In a historic step today, Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians, prayed together at Istanbul’s St. George Church. They then signed a joint declaration calling for “uniting our efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values” in Europe.
Benedict called the millennium-old division of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics and 250 million Orthodox a “scandal.”
"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel," the pope said.
Their statement did not amount to a breakthrough in relations between the two churches, although it was not expected to. Instead, their meetings, which began on November 29 and end on December 1, are part of an ongoing process of rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who face many common challenges.
Historian Robert Moynihan, editor in chief of the magazine “Inside The Vatican,” explains some of the motivations bringing the two churches nearer.
"I’ve had a number of conversations with him, almost precisely on this topic. The whole question of the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations is a fascinating one to [Pope Benedict]." -- Vatican analyst Robert Moynihan
Facing Modern Challenges
“Christianity feels that it’s got a tremendous challenge on the left, we might call, from secularism -- people who don’t care much for religion -- and it’s got a challenge on the right, Islam, which has a very powerful religious impulse, but which denies certain central Christian doctrines, above all the doctrines about Jesus," Moynihan says.
The pope came to Turkey at the invitation of Bartholomew, who is a Turkish citizen but ethnic Greek. Bartholomew regularly protests that his church faces harassment and restrictions from Turkish officials, who in 1971 shut down the Orthodox world’s most important seminary, on the tiny island of Halki near Istanbul.
The choice of Istanbul as the meeting ground has great symbolic importance.
In Constantinople -- present-day Istanbul -- in 1054 the eastern and western parts of Christendom split in the "Great Schism" amid disputes over papal primacy and other theological issues.
The two branches remain far apart on these issues, especially on the supreme role of the Roman pontiff.
But for the Orthodox, the pope’s visit was more than symbolic. David Barchard, an Ankara-based Turkey analyst, says it was key sign of support to the embattled Orthodox community in Istanbul, which, with its seminary unable to produce clerics, sees itself dying a slow death.
“[The pope] is aware that there is a certain amount of discrimination against non-Muslims in most Islamic societies and he feels the time has come to draw the line and do something about this," Barchard says.
United On European Union Membership
The European Union’s demand for religious freedom is one reason why Bartholomew has supported Turkey’s bid to join the EU. But in their joint declaration, both he and the pope appeared to underscore Turkey's shortcomings on the issue, saying that while they view positively "the process that has led to the formation of the European Union," religious rights must be a key consideration in that process.
Turkey's EU bid is controversial both in Turkey and in Europe (epa)
But the pope’s helping hand to Bartholomew is just the latest step in a process of improving ties between Catholics and Orthodox.
Beginning with the previous pope, John Paul II, they have taken consistent strides to improve relations. A key forum for those relations is the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission, set up a few years ago to focus on dogmatic and other ecclesiological differences.
Under Benedict, relations have gotten even warmer.
“One of the motives for the rapprochement with the Russian church is the German pope," says Italian priest Romano Scalfi, a veteran expert on relations between Catholics and Orthodox. "But it’s not just because he’s German. It’s because he’s a defender of tradition and so he’s close to their mentality.”
In practical terms, the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches feel challenged by such issues as growing acceptance in European societies of homosexuality, of premarital sex and abortion, of unregulated genetic research, and of widespread pornography.
Vatican expert Moynihan says Benedict views today’s scientism and secularism as threats on much the same scale as the two greatest challenges that the church faced during the past century: Nazism and communism.
Twilight Of The West?
The pope appears to have a sense, Moynihan says, that the West is in its twilight.
“The pope has seen that development," he says. "The cultural progression of the West -- and the pope is a great student of this; he’s talked about his many times. I’ve spoken about it with him personally. I’ve had a number of conversations with him, almost precisely on this topic. The whole question of the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations is a fascinating one to him. And being a German, he watched the rise [and fall] of one of the great powers and one of the great cultures of Europe, the Germanic culture.”
Still, as Benedict seeks to steer the Roman church into a closer alliance with the Orthodox, he faces a fragmented friend.
The Catholic Church has a single structure, headed by the pope. But the Orthodox are a collection of 15 independent churches -- each with its own patriarch or leader.
Moreover, because each Orthodox church is tied to its national political leadership, politics often get in the way of religion.
Take Ukraine, for example. With Kyiv seeking politically to move away from Moscow toward Europe, its church has taken similar steps, with part of Kyiv’s Orthodox establishment breaking off from Moscow in a move that has created tensions in the larger Orthodox family. It’s a house divided, in short.
The Russia Factor
And in that sense, the patriarchate of Constantinople finds itself in a sensitive position between Moscow and Kyiv.
That’s because, says Scalfi, Ukrainian Orthodox who have broken off from Moscow have asked Bartholomew, as spiritual leader, to recognize them.
“Steps in this sense have already been taken because representatives of the patriarch of Kyiv went to Constantinople, but obviously [the patriarch of Constantinople] has not yet expressed himself clearly because the Russian church is the most powerful Orthodox church," Scalfi says. "So for the moment, it seems to me, he does not intend to offend in any way the Russian church.”
Recently, the Russian church has made overtures to the Vatican. Metropolitan Kiril, the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, met with Benedict in May at the Vatican.
And after an October trip to Moscow by Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, who acknowledged a degree of Catholic proselytism in Russia, there was some speculation that Benedict could fulfill John Paul’s unrealized dream of visiting Russia -- perhaps even next year.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kiril (right) met with Pope Benedict at the Vativan in May (epa)
But John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the U.S. weekly “National Catholic Reporter,” says major political and cultural obstacles remain.
“The real issues are much deeper," he says. "The real issues are, on the one hand, political and cultural. There’s a strong current of anti-Western sentiment in Russia and certainly in the Orthodox Church, which thinks of itself as the guardian of Russian nationalism. And ecclesiastically, there’s deep suspiciousness and resentment of the Catholic Church and specifically of the pope. And frankly, a lot of Russian Orthodox bishops, up to and including the patriarch of Moscow, don’t want to give up the power they enjoy to be subservient to the pope of Rome.”
Still, if the challenges are high, so seems to be the will on both sides to seize opportunities for rapprochement. And the pope’s visit to Istanbul can only be read as a sign of new determination to go forward.