& Orthodox Dialogue Essay, Research Paper
THE SYNODAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION
STUDIES ISSUES RELATED TO THE DIALOGUE
BETWEEN THE ORTHODOX AND ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCHES
The commentary on the documents of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue
On April 18, 1997 the Synodal Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church
under the chairmanship of Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk and Slutsk had a meeting
at the Department for External Church Relations to study the document of the VII
Plenary session of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue
Between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches on “Uniatism, Method of Union
of the Past and the Present Search for Full Communion”, which was adopted in
Balamand, Lebanon, in June 1993. This document gave rise to a dispute at the
All-Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church last February which resulted in
the decision of the Council “to transfer the document to Synodal Theological
Commission for study and to have the Holy Synod work out an official position on
In this connection, the Theological Commission found it essential to give some
information on the background of the Balamand document.
The theological dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches goes
back to early 1960’s following Vatican II and Pan-Orthodox Conferences on Rhodes.
As early as 1961, the First Pan-Orthodox Conference, among other topics for the
forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council, chose the following :
“V. Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world.(…)
C. Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. a)Study of Positive and Negative
moments in the relations between the two Churches: 1) on the faith; 2)on the
government; 3) on the activity of the church (especially, propaganda, proselytism,
Unia) b) Establishment of relation in the spirit of Christian love, as envisaged in
Patriarchal encyclical of 1920 ” (JMP No.11, 1961)
The second Pan-Orthodox Conference in 1963 “unanimously agreed that our
Eastern Orthodox Church should propose a dialogue with the honorable Roman
Catholic Church on conditions of parity.” (JMP No.11, 1963)
Three meetings of Orthodox technical theological commission for the preparation of
the dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church preceded the work of the Joint
International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and
The list of topics for the primary stage of the dialogue was worked out by the Third
conference of the Commission which took place at the Orthodox Center of the
Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambesy, Switzerland, on June 25-27, 1978.
Representatives of ten Local Orthodox Churches – with the exception of the Serbian,
Polish, Czechoslovak and Finnish Churches – took part in the meeting. The
conference described the aim of the dialogue thus :
“The objective of the dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox
Churches is to establish full communion. Such communion is to be based on the
unity in the faith, on a commonly shared life and Tradition of the early Church and
is to be realized through the celebration of one Eucharist.”
On the method of the dialogue, the conference said that it “should proceed from
the elements which unite the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. By no means
does it imply that it is desirable or even possible to avoid problems still dividing
the two Churches. This only means that the dialogue should be built up in a positive
spirit, prevailing over the interpretation of the problems accumulated during
several centuries of division . (…)
In this light, the points of division between our Churches could be dealt with by
applying a new method. There is a hope that in this way it would be possible in a
consistent and successive manner to remove certain obstacles impeding the
return of our two Churches to a commonly shared life.”
Agreement to start a theological dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman
Catholic Churches was reached during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Phanar in
1979, following which Patriarch Demetrius I of Constantinople announced the
formation of a Joint International commission for Theological Dialogue between the
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and so was it done with the agreement of
all Local Orthodox Churches.
The working schedule of the Commission envisages its plenary meetings twice a
year. In between the sessions there are working subcommissions and a joint
The First session of the Commission took place on Patmos and Rhodes in 1980.
Three subcommissions and a coordinating committee were set up then. The
subcommissions worked on one common theme – The Mystery of the Church and
Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. They met in Chevetogne,
Belgium, from October 5 to 8, 1980; in Rome, from December 27 to 30, 1980, and in
Belgrade from April 29 to May 1, 1981. From May 25 to 30, 1981, Venice hosted the
Coordinating Committee which discussed the results of the subcommissions’ work
and issued a communique.
The second meeting was held in Munich from June 30 to July 6, 1982. It continued
to discuss the theme of the previous meeting on The Mystery of the Church and
Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity”. The discussion was based on
the materials which had been prepared after the Rhodes meeting.
The third meeting was convened on Crete from May 30 to July 8, 1984. Its theme was
The Faith, Sacraments and Unity of the Church. Its documents were consequently
reviewed by the Coordinating Committee at its meeting in Opol, Poland, on June
3-8, 1985. In addition, the Opol meeting discussed another theme – The Sacrament of
Ministry in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, and the importance of the
Apostolic Succession for the Consecration and Unity of the People of God.
The fourth session took place in Bari, from May 29 to June 7, 1986. It continued the
discussion of the theme the Faith, Sacraments and Unity of the Church dealt with by
the preceding meeting on Crete; the general document was thoroughly revised.
