Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A curious thing: The Ravenna Document (Catholic and Orthodox)

I have just finished working through the latest document to issue from the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, the so-called "Ravenna Document", on the topic of "Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity, and Authority" (you can see why they nick-name these documents after the town in which the dialogue was held!)

It is not a long document. But it does hold a few surprises--at least for a Catholic reader like myself. Here are some notable points. I would be interested in Orthodox feedback:

1) The document shows remarkable openness on the part of the Catholics to accept the ecclesiological understanding of the East--even though the crucial elements of this ecclesiology have not traditionally been emphasised in the West. It is as if the Catholics are saying to the Orthodox: "We know that your ecclesiology is essential for you; we have no inherant difficulty with that ecclesiology; therefore we will adopt it as the framework for our statements".

2) The (basically) Eastern "eucharistic ecclesiology" had already been adopted in an earlier agreement. It is built upon here by adding the emphasis of "conciliar ecclesiology", to which no objection is raised by the Catholic side.

3) The statement adopts an understanding that there are three (rather than the traditional Western two) levels at which the conciliar dimension of the Church is to be found: local, regional, and universal. The newcomer on the block (as far as the West is concerned) is the "regional" category. In the famous exchange between Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger, the arguement only ever considered the local church and the universal church, which, in usual Catholic understanding, are the only two levels upon which "Church" can properly be understood. (see, for instance, the Commentary on the CDF document on the Church, which speaks of "a renewed understanding of the individual Churches within the universal Church"). In this Western understanding, each local Church is immediately related to the Universal. The significance of the regional relationships between local Churches (as expressed in the cooperation of neighbouring bishops in ordaining a new bishop or in the concelebration of the Eucharist or in the local synod) is simply that it is the practical (rather than merely theoretical) expression of that communio which is properly universal. The Ravenna Document, on the other hand, views this middle "regional" category (which may be "a province, a metropolitanate, or a patriarchate") a distinct ecclesiological reality. One can, perhaps, see why.

4) One reason why is the huge significance given to the "canons" of the Church in this document. The word "canon" (or canonical) appears 25 times in a document of 46 paragraphs. Apostolic Canon 34 (for instance) is quoted three times. It treats (surprise, surprise) the "relationship between the local Churches of a region". It is, of course, on the matter of the significance, interpretation and application of the ancient canons that so much hangs in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

5) Regarding ecumenical councils, there is this curious statement that could seem to play into the hands of some dissenters on the Roman side of things:
37. The ecumenicity of the decisions of a council is recognized through a process of reception of either long or short duration, according to which the people of God as a whole – by means of reflection, discernment, discussion and prayer - acknowledge in these decisions the one apostolic faith of the local Churches, which has always been the same and of which the bishops are the teachers (didaskaloi) and the guardians.

6) Perhaps most surprising of all is a rather unprecedented statement of agreement on the primacy of the Roman see:
41. Both sides agree that this canonical taxis [the order of precedance of the patriarchates] was recognised by all in the era of the undivided Church. Further, they agree that Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.

42. Conciliarity at the universal level, exercised in the ecumenical councils, implies an active role of the bishop of Rome, as protos of the bishops of the major sees, in the consensus of the assembled bishops. Although the bishop of Rome did not convene the ecumenical councils of the early centuries and never personally presided over them [a significant point most Catholics are not aware of!], he nevertheless was closely involved in the process of decision-making by the councils.

44. In the history of the East and of the West, at least until the ninth century, a series of prerogatives was recognised, always in the context of conciliarity, according to the conditions of the times, for the protos or kephale at each of the established ecclesiastical levels: locally, for the bishop as protos of his diocese with regard to his presbyters and people; regionally, for the protos of each metropolis with regard to the bishops of his province, and for the protos of each of the five patriarchates, with regard to the metropolitans of each circumscription; and universally, for the bishop of Rome as protos among the patriarchs. This distinction of levels does not diminish the sacramental equality of every bishop or the catholicity of each local Church.
The Conclusion seems to point to the fact that finally we have reached the point where the real bone of contention can be discussed:
45. It remains for the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches to be studied in greater depth. What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia and in view of what we have said on conciliarity and authority in the present text? How should the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy be understood and lived in the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium? These are crucial questions for our dialogue and for our hopes of restoring full communion between us.

