The Great and Holy Council of Crete and Orthodox-Catholic Relations


by Rev. Dn. Paul L. Gavrilyuk


The forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete, planned for June 2016, will ratify several important documents, including “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.” The latest draft of the “Relations” document was adopted by the Fifth Pan-Orthodox Conference in October 2015 and is available online in different languages. How does this document compare to Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism? What have been some reactions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians to the “Relations” document? What are the implications of this conciliar statement for the relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics?

The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in 1964, ushered in a new era of relations between the Catholic Church and other Christians, especially the Eastern Orthodox. Prior to the Council, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church tended to regard the Eastern Orthodox as schismatics, to be reunited to Rome by absorption. In contrast, the Decree on Ecumenism emphasizes that the Eastern Churches require a “special consideration” (UR pars. 14-18) because they possess “true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, of priesthood and Eucharist” for which reason they are linked with Rome “in closest intimacy.”

More importantly, Vatican II set the stage for other significant developments. On December 7, 1965, during the last days of the council, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople removed the sentences of excommunication which were made by the leaders of both churches in 1054, declaring these sentences a tragic mistake. The establishment of the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation in the United States in the same year was a response to the ecumenical challenge of Vatican II and to the three Pan-Orthodox Rhodes conferences, which authorized “dialogue on equal footing” with the Catholics. In 1979, an International Theological Commission was launched with the main purpose of “the re-establishment of full communion between these two churches [i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church]. This communion, based on unity of faith according to the common experience and tradition of the early Church, will find its expression in the common celebration of the holy Eucharist.”

The “Relations” document, an earlier draft of which was adopted by the Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference in 1986, is a product of the Orthodox Church’s involvement in the ecumenical movement, including dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. The Decree on Ecumenism was developed over a period of some three years amidst considerable anti-ecumenical opposition, at a time when the Catholic Church had a complicated relationship with the World Council of Churches. Some of the drafts produced before Vatican II reflected the reluctance of some in the Curia to take seriously the ecumenical efforts of Yves Congar and others. The Orthodox “Relations” document is a result of a longer process, and its present 2015 version represents a significant revision of its earlier 1986 version. For example, the earlier 1986 version contained sections addressing bilateral dialogues with Anglicans, Old Catholics, Old Oriental Churches, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed. In contrast, the 2015 version is a shorter document that does not address specific bilateral dialogues, apparently reflecting more caution in the presently changed circumstances.

The Decree on Ecumenism was a result of revising the three texts prepared before the Council by the Theological Commission, the Oriental Commission and the Secretariat for Christian Unity with considerable input from non-Catholic observers. For example, according to Catholic ecumenist Peter De Mey, the crucial concept of a certain “hierarchy of truths” (UR par. 11), the idea that not all dividing issues are of the same importance, was apparently suggested by the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman. In comparison, the Orthodox “Relations” document uses a similar language of a certain “hierarchy of difficulties” (R par. 12). While the Decree on Ecumenism spells out in considerable detail how the “hierarchy of truths” is to be navigated, the “Relations” document leaves the “hierarchy of difficulties” unspecified. While the Decree on Ecumenism gives greater guidance, the “Relations” document allows for more flexibility in bilateral dialogues. Coincidentally, both documents have 24 numbered sections, although the Decree on Ecumenism is nearly three times longer. Both documents strike a pastoral rather than juridical note. The Decree on Ecumenism has the advantage of recommending various practices by means of which the growth in unity with other Christians could be cultivated. It is less clear how the drafters of the “Relations” document intend to communicate the will of the Great and Holy Council to the rest of the Orthodox faithful.

The most vocal reaction to the “Relations” document to date has come from the traditionalist fringe of the Orthodox Church, especially from the groups in Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, and Russia. There is reason for such a reaction, since the “Relations” document puts these groups on notice, stating: “The Orthodox Church believes that any attempts to shatter Church unity, undertaken by individuals or groups under the pretense of preserving or defending true Orthodoxy, must be condemned. As evidenced by the whole life of the Orthodox Church, the preservation of the true Orthodox faith is only possible thanks to the conciliar structure which since ancient times has been for the Church the strong and final criterion in matters of faith” (R par. 22). This statement is an unprecedented condemnation of fundamentalist sectarianism and an equally strong defense of global conciliarism. The adoption of the “Relations” document by the Great and Holy Council may neutralize the lobbying efforts of the traditionalist fringe groups in the future.

While the current version of the “Relations” document is about fifty years late and should be further revised at the Great and Holy Council, the document, together with the recent meetings between the pope and the primates of the local Orthodox Churches, gives an impulse to the global Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in a constructive direction. While the historical importance of the document should not be exaggerated, it nevertheless represents a step towards the re-establishment of the full communion in accordance with Christ’s will in John 17:21 “that they all may be one.”

Rev. Dn. Paul Gavrilyuk, PhD, is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Theology Department, University of St. Thomas.