The Bari meeting also considered the document dedicated to the theme The
Sacrament of Ministry in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, in particular, the
Significance of Apostolic Succession for the Consecration and Unity of the People of
With the absence of representatives from a number of Churches in Bari, the next
session of the Joint Commission was to be convened at the earliest possible
opportunity. Archbishop Antonio Magrassi of Bari in a press-release said that it
would take place again in his diocesan city on June 8, 1987.
And so it did. The next session of the Joint Commission took place in Bari, in June
1987. The Russian Orthodox Church was unable to attend for technical reasons.
(Technical reasons had prevented our Church from attending the previous meeting
in 1986 too).
The fifth session of the Joint Commission was held from June 19 to 27, 1988, at the
New Valamo Monastery in Finland and discussed the theme “The Sacrament of
Ministry in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, and the importance of the
Apostolic Succession for the Consecration and Unity of the People of God”.
The years between late 80s and early 90s saw the worsening of the relations
between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The main cause was the inadmissible
violent methods employed by the Greek Catholic churches to restore their legal
parish life after an “underground” existence. This violent process was most painful
for the Orthodox in Western Ukraine (Lvov, Ternopol, Ivano-Frankovsk regions,
Transcarpathia). There the tension was such as to lead to mass disorders, clashes,
seizures of the Orthodox churches when Orthodox communities were forced out of
their places of worship; discrediting campaigns were conducted against the
Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate in the press; the Greek Catholic newspapers,
like “Meta” and “I Believe” would openly call them “the fifth column of Moscow”, or
“agents of Russia’s imperial influence”.
It was necessary to exercise every possible effort to change the situation.
Unfortunately, direct contact with the Uniates was impossible, because the Greek
Catholics had left the so-called Quadrennial Commission. That commission was
formed in January 1990 and had among its members representatives of the Moscow
Patriarchate, of the Roman Catholic Church, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and
Catholics of Eastern Rite from Western Ukraine.
The Uniate members withdrew from the commission under the pressure of the
extremist members of the Ukrainian political movement RUKH, who promised, in
case they came to power, to take church buildings from the Orthodox and give them
over to Eastern Catholics. Therefore, they thought it unnecessary to carry on
dialogue with the Orthodox Church.
The attempts to come into contact with the local or central authorities and to urge
them to insure human rights and religious freedom, brought no result.
The Orthodox continued to be forced out with ever growing malice. Moreover,
world public opinion was distrustful of the protests on the part of the Moscow
Patriarchate, believing that what was going on in Western Ukraine was the reversal
of historical injustice.
In such a situation it was important to do the utmost to bring it home to public
opinion, to international organizations, to Christian Churches, including the Roman
Catholic Church, that beating Orthodoxy in Western Ukraine was not only an act of
violation of human rights and religious freedom, but also an annihilation of
whatever progress the dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches had
made in the previous years. It was essential to show that uniatism was a dangerous
and unacceptable way for achieving unity.
Unia has brought about new divisions, tearing the One Body of the Orthodox
Church. The four centuries of its maintenance have revealed it as a dangerous form
of proselytism against Orthodoxy. Human sufferings and even bloodshed were the
sad aftermath of the divisions it had caused.
At the same time, it is important to emphasize that while repudiating Unia as a
method, the Churches do not abjure people. The Greek Catholic communities
existing today, with a legal right to existence, like any other religious organization
or association, should cease to be the source of divisions and conflicts between the
Orthodox and Catholics. To serve this purpose, there should be worked out rules to
regulate co-existence and relations in places where there is tension causing the
sufferings of the people of God.
That is precisely why, on the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church, which found
the support of all Local Orthodox Churches, the Orthodox-Roman Catholic
theological dialogue was suspended. The decision was that the dialogue could be
resumed after the problem of uniatism has been jointly studied and resolved.
On the basis of jointly worked out documents, the International Joint Commission
for the Theological Dialogue, at its sixth plenary session in Freising (Munich) on June
6 – 16, 1990, issued a Statement, saying, among other things, that “Unia, as a
method, failed – where it was introduced – to bring the Churches closer. On the
contrary, it caused further disunity. The situation, as a whole, gave occasion to
confrontation and pain which became imprinted in the historical memory of both
Churches. Ecclesiological motives, too, call for some other methods to be found.”
Archbishop Ireney of Rovno and Ostrog and Professor Archpriest Nicholas Gundyaev
took part in that session.