7) Nevertheless, given this comment about the position of the Roman See as the protos in the universal church, it is hard to understand quite how either side means the footnote at the very end of the document to be understood:
Orthodox participants felt it important to emphasize that the use of the terms “the Church”, “the universal Church”, “the indivisible Church” and “the Body of Christ” in this document and in similar documents produced by the Joint Commission in no way undermines the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks. From the Catholic point of view, the same self-awareness applies: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church “subsists in the Catholic Church” (Lumen Gentium, 8); this does not exclude acknowledgement that elements of the true Church are present outside the Catholic communion.
If the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of which the Nicene Creed speaks" is the Universal Church of which the Bishop of Rome is the protos (whatever the exact meaning of that term may be), how can the Universal Church be identified with the Orthodox Church of which the Roman Pontiff is not counted as a communicant member?

We wait with bated breath for the next exciting round of talks--perhaps this time WITH the Russians?


At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 7:56:00 am , Anonymous Tony Bartel said...

I have been following some discussion about this on Orthodox blogs, although I am at a disadvantage as I have not read the whole document.

I would not read too much into the acknowledgement by the Orthodox that the Bishop of Rome has a primacy within the Church. That is clearly stated in the canons. Many Orthodox have previously acknowledged it. However the largest Orthodox Church has serious reservations about it, and unfortunately, that Church did not continue in the dialogue. As you note though, the real question is what does that primacy mean. The "ex cathedra" ability of the Bishop of Rome to define dogma with the infallibility that belongs to the Church will be the huge stumbling block. It is difficult to see how the Orthodox could ever accept that and equally difficult to see how Catholics could ever back away from that position.

How can the Orthodox claim to be the one Church while at the same time not having the primacy of Rome? The primacy of Rome is not something that exists in isolation, but is a primacy of honour linked with Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Therefore, if the Bishop of Rome is outside the Orthodox Church, then another will exercise this primacy of honour. In other words, if there were an Orthodox Bishop of Rome, he would exercise the primacy. In other words, the Orthodox do not see the office of the Bishop of Rome as constitutive of the Church.

What had interested many Orthodox is the phrase:

This harmony between the Church and the councils is so profound that, even after the break between East and West which rendered impossible the holding of ecumenical councils in the strict sense of the term, both Churches continued to hold councils whenever serious crises arose.

There are links to this discussion at Ad Orientem (http://ad-orientem.blogspot.com/).

Some have even proposed that if it is true that an ecumenical council in the strict sense of the term has been impossible, then the path to unity may be to call an ecumenical council of east and west and to put all the issues on the table. I do not quite see how the Catholic Church could ever quite come at that, but still it is a curious phrase. Does it mean that Trent and Vatican I & II are not binding on the Church because they were not ecumenical councils in the strict sense of the word? When is an ecumenical council not an ecumenical council? What authority does an ecumenical council have if is it not strictly an ecumenical council?

What is interesting is that Catholics and Orthodox have emphasised different parts of the document - the primacy of Rome on one side, the conciliarity of the Church on the other. It is good that both sides are talking. A document such as this is helpful in promoting understanding, and understanding is a very good thing of which there is too little in our world. But I am not not convinced that this document goes very far in helping to overcome the underlying difficulties that need to be addressed.

At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 10:07:00 am , Anonymous William Tighe said...



At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 10:10:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

You have passed over what I thought was the most significant part of the document: ie. Regionality as essential to the ecclesial structure of the Church.

Re conciliarity and primacy, I guess we both can accept the other, but we put different emphases on each in relation to eachother.

Interesting distinction also between primacy as a matter of canonical rule while not being seen as a matter that is constitutive of the Church. I guess we would say that the primacy per se is not the "constitutive" element, but the ministry of the primus, ie. the Petrine Ministry.

