Rome, Nov. 15, 2007 (CWNews.com) – The final document produced by a joint Catholic-Orthodox theological commission is a “modest first step,” Cardinal Walter Kasper told reporters. The 46-paragraph statement approved by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue at an October meeting in Ravenna, Italy, was released in Rome on November 15. While saying that the document shows progress in relations with the Eastern churches, Cardinal Kasper — the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and the head of the Vatican delegation to the Ravenna conference — cautioned that “we must not exaggerate its importance.”
The Ravenna meeting concentrated on the nature of authority within the Church. The final statement explored the relationships between individual bishops, synods, and patriarchs. In that context, the final document acknowledges that the Bishop of Rome enjoys primacy as the first among patriarchs.
However, the joint theological commission did not explore the nature of the authority that the Pope derives from that primacy. Cardinal Kasper explained that the Ravenna meeting “did not talk of the privileges of the Bishop of Rome; we merely indicated the praxis for future debate.”
The next meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox commission will explore the question of papal authority, concentrating on the ways in which that authority was exercised during the first millennium of Christian history, before the schism that separated the Orthodox from Rome. Beyond that discussion, Cardinal Kasper noted, lie questions about the centuries since that schism, and the teachings of Vatican I and Vatican II regarding authority in the Church. “The road is very long and difficult,” the German cardinal said.
Neverthless, the Ravenna document is an important one, Cardinal Kasper said, because “for the first time the Orthodox churches have said: Yes, this universal level of the Church exists.” He continued: “This means that there is also a primate; according to the practice of the ancient Church, the first bishop is the Bishop of Rome.”
In discussing the work of the Ravenna meeting, Cardinal Kasper observed with regret that the Russian Orthodox Church had not been involved in the deliberations. Delegates from the Moscow patriarchate walked out of the October meeting in a dispute about the inclusion of representatives from the Estonian Orthodox Church, which Moscow has refused to recognize.
Cardinal Kasper noted that the dispute over the Estonian delegation– which was supported by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople– is an “inter-Orthodox question,” in which the Vatican will not interfere. However, he said, the Holy See is anxious to see the problem resolved.
The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest of the Eastern churches, and Vatican officials see the relationship with Moscow as a key to future ecumenical advances. As Cardinal Kasper put it, “we do not want to dialogue without the Russians.”