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Eastern Christianity - Western Christianity


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 37/2009, P. 411 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    It seems that ecumenism with the Orthodox Church is guardedly moving into gear whereas the Catholic-Protestant ecumenism is stagnant.


Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall a religious wall, too, might have fallen. The auspices were favourable, as the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation worked out a broad consensus in the doctrine on justification and signed it on the Reformation Day in 1999 in Augsburg. But recently the venture was probably under an unlucky star. For the great result of the dialogue, which had finally been recognized even at the highest levels by the Vatican, and which theologically removed a root cause of the schism was belittled and finally only half-heartedly received after veto objections of nearly 200 Protestant professors of theology who saw the Protestants catholically pulled over the barrel.

Only one year later the mixed document of the Roman Congregation of Faith, "Dominus Jesus" followed as a "tit-for-tat response", which in the part dealing with the Protestant Churches denies them their being a true church and had thus devastating effects. In 2007 these statements were again confirmed as "proof" for the continuity of the Church's teachings before and after the Second Vatican Council: when the current pope recognized a further opinion of the same curia authority. This, in turn, happened only three days after the general reinstatement of the Tridentine liturgy, which should also emphasize the "continuity" in teaching. Subsequent Catholic interpretations admittedly tried to put oil on troubled waters by saying that the Protestant Churches were definitely churches, although churches of a different type. But, unfortunately, on the Protestant side, too, a neo-confessionalism was born again, euphemistically called "ecumenism of profiles".

The Catholic Church has meanwhile rather turned to the Eastern Churches - with negative consequences for the West ecumenism, after Protestants and Catholics had at least partially "cold-shouldered" each other. At any rate, one positive aspect is that Rome's new orientation towards East entailed some rays of hope. With the change of the pope from Poland to the pope from Germany, who has a special spiritual closeness to the Eastern Church's spirituality and to its appreciation of the mystery and who is also historically beyond suspicion to bring into play Catholic national ecclesiopolitical interests where the national Orthodox churches are concerned, opportunities for a careful understanding opened. One intensively campaigned again for a bridge building back to the sister churches that have raised their head after the long night of communism. Besides, many issues can theologically be solved more easily because the sister churches have the same understanding of office, sacraments and church as well as of all essential dogmas - with the exception of the papal primacy of jurisdiction, i.e. its legal primacy over all other church leaders in Christendom, and the consequent infallibility.


A Macedonian asks Paul

Much is owed here to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was appointed new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity after the debacle with the Lutherans. By his visits to the Orthodox world he has created an atmosphere of credibility and trust. He even succeeded in invalidating deeply rooted fears of the Russian side that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union a Roman Catholic dominance would spread in the Orthodox territory. "Even today, twenty years after the Wall came down, many old-established prejudices and stereotypes are admittedly still going round," Kasper confirmed at a congress of the East European aid organization "Renovabis". In the East, for example, the opinion still prevailed that the West is decadent, libertine and impious, whereas in the West one thinks in turn that the East is lagging behind, frozen in an archaic liturgy, anti-modern. But now a process was initiated to get rid of the rooted clichés.

For more than a decade the late-summer congresses of "Renovabis" on the historic Domberg in Freising have been an important forum for meeting and dialogue between East and West, East and West in the entire width of God's people, both hierarchy and laity. This time one pointedly devoted oneself to the ecumenism East. It could not be felt here, in the diversity of cultures and religious traditions, that the believers' search for unity was kinda "dead". On the contrary, such a lot of participants as this time had never come before: approximately 400, from Moscow via Kiev, Lviv and Bucharest to Paris, from 30 countries.

Where we come from, we know. Where we want to get to, we do not yet know exactly. However, nobody really wants to go back to the past. In this situation of self-reassurance of a Christianity that sometimes seems to be tired, Walter Kasper tried to inspire courage. Despite many disputes, numerous reciprocal injuries and several divisions among Christians, the things that unite and connect were not lost, "Wherever we come, we find everywhere the cross, we find cathedrals in the centre of all ancient cities. Europe is based on a common culture, which was founded in Greece and Rome and moulded by Christianity. Jerusalem, Athens and Rome have shaped Europe." For Kasper, there is reason for hope. He reminded of Paul's vision in the sixteenth chapter of Acts: A Macedonian asked the Apostle of the Gentiles, "Come over and help us! "Paul understands this as sign from the Holy Spirit and ferries over to Europe." With this Europe was helped. Europe became Europe, from the outside, by a religion that was still foreign to it. That's why the common Europe is for the Curia Cardinal not a geographic or ethnic, but rather a cultural entity, a community of values based on the common Christian faith, which we have and share with each other in West and East, thanks to the inquisitive and conscientious Paul, who started from the East.