I too was struck by the statement about ecumenical councils "in the strict sense", although the document does say that the "special characteristics" of ecumenical councils is something that "needs to be studied further in our future dialogue, taking account of the evolution of ecclesial structures during recent centuries in the East and the West". And it removes some of the "sting" of the talk about "ecumenical councils in the strict sense" because it also acknowledges that "in the Roman Catholic Church, some of these councils held in the West [after the Schism] were regarded as ecumenical"--14 of them to be exact.

What exactly an ecumenical council "in the strict sense of the term" is will be an interesting topic. Teaching a course in Church history at the moment, I am aware that very few Western bishops attended any of the first seven generally recognised "ecumenical councils", that the Copts and the Syrians only recognise the first three as "ecumenical councils", and that the 2nd Vatican Council (in the sense of actual representation of numbers of local churches in the world) was by far the most "ecumenical" ever. Of course, the protestants think that an "ecumenical council" will include them too...

At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 10:13:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Whatever happens, I can't see the East adopting the West's numbering of the councils. Perhaps the problem starts with the fact that the Eighth Ecumenical Council (by Western reckoning)--the Fourth Council of Constantinople--is also the first "ecumenical council" over which the Pope presides, and the subject matter is the deposition of Photius, the great Patriarch of Constantinople!!

At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:39:00 pm , Blogger orrologion said...

William is correct, the best Orthodox responses to the document are the Ochlophobist at:


and the posts by John at Ad Orientem that he refers to in the second paragraph.

At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:40:00 pm , Blogger orrologion said...

What exactly an ecumenical council "in the strict sense of the term" is will be an interesting topic.

Some commented that Nicea II, and EC for East and West, actually defines what an EC is. I haven't actually looked at it, yet.

At Thursday, November 22, 2007 3:51:00 am , Blogger Chris Jones said...

Mr Schütz,

There's nothing unprecedented about the statements in your point 6 (paragraphs 41, 42, and 44) about the primacy of the Pope. The Orthodox Church has always acknowledged that the see of Rome is the first see in the Church. The disagreement has never been about the fact of primacy, but only about its meaning.

In particular, the Orthodox have always insisted that it is possible for any local Church -- even Rome -- to fall away from the truth, to which her sister Churches must then call her to return. The primacy, whatever else it may mean, is not a guarantee that such a falling-away will never occur. Therefore any primacy, be it regional or universal, is contingent on continued faithfulness and continued orthodoxy.

That is why there is no contradiction in Orthodoxy maintaining her belief that she, and she alone, is the One Church confessed in the Creed. Rome has become heterodox, and thereby lost the right to exercise the primacy. If there were an orthodox bishop of Rome, he would have the primacy, and the Orthodox Church has always acknowledged this.

But there is no orthodox bishop of Rome. There is indeed a bishop of Rome, but he is not orthodox, so his primacy is a dead letter.

At Thursday, November 22, 2007 3:56:00 am , Blogger orrologion said...

And a falling to error does not somehow erase this primacy. Cyril Loukaris, as Patriarch of Constantinople and deposed as a Calvinist, did not undermine Constantinople's primacy in the Eastern Church until the Church of Constantinople may become heterodox and remove herself from the Orthodox Church. This was exactly the way the East viewed the fall of Pope Honorius into heresy - knowingly or unknowingly, he accepted an erring christology, which was anathematized. The Church of Rome still retained its primacy.

At Thursday, November 22, 2007 9:13:00 am , Blogger Peter said...

But there is no orthodox bishop of Rome. There is indeed a bishop of Rome, but he is not orthodox, so his primacy is a dead letter.

An interesting assertion, since it assumes that it is possible to assert with authority that the Pope is 'not orthodox'. On what basis would one make this assertion? Who makes the decision and what if two primates make the same claim about each other?

It is not merely an historical question (even if Ignatius gives us the short answer) but a broader philosophical and theological question.

Has Christ guaranteed the truth for us in any way? If it is to be more than mere personal or 'regional' judgement then where?


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