Beliefnet

Were I to list the thousand reasons why Rome is my favorite place inall the world, most of them would have to do the Eternal City's longassociation with Christian history. On those all too rare occasions when Iam able to get back to Rome, most of my time is spent visiting thecatacombs, the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, the Circus Maximus, theColosseum, and other sites precious to Christian memory. My personalsentiments about Rome were well summarized by St. Abercius, thesecond-century Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who had made a pilgrimageto theEternal City. Later, in the inscription that he crafted for his own tomb, hereferred to the church at Rome as "the queen with the golden robe and goldenshoes." Starting with the blood of the Neronic martyrs, there is no cityon earth, I think, more deeply saturated in Christian memory.

Surely, then,any Orthodox heart must be saddened when remembering the long anddeep estrangement between ourselves and that venerable institution describedby St. Irenaeus of Lyons as "the very great, the very ancient, anduniversally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two mostglorious apostles, Peter and Paul."

Should the Orthodox Church be dialoguing with the ancient See of Romewith a view to our eventual reconciliation and reunion? Yes, mostemphatically. Such a dialogue, for such apurpose, constitutes a most strict moral imperative, imposed by the will andmandate of Christ for the unity of His church and, for that reason,neglected at the absolute peril of our souls. The reunion of believers inChrist is not a concern that the Orthodox conscience can simply "write off."

I suggest that the proper model for such an Orthodox dialogue withRomewas provided by St. Mark of Ephesus, the most unforgettableof the Eastern delegates to the Council of Florence back in the 15thcentury. St. Mark is best remembered because of his casting the soledissenting vote against the reunion of the Church of Rome and the OrthodoxChurch. At the end, he became convinced that the effort for reunion atFlorence would be successful only by an infidelity to the ancient tradition,so he conscientiously voted against it.

Still, St. Mark did not refuse todialogue and discuss the matter. His fidelity to the true faith did notprevent his taking part in serious theological dialogue with those with whomhe disagreed. Even though the Roman Catholic Church was at that time incircumstances indicating great spiritual and moral decline, a decline thatwould soon lead to its massive dismembering during the ProtestantReformation, St.Mark did not despise Rome or refuse to join his voice to a dialogue summonedto make real that prayer of Christ that we all might be one. Those Orthodoxwho, like myself, believe that continued dialogue with Rome is a moralimperative, would do well to take St. Mark of Ephesus as their model.

At the same time, we should be under no illusions about thedifficulties of such dialogue. Because Eastern Orthodoxy and RomanCatholicism have followed progressively divergent paths for nearly athousand years, arguably we are right now further apart than we have everbeen.For example, it should be obvious that the Roman papacy is the majorobstacle to our reunion. Make no mistake--we Orthodox do not miss thepapacy, not in the least, because we never had it. Not for a minute did thepope of Rome ever exercise overthe church of the East the level of centralized authority he has grown, overthe past thousand years, to exercise over the Roman Catholic Church.

In the East, the pope of Rome was simply the senior among his brotherbishops, all of whom taught, pastored, and governed the church through localsynods and other exercises of consensual adherence, most ofthem without the slightest reference or attention to Rome except inextraordinary circumstances, and never outside of Rome's relationship to theEastern patriarchates.

The current Roman teaching that all doctrinal questions can bedefinitively answered and settled by an appeal to Rome is not, the Orthodoxinsist, the ancient and traditional teaching and practice of the apostolicand patristic church. If the ancient Catholic Church really did believe inany doctrine even faintly resembling the current doctrine of papalinfallibility, there would never have been any need for those earlyecumenical councils, all of them held in the East, which laboriouslyhammered out the creedal formulations, canons, and policies of the church.

The current papal claims, standard doctrine in the Roman Catholic Churchsince the defining of papal infallibility in 1870 and repeated mostrecently by Cardinal Ratzinger's official Vatican declaration "DominusIesus" (released on September 5, 2000), represent an ecclesiasticaldevelopment radically at odds with the Orthodox understanding of the verynature of the Christian Church as manifest in her ancient life.

The Orthodox "solution" to this problem would be, of course, simply forthepope of Rome to foreswear these recent claims and go back to the humblerstatus that he enjoyed for the first thousand years of Christian history.Namely, the "first among equals," the chief and foremost of his brotherbishops, within a church taught and governed by the broad consensualunderstanding of an authoritative tradition.

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