Orthodox Say Unity Must Be Priority

Respond to Document on Nature of Church

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VIENNA, Austria, JULY 11, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The breach of Eucharistic communion between East and West is a common tragedy, and the quest for unity should be of equal importance to both, said Bishop Hilarion.



The orthodox bishop of Vienna and Austria, and the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, spoke with ZENIT about the document released Tuesday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The document is titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church."

The document, Bishop Alfeev said, "brings nothing new in comparison with previous documents of similar kind, such as 'Dominus Iesus.'"

Closer

Bishop Alfeev acknowledged that the document's explanation of the Church, and precisely that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, is an idea that the Orthodox do not accept.

"The distinction between 'subsists' and 'is present and operative' is probably meaningful from the point of view of Latin theological tradition, but it makes not much sense for an Orthodox theologian," he said.

"For us," Bishop Alfeev explained, "'to subsist' means precisely 'to be present and to be operative,' and we believe that the Church of Christ subsists, is present and is operative in the Orthodox Church."

However, the prelate also affirmed that the Orthodox Churches share the Catholic Church's understanding of other ecclesial communities.

"With regard to the Orthodox Churches," he said, "the document states that 'these Churches, although separated [from Rome], have true sacraments and above all -- because of the apostolic succession -- the priesthood and the Eucharist.' Thus, apostolic succession and the sacraments are indicated as essential marks of the Church.

"The Orthodox also believe that apostolic succession and the sacraments are essential marks of the Church.

"This is why the Orthodox will agree that those ecclesial communities which do not enjoy apostolic succession and have not preserved the genuine understanding of the Eucharist and other sacraments cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense."

"The division between the Orthodox and the Protestants," Bishop Alfeev underlined, "is therefore much more profound and substantial than the division between the Orthodox and the Catholics."

The Pope

The Russian Orthodox prelate spoke of one of the main points of conflict in the path toward unity between Orthodox and Catholics -- the figure of the Bishop of Rome.

Bishop Alfeev explained: "According to the document, 'communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles.'

"Therefore the Orthodox Churches by virtue of being not in communion with the Bishop of Rome 'lack something in their condition as particular churches.'

"We, the Orthodox, believe that, being not in communion with them, the Roman Catholic Church 'lacks something in its condition.'"

However, Bishop Alfeev expressed his hope that both Churches give priority to unity.

"The restoration of communion with the Orthodox Church must be as important for the Catholic Church as the restoration of communion with the Church of Rome for the Orthodox Church," he said.

"The breach of Eucharistic communion between East and West is a common tragedy, affecting both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches," Bishop Alfeev concluded. "The quest for unity should be of equal importance to both Churches."

Helpful

Orthodox Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, said to journalists in Moscow that the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can help to achieve unity, precisely because "for an honest theological dialogue to happen, one should have a clear view of the position of the other side."

He added, "It helps understand how different we are."