Earlier this month, Christopher Warner at the Catholic World Report interviewed Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., a Byzantine Catholic priest and professor emeritus of Oriental Liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, about Catholic-Orthodox relations and the prospects for future unity:
CWR: Most Catholics probably envision future unity between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church as a re-installment of one world Church organization with the pope of Rome at the top of the governing pyramid. A look at history shows that such a model never existed, so what could Orthodox-Catholic communion actually look like if it were achieved? A renewal of Eucharistic communion? The possibility of an eighth ecumenical council? A resolution for the dating of Pascha/Easter?
Taft: What it would look like is not a “reunion” with them “returning to Rome,” to which they never belonged anyway; nor us being incorporated by them, since we are all ancient apostolic “Sister Churches” with a valid episcopate and priesthood and the full panoply of sacraments needed to minister salvation to our respective faithful, as is proclaimed in the renewed Catholic ecclesiology since Vatican II and enshrined in numerous papal documents from Paul VI on, as well as in the wonderful Catechism of the Catholic Church. So we just need to restore our broken communion and the rest of the problems you mention can be addressed one by one and resolved by common accord.
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CWR: How could the papal claims of Rome be modified in a way that would be both acceptable to the Orthodox Churches and faithful to the tradition of the Catholic Church? Do you think the jurisdiction issue really is a hang-up for the Orthodox since they also practice cross-jurisdiction throughout Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, and East Asia?
Taft: The new Catholic “Sister Churches” ecclesiology describes not only how the Catholic Church views the Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself: we are no longer the only kid on the block, the whole Church of Christ, but one Sister Church among others. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated for one reason or another in the course of history, and Catholics held, simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to Rome’s maternal bosom.
Vatican II, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve Disney-World view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this historically ludicrous, self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality. In doing so they had a strong assist from the Council Fathers of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose concrete experience of the realities of the Christian East made them spokesmen and defenders of that reality.
In this context I would recommend the excellent new book by Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press 2012). Professor Wilken, a convert to Catholicism who is a recognized expert on Early Christianity and its history and literature, shows that Early Christianity developed not out of some Roman cradle but as a federation of local Churches, Western and Eastern, each one under the authority of a chief hierarch who would come to be called Archbishop, Pope, Patriarch, or Catholicos, each with its own independent governing synod and polity, all of them initially in communion with one another until the vicissitudes of history led to lasting divisions.