The Joint Commission reached another stage in its work at a meeting of the
Coordinating Committee in Ariccia, Italy, (June 10-15, 1991). It produced the first
draft of the joint statement with the title “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past and
the Present Search for Full Communion”, which unambiguously affirmed that,
“Because of the way in which Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each
other in their relationship to the mystery of the Church… this form of ‘missionary
apostolate”… which has been called ‘uniatism’, can no longer be accepted either
as a method to be followed nor as a model…” (par.12). In addition to that, the
document offers practical recommendations for overcoming the tension between
the Orthodox and Greek Catholics on the local level, especially in Western Ukraine. It
points out, that “…Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church…. no longer aims at
having the faithful of one Church to pass over to the other; that is to say, it no
longer aims at proselytizing… It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own
faithful (Greek Catholic – IB ed.)….Within this perspective, so that there will be no
longer place for mistrust and suspicion” (par.22)
This text served as a basis for the Balamand Document, adopted on June 23, 1993 by
representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and those of nine Local Orthodox
Churches, except the Church of Jerusalem the Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and
Czechoslovak Churches. The Document excludes Uniatism as a method (par.4) and
offers recommendations for overcoming tension in bilateral relations.
The Document adopted in Balamand, Lebanon, is of three parts, namely :
Introduction, Ecclesiological Principles, and Practical Rules. Already the
Introduction, referring to the texts worked out in Freising and in Ariccia, underlines
that “we reject it (uniatism) as method for the search for unity because it is
opposed to the common tradition of our Churches” (par.2) Under the
Ecclesiological Principles the Document analyses theological teachings which
have generated proselytism and Unia as methods of bringing back to the Church her
“fallen-off” members. According to the Balamand Document, today’s vision of each
other by the Orthodox and Catholics is based on the concept of “sister Churches”.
This term was introduced in early 60s by the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoros;
later it found its way into the documents of Vatican II (Constitution “On
At the same time, par.15 underlines, that “While the inviolable freedom of
persons and their obligation to follow the requirements of their conscience
remain secure, in the search for re-establishing unity there is no question of
conversion of people from one Church to the other in order to ensure their
salvation”. In this regard, the document reminds of the joint statement issued by
Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I on December 7, 1987,
which, among other things said : “We reject any form of proselytism, any position
which could be suggestive of non-respect.”
Under the Practical Rules the document points out, that “Religious liberty
requires that, particularly in situations of conflict, the faithful are able to express
their opinion and to decide without pressure from outside if they wish to be in
communion either with the Orthodox Church or with the Catholic Church. Religious
freedom would be violated when, under the cover of financial assistance, the
faithful of one Church would be attracted to the other, by promises, for example, of
education and material benefits that may be lacking in their own Church. In this
context, it will be necessary that social assistance, as well as every form of
philanthropic activity to be organized with common agreement so as to avoid
creating new suspicions” (par.24)
The document encourages churches “to create joint local commissions or make
effective those which already exist, for finding solutions to concrete problems and
seeing that these solutions are applied in truth and love, in justice and peace. If
agreement cannot be reached on the local level, the question should be brought to
mixed commissions established by higher authorities” (par.26) The document
continues: “It is necessary that Catholic and Orthodox bishops of the same
territory consult with each other before establishing Catholic pastoral projects
which traditionally form part of the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, in view to
avoid parallel pastoral activities which would risk rapidly degenerating into
rivalry or even conflict” (par. 29)
The above-mentioned examples make it absolutely clear that the Balamand
Document is no mysterious “Unia”; on the contrary, it is intended to lessen the
tension caused by the activities of the Greek Catholics.
This text is a provisional working document of the Joint Commission for the
Theological Dialogue, and because of that it was not signed by representatives of
the Churches. Hegumen Nestor Zhilyaev attended the Balamand meeting in 1993 as a
representative of the Russian Orthodox Church; that is why his name is mentioned
among the members of the Commission.
The document was published in Russian in 1995 in the ‘Unity” collection (vol.II), a
periodical issued by the monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the Moscow
diocese, along with other documents related to Orthodox-Catholic theological
The reaction to the document among the Roman Catholic was rather complex;
some Uniate Churches – in Rumania, for example – greeted it with open hostility.
