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Historical overview:

By the fourth century CE, church authority in the Christian movement had become concentrated in five bishops or patriarchs. They were located in the main Christian centers: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. The Bishop of Rome was considered the first among equals. With the rise of Islam, the influence of church leaders in Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was severely reduced. Over time, the two power centers of Christianity, centered in Constantinople in the East and Rome in the West, drifted apart. They developed divergent paths in the areas of creeds, beliefs, practices, liturgy, the use of icons, organizational structure, etc. A formal split finally came in 1054 CE. The Reformation in the 16th century later divided western Christianity between Roman Catholicism and a variety of Protestant churches. The Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church has been organized largely on national grounds; it is today a fellowship of 15 separate, autocephalous churches, each led by its bishop.

Unsuccessful attempts have been made to heal the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In recent centuries, the relation between the two churches has degenerated, in part because of a move by the Roman Catholic church to establish parishes in Eastern Orthodox territory -- notably Greece and Russia. Mass crimes against humanity by Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox individuals and groups in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Kosovo have further aggravated differences.

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Current status of inter-church talks: 

The eighth plenary of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, ended in Baltimore MD on 2000-JUL-19. This was the first meeting in seven years. An expected joint declaration on progress between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches was not issued.

Professor Waclaw Hryniewicz, a Catholic theologian and director of the Ecumenical Institute at the Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland felt that improvement in relations between the two Christian communions are at a temporary dead-end. He attributes this failure of the high-level talks to "methodological deficiencies" and a "polemical atmosphere" at the meetings. He said that the leaders of the two churches appear "unwilling or hesitant" to recognize their churches as "sister churches." He predicts that future ecumenical dialogue would depend on better relations at the local level, particularly in Eastern Europe. A major sticking point is the status of the pope.

Professor Waclaw Hryniewicz commented: "I'm disappointed -- I was expecting a healthy compromise worthy of the name. This meeting was not in vain. But when there's a conflict between two [partners acting in good faith], you have to reach a compromise. The fact that we couldn't explains why there was no joint declaration."

Past documents produced by the Joint International Commission had referred to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as "sister churches" However, most of the Orthodox churches now reject the term as "insufficiently thought over." Roman Catholics now say that the term  "posed certain difficulties."

This 10-day session was devoted to discussing the "ecclesiological and canonical implications of Uniatism." This is the controversial process by which Orthodox communities would accept the jurisdiction of Rome, while retaining their Eastern liturgy. A communiqué distributed at the close of the Commission stated that participants had expressed "reserve and even outright opposition" to
documents prepared for the meeting. They agreed that further studies were needed of "theological, pastoral, historical and canonical issues" involved in the "exceptionally thorny question of Uniatism."

Professor Hryniewicz told Ecumenical News International (ENI) that the atmosphere at the talks had been "generally tense" because of the complexity of the issues and some personal animosities. He added that Orthodox delegates had had to "argue hard among themselves, sometimes exceeding the rules of courtesy." The Roman Catholic co-chairman of the talks, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had at one point staged a walkout. "Besides difficult moments like this, caused by the very polemical atmosphere, the talks also lacked sound methodological organization. Such discussions should be led in an intelligent, orderly way. If the method had been better, we could have expected better results."

Archbishop Jeremiasz of Wroclaw-Szczecin, A Polish Orthodox delegate, said he recognized that the "ecclesiological status" of Greek Catholic churches affected "key elements" of Roman Catholic teaching. He criticized the talks for a lack of "organizational care." He continued: "I don't think the talks were a failure -- only that they marked a very difficult phase, in which official views appear to have triumphed...Some participants have begun to harden their positions self-defensively, while external non-church factors have also exerted too much influence. But, given sufficient will and theological freedom, as well as improved procedures, the dialogue should continue."

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  1. Jonathan Luxmoore, "Orthodox-Catholic relations at an impasse after Baltimore talks: 'Bitter differences' lead to dead-end, Polish ecumenist says," Ecumenical News International. Distributed as Note #6146 by PCUSA NEWS on 2000-AUG-9

Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-AUG-9
Latest update: 2000-AUG-9
Author: B.A. Robinson

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