Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave a public lecture at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy (Geneva, Switzerland) on 16 December 2019. The title of his lecture was: “Towards the unity of the Church in East and West: Paths to overcome the divisions between the Roman Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Orthodox Church”. The lecture gathered a large audience of professors and students from the Universities of Fribourg and Geneva, the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey and of the Institute of Post-Graduate Studies in Orthodox Theology, as well as people interested in ecumenism. The speaker, well known to the Swiss audience since he was the previous bishop of Basel and a former student and colleague of the late Metropolitan Damaskinos Papandreou, was welcomed by the director of the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan Maximos of Switzerland.
The first part of the lecture of Cardinal Koch dealt with overcoming the first divisions that appeared in the Church after the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus (431) and of Chalcedon (451), because certain ecclesial communities refused to accept the doctrinal christological decisions of these Councils and therefore separated from the Church of the Empire. The cardinal reminded that already in 1971, the first consultation of Pro-Oriente in Vienna, which was attended by representatives of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, set itself the task of dealing with the issue of the Council of Chalcedon. Thus, the ecumenical conversations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches have mainly focused on Christological issues. These important preliminary ecumenical works prepared and made possible the subsequent official dialogues and Christological declarations which were then signed by the Pope of Rome and the heads of various Oriental Orthodox Churches. An International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, co-chaired today by Cardinal Koch, was able to start its activity in 2003 on the basis of the theological work carried out to date. Since then, two documents were adopted, one on “The nature, constitution and mission of the Church” and the other on “The exercise of communion in the life of the early Church and its repercussions on our quest for communion today”.
The second part of the lecture dealt with the so-called great schism in the Church between East and West, generally linked to the year 1054, when the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople were pronounced. Koch underlined that “this is less of a historical date than a symbolic one.” He reminded that fifty years ago, the historic meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964 expressed the reciprocal desire to restore love between the two Churches. It was followed by another historic event in December 1965, when the highest representatives of the two Churches “removed from memory and from the middle of the Church” the reciprocal anathemas of 1054. These events initiated a two-folded dialogue, since, as the Cardinal pointed out, “The dialogue of charity and the dialogue of truth go together, just as love and truth cannot be separated.” This led to the creation of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, whose co-president is Cardinal Koch today, to deal with controversial issues inherited from the past.
The first two plenary sessions of the International Joint Commission at Patmos and Rhodes in 1980 prepared the methodology of the dialogue and the themes to be addressed during the first phase of the dialogue. From 1980 to 1990, broad convergences on fundamental questions of faith and important theological themes were identified between Orthodox and Catholics. However, problems arose in the second decade from 1990 to 2000, since events of that period rekindled on the Orthodox side the old controversies concerning uniatism and proselytism, which weighed heavily on the atmosphere of dialogue and led to a change in the ecumenical agenda. In 2006, the plenary meeting in Belgrade examined a document on “Ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental nature of the Church. Ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority” which was finalized at the next plenary meeting in Ravenna in 2007. Koch noted that the Ravenna document represents an important advance in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue since, for the first time, the two partners in dialogue were able to declare together that the Church needs a primacy at all her levels, including at the universal level. Subsequently, the plenary meeting in Chieti in 2016 produced another document entitled “Synodality and primacy in the first millennium. Towards a common understanding at the service of the unity of the Church”. The next step will be studying “Primacy and synodality in the second millennium and today”. It is not easy to reach a common reading of history and this difficulty is naturally accentuated due to the different developments that have undergone in the doctrine and practice of the Church on both sides during the second millennium, the period during which Christians in the East and in the West lived for the most part separated from each other.
The future work of the Commission will deal with the theme: “Towards the unity of faith. Theological and canonical questions.” It shall recapitulate what has already been done in the theological dialogue in order to identify, in a second step, the theological and canonical questions which still have to be resolved in order to restore communion between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. “It is an urgent duty to make a contribution so that this path, which started with so rich promises in Jerusalem fifty years ago, finds its goal in the Eucharistic agape” concluded the Cardinal.
The public lecture was concluded by a discussion chaired by Archbishop Job of Telmessos, the Rector of the Institute of Post-Graduate Studies in Orthodox Theology of Chambesy and the Orthodox co-president of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.