Bishop George Gutu, the Apostolic Administrator for the Greek Catholics in Rumania,
in 1994 sent a letter to Pope John Paul II criticizing precisely those parts in the
document where Uniatism was rejected as a method contradicting the tradition of
the two Churches, and accusing the Rumanian Orthodox Church of that “it does not
admit coopting the Rumanian Uniate Church by the Rumanian Orthodox Church by
means of violence and terror in 1948″ (Cretiens en marche, No. 43, 1994) The letter
concludes with downright rejection not only of the Balamand Document, but also of
all other fruit brought by the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue on Unia, saying this : “The
Rumanian Church in communion with Rome accepts none of the texts, signed on
Rhodes, in Freising, Ariccia and Balamand, and declares the signatures under the
texts invalid” (Ibid.) That was the reaction of the Rumanian Uniates. Some critical
comments to the Balamand Document, though in milder words and without denying
its usefulness, came from the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics Cardinal
Miroslav Lyubachivsky too.
Paradoxically, some Russian Orthodox periodicals, claiming to serve the interests
of Orthodoxy, were found “on the same side of the barricades” with the critics of the
Balamand Document and of the Orthodox- Catholic dialogue as such. Thus, in regard
to the reproduction of the Balamand text in the Sovetskaya Rossia (Appendix Rus’
Pravoslavnaya – Orthodox Russia, No 43) one could not help noticing the tendentious
tone of the comments to the document, and the text itself is not reproduced
carefully, but with cuts distorting the message, though the author/s affirm that
unabridged text is offered. The first five paragraphs making up the introductory part
are left out, whereas these five paragraphs precisely, approaching by way of
principle, give an assessment of Uniatism as a method, as follows:
“2. Already in June 1990, the meeting in Freising, with regard to the method
called uniatism, said: “we reject it as a method for the achievement of unity
because it contradicts the common tradition of our Churches.”
“4. The document worked out by the joint coordinating committee in Ariccia (June
1991) and adopted in Balamand (June 1993) specifies what methods could be
employed by both sides for the achievement of full communion today, and explains
why uniatism as a method is absolutely inadmissible.”
In addition to that, the reproduced text in par.10 (par.5 in Sovetskaya Rossia) after
the word “tendency” omits “a source of proselytism” of the original text. Likewise,
par.12 (7) after “missionary apostolate” fails to reproduce “called ‘uniatism’”.
It is absolutely clear that all these cuts are not careless omissions; without these
cuts the text would have betrayed the very message of the publication, beginning
with the title “Balamand Unia?” All the more so that the excluded passages carry a
reference to the previous work done by the Orthodox-Catholic Theological
Commission in Freising and Ariccia, which does not agree with the allegation of the
authors of the article that the Balamand Document was a fruit of some recent “plot”.
The newspaper also says that the document was signed by Hegumen Nestor
Zhilyaev, although, as we have mentioned earlier, this document was not intended
for signing or ratification by representatives of the Churches.
The term “Sister Churches” was introduced in the atheistic manner of the soviet
period and without due preliminary study. In this connection, the ecclesiological
basis of the Balamand document calls for some clarification, which we offer below.
Vatican II called the Orthodox Church a Sister Church, thus recognizing the blessed
nature of the Orthodox Church and the salvific nature of her sacraments. The
Orthodox Church, in her turn, always recognized the validity of the sacraments of
the Catholic Church. The evidence to that is the fact that the Catholic Christians are
accepted into the Orthodox Church by the so-called Third Order for joining the
Orthodox membership – not through Baptism, as non-Christians or sectarians, nor
through Chrismation, like the Protestants, but through repentance, like
schismatics. Roman Catholic clergymen are accepted in their existing orders to
which they had been ordained by the Roman Catholic Church.
It is no coincidence that Old Believers, who are also in schism from the Orthodox
Church are accepted back in the same manner as the Roman Catholic Christians.
This fact shows that despite serious fundamental differences on a number of
doctrinal and spiritual issues between the two Churches, Roman Catholicism in the
Orthodox mind and Tradition is viewed as a Christian community in schism with the
Orthodox Church which nevertheless has preserved apostolic succession.
It is precisely to clarify the nature of doctrinal differences and then overcome
them that the two Churches entered into theological dialogue with each other.
The Balamand Document adds nothing fundamentally new, but follows in the
manner of the traditional Orthodox attitude to Catholicism. At the same time , the
Synodal Theological Commission of the Russian Orthodox Church finds it important
to clarify a number of the Document’s affirmations, including the use of the term
’sister Churches’ in the text, which was motivated by emotions rather than by
The Theological Commission is further proposing to open a pan-Orthodox
discussion of the Balamand Document and only after that to consider its possible
ratification by the Churches or the approval by the Pan-Orthodox Conference.
For the information of all who are interested in the Orthodox-Catholic relationship,
the Synodal Commission issues the full revised and edited translations of the
Balamand Document of the Joint International Commission for the Theological
Dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.