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Friday, 10 January 2014

The Russian Veto Against Francis and Bartholomew: Sandro Magister on the Ravenna and Moscow Statements

ROME, January 8, 2014 – Exactly half a century since the embrace in Jerusalem between Paul VI and the patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, Pope Francis has announced that he too will go to the Holy Land, next May 24-26, to repeat that ecumenical gesture with the successor of Athenagoras, Bartholomew.

On Saturday, January 4, the eve of the anniversary, “L'Osservatore Romano" republished the complete text of the conversation between Paul VI and Athenagoras, intended to remain confidential but recorded by Italian television, which “through a glitch” kept the microphones open.

Paul VI did not remain silent about the crucial point that divides Rome from the East: “the constitution of the Church” and the role of the pope in it.

 He promised Athenagoras:

"I will tell you that which I believe to be exact, derived from the Gospel, from the will of God and from the authentic tradition. I will express it. And in it there will be points that do not coincide with your thought about the constitution of the Church. . . ."

 “I will do the same,” Athenagoras said.

And Paul VI: "We will discuss, we will seek to find the truth. . . No question of prestige, of primacy, that may not be that established by Christ. Absolutely nothing that has to do with honors, with privileges. Let us see what Christ is asking of us and each take his position; but without any human ambition to prevail, to have glory, advantages. But to serve.”


Since that January 5 of 1964 until today, the ecumenical dialogue between Rome and the Churches of the East has made substantial progress. And it has not been afraid to bring into discussion even the burning question of papal primacy.

The foundational document for the exchange on the universal role of the bishop of Rome was finalized in Ravenna in 2007 by a joint team of bishops and theologians called the “joint international commission for the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church":

> Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authorithy

This document was unanimously approved by those present. But the Russian Orthodox Church was absent from the meeting in Ravenna because of a dispute with the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. An important absence, because the Russian Church represents by far the largest part of the entire Orthodox world.

That intra-Orthodox dispute was later smoothed over, and the Russian Church also agreed to take part in the dialogue, on the basis of the Ravenna document and of a subsequent working text on the role of the papacy in the first millennium, drafted in Crete in 2008 by a subcommission.

But at two meetings held in Cyprus in 2009 and in Vienna in 2010, the objections of the Russian Church were so many and of such a nature as to block any reconciliation between the two sides. The Russian delegation asked and obtained that the working text of Crete should be downgraded and rewritten from top to bottom by a new subcommission. And it also expressed substantial criticisms about the document of Ravenna, which in paragraph 41 describes as follows the points of agreement and disagreement between Rome and the East:

"Both sides agree that […] Rome, as the Church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the 'taxis', and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the 'protos' among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as 'protos', a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium."

"Protos" is the Greek word that means "first." And "taxis" is the organization of the universal Church.

The rigidity of the Russian Church on papal primacy is all the more striking in that it was accompanied during the pontificate of Benedict XVI by a growing unity of action between Moscow and Rome in the defense of unborn life, the family, religious freedom.

The Russian Church was certainly not pleased by the decision of Joseph Ratzinger, at the beginning of his pontificate, to remove from among the attributes of the pope presented in the Annuario Pontificio that of "patriarch of the West." The Russians in fact saw that move as the latest evidence of the claim of the bishop of Rome to a primacy over the universal Church, without geographical limitations of any kind.

While on the other hand there is a favorable interpretation today, not only by the Russians but by the whole of the Orthodox world, of the insistence of the current pope, Francis, on calling himself simply "bishop of Rome."

For this reason as well, when in the middle of last December Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity, went on an official visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg to meet with Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, there were those who prognosticated rapid progress in the dialogue between Rome and Moscow, encouraged by the new pope.

But this is not what happened. Cardinal Koch indeed encountered the "great expectations" placed on Pope Francis. But he reaped only a renewed willingness for a common effort between the two Churches "concerning the defense of the family and the protection of life."

An encounter between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow, the first of history, still seems far from becoming a reality.

As for the primacy of the pope, the patriarchate of Moscow has seen to chilling every illusion of a softening of its opposition.

A few days after Koch returned to the Vatican and at the height of the Christmas celebrations of the Catholic Church, the patriarchy of Moscow made public a document of its own in which it reiterates its disagreement with the Ravenna document and reconfirmes its complete refusal to attribute to the bishop of Rome any sort of power - other than a simply "honorific" one - over the universal Church.

The document - reproduced further below in its salient passages - has been published in Russian and English on the official website of the patriarchate of Moscow:
Read the statement and further comment online here:
The Russian Veto Against Francis and Bartholomew
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