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Challenges of Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

Interview With Monsignor Dimitrios Salachas of Athens

ROME, DEC. 15, 2006 (Zenit) - Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, expressed hope that his historic meeting with Benedict XVI will lead to a joint declaration in favor of recognizing Europe's Christian roots.

For insight into today's visit and its ecumenical repercussions, we interviewed Monsignor Dimitrios Salachas, of the Greek-Catholic Apostolic Exarchy of Athens.

The monsignor is a professor of canon law in Rome, and consultor for the Congregation for Eastern Churches, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and other Roman Curia organizations.

Q: Some years ago, and not that many, a visit by the Orthodox archbishop of Athens to the Pope was quite improbable. What is changing?

Monsignor Salachas: Insofar as I know, Archbishop Christodoulos' intention to visit the Pope already ripened during the last years of John Paul II's pontificate, whose funeral he attended personally.

The starting point of a new era in relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Greece was precisely John Paul II's Jubilee pilgrimage to Greece in May 2001 "in the footsteps of St. Paul," and the signing of a Joint Declaration in Athens' Areopagus by Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Christodoulos, committing themselves to fraternal collaboration and a common testimony to safeguard the Christian identity of the European continent.

It was followed in March 2002 by the visit to the Holy See of a delegation of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, and in February 2003 by the visit of a delegation of the Holy See, headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to the Church of Greece, and the participation of representatives of the Holy See in several initiatives convoked by the Church of Greece at the international and ecumenical level.

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Constantinople consolidated the decision already made months earlier by the archbishop to visit the Church of Rome and meet with her Bishop to reaffirm the commitment assumed with the declaration in Athens' Areopagus in 2001.

Q: As a Greek Catholic and specialist in Eastern law, do you think that the fact that Catholics in Greece have some problems, such as the lack of recognition of the juridical personality of the Catholic Church, can put a stop to the ecumenical endeavor?

Monsignor Salachas: It's true that the problem of the recognition of the juridical personality of the Catholic Church has been of concern for decades for Catholics in Greece with serious practical consequences.

This problem was addressed during the visit of the president of the Hellenic republic, Karolos Papoulias, to the Vatican on January 28, 2005.

The president, accompanied by Mrs. Ghiannakou, minister of education and religious affairs, committed himself decisively to a just and speedy solution to this problem, in order to give the Catholic Church in Greece an appropriate and recognized juridical status.

At present, the ministry has instituted a mixed commission to study a possible solution to the problem.

A solution is sought in the context of the constitution and of legislation in force in the Hellenic republic. There is no lack of difficulties along this line, but it is hoped that the commission will be able to achieve the desired solution very soon.

On receiving the Catholic bishops of Greece last October 30, on their "ad limina" visit, Pope Benedict XVI expressed the hope that with patience and respect for legitimate procedures, it would be possible to achieve the desired agreement thanks to the efforts of all.

I don't think, therefore, that this problem can slow down the good high-level ecumenical relationship between the Churches.

The problem does not refer in fact to the Orthodox Church as it does to the government's exclusive competence, which, in addition to the obligation of guaranteeing the constitutional right of religious liberty of every citizen and every religion, must respond to the appeals of the European Community, of which Greece is a member. I don't think the Orthodox Church wants to slow down this process.

Q: You are a member of the mixed commission for the official theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Church. In the course of all these years, from Patmos 1980 to Belgrade 2006, the mixed commission has not resolved the problem called "Uniatism," considered by the Orthodox side as a grave obstacle for unity. The Eastern-rite Catholics who are called "Uniates" -- are they more a problem or a solution, ecumenically speaking?

Monsignor Salachas: The mixed commission, aware of the complexity of the problems in resolving "Uniatism," considers nevertheless the importance of this dialogue, which must continue within the perspective of full unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Above all, it must be affirmed categorically that "Uniatism" is not the solution, ecumenically speaking, for the re-establishment of full unity.

Therefore, the "Uniatism" of the Eastern Catholic Churches must be distinguished, that is, of the Churches in full communion today with the Apostolic See of Rome.

Because of this, it should be recalled that the mixed commission, both in the Joint Declaration of Freising 1990, as well as the joint document of Balamand 1993, in distinguishing the method of the past of the existence of the Eastern Churches, affirmed on one hand that "we reject Uniatism as a method for seeking unity because it is opposed to the common tradition of our Churches," and on the other hand that "the Eastern Catholic Churches, as part of the Catholic Communion, have the right to exist and act to respond to the spiritual needs of their faithful"; "the Eastern Catholic Churches that have wished to re-establish the full communion with the See of Rome and have remained faithful to her, have the rights and obligations connected to this Communion of which they form part."

It is known that the Orthodox Churches' reservation is based on the fact that they don't see a theological foundation that justifies the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches, while for the Catholic Church the fact of their full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome with the bonds of the profession of the faith, of the sacraments and of the ecclesiastical government, justifies their ecclesiasticism and canonicity.

On several occasions, Orthodox exponents, theologians and ecclesiastics have expressed their point of view for the solution of this problem, considering that Eastern Catholics should opt to return to the Orthodox Church, from which they stem, or incorporate themselves to the Latin Church, inasmuch as they are united to Rome.

Obviously, such a solution cannot find agreement on the part of the Catholic Church, for essentially doctrinal, ecclesiological and pastoral reasons.

I think that "Uniatism" implies fundamentally the more delicate and theologically more difficult question, that is, the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.

Although the Eastern Catholic Churches date their origin back to antiquity, they appeared as ecclesial communities after the 1054 schism and, after the failed attempts at union -- especially since the Council of Florence -- their ecclesial and canonical status is due to the express recognition on the part of the highest authority of the Catholic Church, that is, of the Roman Pontiff.

Even if recognizing that the Eastern Catholic Churches are not the solution for the re-establishment of full communion between our Churches, the question of their existence and ecclesiality is in close relationship with the fundamental question on the doctrine of the primacy of the Pope and its exercise in the universal Church.

In this line, the 9th Plenary Assembly of the Mixed Commission in Belgrade, from September 18 to 25, 2006, began to address the topic "Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Conciliarity and Authority in the Church."

The topic was studied at three levels of the life of the Church: local, regional and universal, under the ecclesiological and canonical aspect.

The canonical focus of the topic was based essentially on the "sacri canones" of the first millennium, considering also the doctrinal developments of the second millennium in the life of the Orthodox Churches and in the Catholic Church.

The Belgrade session did not exhaust the study of the whole topic. That is why it will be addressed, as a whole, in the next plenary session of the commission, which will take place in 2007, hosted by the Catholic Church.

This is the reason why, the problem called "Uniatism," considered on the Orthodox side as a serious obstacle to unity, it not a solution, ecumenically speaking, but rather a theological and canonical problem to which the mixed commission has committed itself, by the will of its Churches, to address in a dialogue of charity and truth.

However, the fact that the mixed commission has not yet reached an agreement on the basic theological concept of "Uniatism," and that because of this it has not produced a joint document with specific proposals and guidelines, does not mean an interruption of theological dialogue.

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