Rome, too, has to Move

From such originally common ground Kasper expects the strength to overcome the alienation between East and West. But one could of course not simply reverse more than thousand years drifting apart. Not a few church leaders and believers in the Eastern Churches still regard the ecumenical idea as "super-heresy". Kasper: "But in Rome, too, a few things need to give way. Rome has to wonder whether it can, by going beyond the Second Vatican Council, clarify the fundamental relationship between primacy and synodality resp. collegiality, which is fundamental for the East."



The Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Joseph Pop, who is responsible in Paris for Western and Southern Europe, frankly admitted that a united Europe "is sometimes a provocation for us as Orthodox Christians." The Western pluralism and liberalism are worrying. But the new Europe in which the old borders have fallen was "an opportunity to express our love for God." Joseph Pop demanded, "The Orthodox Christians, too, must get to know each other better."


Sense of Mystery

Despite criticizing relativism and individualism, and the mere self-fulfilment of a whateverism that is thinking very little of community, Nicolae Achimescu, the Orthodox professor of theology from Bucharest showed also self-criticism. As Orthodox Christian you had also to clarify the paradox that totalitarian regimes ruled where the Orthodox Church with its allegedly superior collegial-synodal structure resided, whereas conversely, the centralist Catholicism went hand in hand with democracy and separation of powers. What new ideas can Orthodoxy contribute to the European project? Achimescu noticed that the presence of Orthodoxy in the West has increased in the wake of migration. Among the Western population some interest in the "superiority of Orthodoxy" is growing, in its sensitivity to the holy, the sacred, and the mystery. At least among religiously oppen-minded people there is a growing awareness of the need of a relationship with God beyond the language of rationality, in silence, in imagery, and in worship. Globalization and the mobility and openness of young people associated with it are an asset. "I hope for a new generation in ecumenism," Kasper says. Travel and international domicile relocations make spiritual understanding and learning about the richness of other Christian traditions and identities easier.

Serious ecumenism needs serious theology. This includes the willingness to be corrected in matters one has become fond of. The theologian Johannes Oeldemann of the Paderborn Johann Adam Möhler Institute has identified three main problem areas in the East-West ecumenism. To begin with, what do you think about the relationship between primacy, i.e. the Pope's claim to legal supremacy, and synodality, i.e. the integration of the teaching authority into the College of Bishops? How does the Catholic Church improve the synodal principle, above and below? And should not also some kind of primacy, i.e. a certain legal independence and personal authority be implemented and strengthened on the intermediate, national level of church leadership? Oeldemann sees prerequisites for it in the Eastern Churches connected with Rome, where the leadership has a certain legal authority of its own and where synodal structures with election competence exist. Unfortunately, there are efforts in the Latin (Roman Catholic) part of the Catholic world church to reduce the partial autonomies of Catholic sisters in the Eastern Churches and to tie everything more closely to the Roman instructions. Oeldemann asks: "For the ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church ... it would be advantageous to strengthen the authority of the Catholic patriarchs and grand archbishops as well as their synods. Such a strengthening of the autonomy of the Eastern Catholic Churches would admittedly mean a loss in influence and power for the Vatican, but this would be more than compensated by a gain in authority in the inter-church relations."

A second problem area challenging rather Orthodoxy, is the relationship between nationality and universality. The Orthodox Churches are constituted as National Churches, which causes some narrowness and provincialism. But Orthodoxy, too, wants to be truly "Catholic", that is universal. In order to become it the Orthodox national churches had for a start to communicate with each other about their unity and about a universality that goes beyond territorial sovereignty, known as canonical territories. But there is inner-Orthodox controversy, including mutual denouncing. As consequence of the globalization believers of various national churches have settled next to each other. How does Orthodox unity become visible there?

It is even more difficult to bring together reform and tradition, renewal and continuity of tradition. All Christians of the third millennium are troubled by the same question: How do you think about Enlightenment, the modern age, the change in the ways of faith due to demythologization and the collapse mythological-magical ideas under the pressure of scientific conceptions of the world? Out of concern for the faith, some people seek refuge in traditionalism, which pretends to be old but is as a matter of fact often very young, because it arbitrarily refers to definitions e.g. of the 16th or 17th century which for their part were a result of historical change. Oeldemann: "A tradition that does not change ossifies. A belief that does not adapt to the respective historical context dies. Many Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century therefore speak of the 'living tradition' of the church, which remains alive only if it is open to change. When in ecumenism we talk about the tradition of the Church, we are far too often backward-looking. But 'Traditio' in the original sense means 'passing on'. It is thus oriented towards the future."


Great God, not Small Idol

The theologian Konstantin Sigov of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine sees first of all the effort to translate more theological works of the West as an important step toward such a future.

