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 Churc
h 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?