the European Union. But the churches are not united among themselves, and so the Russian and the Greek Orthodox Church maintain own offices in Brussels. With regard to the future, however, it would be important to join forces in order to ensure that Europe's Orthodox Churches can speak with one voice in Europe. Besides, they compete very clearly for the Catholic Church as an ally. Archbishop Hilarion, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate speaks time and again of a strategic alliance between Orthodoxy and Catholicism with regard to the European development. In this context they gladly applaud Benedict XVI's remarks against relativism or his warnings against a moral decay in Europe. It's worth the effort to look for common ground, but then you are to be wary of monopolizing.

HK: Archbishop Hilarion is also a renowned Orthodox theologian. But viewed as a whole, is the Orthodox theology in Europe an entity that can stand comparison with the Catholic or Protestant?

Prokschi: At the end of the Czarist period, there was a highly qualified theology in the Russian Orthodox Church, especially at the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg. Of course, this heyday was interrupted by communism. After the turnaround one at first contented oneself with re-publishing old theological books. In the meantime, there are several young Orthodox theologians who are very familiar with methodology and hermeneutics of Western theology. Of course, at the same time the Orthodox theology is also trying to differentiate itself and to make clear that it is feeding on the church fathers and is thus more embedded into tradition than the Western theology.


"All Christian Churches in Europe are Today Facing Similar Challenges"

HK: But does it lead further to respond to current problems by references to the thinking of the Church Fathers?

Prokschi: Such an approach has certainly limitations. Some arguments of orthodox theologians are so far-fetched that they do no longer work. It can admittedly be helpful to enter into the spirit of the fathers and to look from there to today's problems.



But it is impossible to apply directly statements of Chrysostom and Basil to the present and to derive recipes from them.

HK: Could not the Western theology learn something from the way in which Orthodox theology is done?

Prokschi: The Orthodox theology is very closely connected with liturgy and its spirituality and imbued with the esteem of the mystery, whereas we one-sidedly rationally approach the matter from fear not to work scientifically. This leads e.g. to exegetical studies that are confined to mere linguistic issues and do no longer communicate the spiritual dimension of the Scripture. Here, a certain correction function may befit the Orthodox theology. At the same time, Orthodox theology might help us in Ecclesiology to lay the groundwork to ensure that in our church structures, too, conciliarity and the synodal principle get a real breakthrough, e.g. by upgrading the Bishops' Conferences.

HK: Christianity in Europe is characterized by the coexistence of several major denominational blocs that are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Since the turnaround the Orthodox Churches are, so to speak, on board again. What role can they play in future in the European concert?

Prokschi: All Christian churches in Europe today face similar challenges in the field of social and cultural development, which has been spreading long since through the former communist Central and Eastern Europe, and against which a sealing-off will ultimately not be possible. In Moscow today perhaps two or three per cent of the population take part in the life of the Orthodox Church, no more and no less than in the outskirts of Vienna in the Catholic Church. There are without doubt impressive awakenings in the European Orthodox Churches. But particularly young people have difficulties in feeling at home in a church that is ossified in some respects in traditional forms.

HK: Would it therefore be unrealistic to expect a significant contribution to the European Christianity's future viability from the Orthodox Churches?

Prokschi: The Orthodox Churches will undoubtedly remain an important element in European Christendom; and in countries like Bulgaria or Romania they will also in the future play a prominent role. Particular attention must be paid to the now strong Orthodox Diaspora in Western and Southern Europe. Actually, in one or two generations in Germany or France Orthodox Churches should come into existence, which have a character of their own and are no longer only a refuge for members of a particular people or nation. If that succeeds, I see a chance that the Orthodox Church will be audible as independent Christian voice beside the Catholic and Protestant ones, even outside of its countries of origin.


    {*} Rudolf Prokschi (born in 1953) is since 2004 Professor of patrology and Eastern Church Studies and Director of the Department for Theology and History of the Eastern Churches at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna. Previously, he taught in Würzburg, Jerusalem and Fribourg and was chaplain for the German-speaking Catholic community in Moscow.


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