But this also includes to face honestly one's past, to come to terms with a history that is often a history of suffering. The historian Borys Gudziak who comes from New York and is now living in Ukraine points to the tribulations and the many dead of his Greek-Catholic community which was persecuted under Stalinism and by force incorporated in the Orthodox Church. Violence left scars for a long time. But despite all the mistrust and all the pain we must not forget the common root. "The message of Jesus is valid for all times. The will of God goes beyond our limitations." We had a wonderful conception of God and "not that of a small idol." Gudziak made a simple proposal for Orthodox and Catholics to get acquainted with each other: "Could we not organize a common ecumenical pilgrimage among the churches, in which the bishops, too, take part?" And - as the church historian coming from the Byzantine tradion of a Church united with Rome added with a wink - "cardinals, too, if the pope some day would appoint younger cardinals".


Human Rights are God's Law

"It is inevitable to continue the path of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation." That is the message of the Greek Catholic Bishop Bogdan Dzyurakh of Kiev. Tradional enmity can become friendship, as the experiences of Germany with France and Poland show. What is possible in secular life should be impossible for the Church?

Serafim Belonoiko, the Belarusian Bishop of Bobruisk tried to promote understanding for the reserve of Orthodox believers in view of the experiences of freedom by which they were overwhelmed in the wake of the turnaround. "The Orthodox Christians have now to exert themselves and have to learn to deal with a situation that is foreign to our historic, spiritual and cultural experience." The Bishop circumspectly opposed an attitude that rejects everything that comes from the West, and paints an almost apocalyptic picture of the moral decay and religious decline, as if pluralism meant only arbitrariness. Serafim wants, however, to admit only that pluralism which helps to become better acquainted with each others' differences. That must not be a "capitulation to truth." As an Orthodox Christian one could, if need be, accept pluralism in terms of practical issues, because a society can only in this way be protected against chaos and fanaticism. "We reject a pluralism that in the human heart blots out the dream of full union with God."

In this respect the Orthodox bishop met with the assessment of his Catholic brother, Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg: "The ideological pluralism that wants to give up an ultimately binding truth and a standard-giving authority in favour of a pseudo-tolerance and to answer the question of God by means of an aggressive atheism is primarily a fight against humanity." Müller called for a reconsideration of the dignity of the human person, for transcendentally anchoring the human rights in God. Human rights are in some way God's law. In the German Constitution the reference is therefore found to the responsibility "before God and man", a justification of the fundamental rights both by means of the immanent and the transcendent reason. Addressing also the Orthodox Christians, Müller hopes that they face not only defensively the pluralistic challenge. "We should also use the possibilities of a pluralistic society to participate from a Christian perspective in the development of society."

Such participation has not only a political and creative dimension but also a contemplative. The Romanian Orthodox nun Dosithea Zaharia explained it in a discussion with nuns of the Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic tradition: She came from a religiously detached family, fiftheen-year-old she had discovered the beauty of worship for herself and had at the age of 27 entered the monastery: "We are seekers. I've been seeking, very much. I have looked for something, the truth - or whatever. I do not know why I was interested in faith. God did it." So this has become her way to allow people to participate in the joy in God through liturgy and singing." She wanted to be there for people by praying. "We have admittedly different spiritualities in East and West. But both together are one way to God." The Ukrainian Greek Catholic nun Jelena Herasym sees it similarly: "God is fascinating, but for those who seek him."

The common path in diversity is often not as much mined by differences in theology, spirituality and culture; on the divine path people often behave in an all too human manner. "Unfortunately, one has sometimes the impression that it is also about power and self-righteousness," Father Dietger Demuth, the Chief Executive of Renovabis asked to take into consideration. The fact that the ice between East and West is melting is then less owed to religious but simply to human insight. As Auxiliary Bishop of Kiev Dzyurakh asked, "If we are not able to celebrate Mass together, then we can nonetheless pray together. If we cannot pray together, we can still jointly do social work. If we can not do this, we can still drink at least a cup of coffee together. However, the only thing that we are not allowed to do is doing nothing."


With the Help of Matter

This year's "Renovabis" Congress has impressively shown the various networks established in the last decade and a half between West and East by people of good will who are highly committed Christians. Some understanding starts quite simply by meeting, talking, listening to each other and looking. Often matter lends a hand. It is not the worst, if the support with money becomes a catalyst for spiritual renewal, for a new perspective on the other. The physical nature of man is simply never indifferent to the kingdom of God. In the Christian East and the Christian West we ask the great question together, even if we sometimes do not notice it. God is our common and vital unrest, the real impulse for ecumenism and for its courageous renewal. The question of God continues to be the vital question of all Europe.


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