Were I to list the thousand reasons why Rome is my favorite place in all the world, most of them would have to do the Eternal City's long association with Christian history. On those all too rare occasions when I am able to get back to Rome, most of my time is spent visiting the catacombs, the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, and other sites precious to Christian memory. My personal sentiments about Rome were well summarized by St. Abercius, the second-century Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who had made a pilgrimage to the Eternal City. Later, in the inscription that he crafted for his own tomb, he referred to the church at Rome as "the queen with the golden robe and golden shoes." Starting with the blood of the Neronic martyrs, there is no city on earth, I think, more deeply saturated in Christian memory.
Surely, then, any Orthodox heart must be saddened when remembering the long and deep estrangement between ourselves and that venerable institution described by St. Irenaeus of Lyons as "the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul."
Should the Orthodox Church be dialoguing with the ancient See of Rome with a view to our eventual reconciliation and reunion? Yes, most emphatically. Such a dialogue, for such a purpose, constitutes a most strict moral imperative, imposed by the will and mandate of Christ for the unity of His church and, for that reason, neglected at the absolute peril of our souls. The reunion of believers in Christ is not a concern that the Orthodox conscience can simply "write off."
I suggest that the proper model for such an Orthodox dialogue with Rome was provided by St. Mark of Ephesus, the most unforgettable of the Eastern delegates to the Council of Florence back in the 15th century. St. Mark is best remembered because of his casting the sole dissenting vote against the reunion of the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church. At the end, he became convinced that the effort for reunion at Florence would be successful only by an infidelity to the ancient tradition, so he conscientiously voted against it.
Still, St. Mark did not refuse to dialogue and discuss the matter. His fidelity to the true faith did not prevent his taking part in serious theological dialogue with those with whom he disagreed. Even though the Roman Catholic Church was at that time in circumstances indicating great spiritual and moral decline, a decline that would soon lead to its massive dismembering during the Protestant Reformation, St. Mark did not despise Rome or refuse to join his voice to a dialogue summoned to make real that prayer of Christ that we all might be one. Those Orthodox who, like myself, believe that continued dialogue with Rome is a moral imperative, would do well to take St. Mark of Ephesus as their model.
At the same time, we should be under no illusions about the difficulties of such dialogue. Because Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have followed progressively divergent paths for nearly a thousand years, arguably we are right now further apart than we have ever been. For example, it should be obvious that the Roman papacy is the major obstacle to our reunion. Make no mistake--we Orthodox do not miss the papacy, not in the least, because we never had it. Not for a minute did the pope of Rome ever exercise over the church of the East the level of centralized authority he has grown, over the past thousand years, to exercise over the Roman Catholic Church.
In the East, the pope of Rome was simply the senior among his brother bishops, all of whom taught, pastored, and governed the church through local synods and other exercises of consensual adherence, most of them without the slightest reference or attention to Rome except in extraordinary circumstances, and never outside of Rome's relationship to the Eastern patriarchates.
The current Roman teaching that all doctrinal questions can be definitively answered and settled by an appeal to Rome is not, the Orthodox insist, the ancient and traditional teaching and practice of the apostolic and patristic church. If the ancient Catholic Church really did believe in any doctrine even faintly resembling the current doctrine of papal infallibility, there would never have been any need for those early ecumenical councils, all of them held in the East, which laboriously hammered out the creedal formulations, canons, and policies of the church.
The current papal claims, standard doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church since the defining of papal infallibility in 1870 and repeated most recently by Cardinal Ratzinger's official Vatican declaration "Dominus Iesus" (released on September 5, 2000), represent an ecclesiastical development radically at odds with the Orthodox understanding of the very nature of the Christian Church as manifest in her ancient life.
The Orthodox "solution" to this problem would be, of course, simply for the pope of Rome to foreswear these recent claims and go back to the humbler status that he enjoyed for the first thousand years of Christian history. Namely, the "first among equals," the chief and foremost of his brother bishops, within a church taught and governed by the broad consensual understanding of an authoritative tradition.
That is to say, the Orthodox would be delighted for His Holiness of Rome, repudiating what we regard as the errors attendant on his recent understanding of his ministry, to take once again his rightful place as the ranking spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church (a position that the patriarch of Constantinople has held since the separation of Rome from Orthodoxy in the 11th century).
To Orthodox Christians, such a "solution" to the problem would seem very attractive. In fact, however, one fears that it would be no solution at all. Such a weakening of the papacy would be an utter disaster for the Roman Catholic Church as it is currently constituted. To many of us outside that institution, it appears that the single entity holding the Roman Catholic Church together right now is probably the strong and centralized office of the pope.
The Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years has moved toward ever greater centralized authority, and it is no longer clear that she would thrive, or even survive intact, without that authority maintained at full strength. If Rome did not occasionally censure the heretics in that church, just who in the world would do it? Can anyone really remember the last time a Roman Catholic bishop in the United States called to account a pro-gay activist priest, or a pro-abortion nun, or a professor in a Catholic college who denied the resurrection? No, take away the centralized doctrinal authority of Rome, and the Roman Catholic Church today would be without rudder or sail in a raging sea.
If an Orthodox Christian, then, loves his Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, he will not wish for a diminished papacy. Indeed, he will devoutly pray for a very strong papacy. Otherwise he may be failing in proper Christian love for those whose spiritual well-being requires this strong papacy. It is a singular irony that our prayers for an effective and vibrant papacy, though motivated by a loving concern for our Roman Catholic brethren, would hardly seem, on the face of it, to further the healing of our ecclesiastical division. However we got into this mess, only God can get us out.
So, let us Orthodox, by all means, engage in dialogue with Holy Rome. But let us also not deceive ourselves respecting the enormous difficulties of the task. The reunion of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism seems so utterly impossible right now that it will require a great and stupendous miracle, something at least on the scale of water transformed into wine. Then again, you know, the example itself may give us hope.