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Purpose, Scope, and Method of the Dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches

 
Introduction

The Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches share in the same Spirit, the Incarnate Son, and the Father through saving faith. For this profound reason our Churches have much to contribute to one another from the spiritual treasures they derive from their holy traditions. The responsibility to open channels of communication which may facilitate this spiritual exchange derives from the Gospel command given to all Christians to love one another both in word and act after the example of the Father who "gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16) and Jesus Christ who "loved his own . . . to the end" (Jn 13:1). To share with one another our lives, ourselves, and our spiritual and material riches in the cause of strengthening the faith of those who are in Christ-this is the only adequate response to the one who calls us to "love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 15:12).

It is in this spirit that we begin our dialogue. We recognize that the Church is called to be the community of those who live a common life like the Trinity; a worldwide community in which no single member or local Church is foreign to any other member or local Church but rather one in which each has its measure to receive and give. Hence this dialogue aims at contributing to the establishment of the conditions that make possible the visible manifestation of the love which already exists between our Churches. The goal of the dialogue, therefore, is to work toward the realization of a mutually acceptable profession of faith, which embraces the whole range of the life of faith, and a corresponding communion of life, which respects the freedom of Christian communities in all things that do not pertain to the essentials of the life of faith.

As a step in this direction, this dialogue intends to promote (1) mutual growth of our Churches through the reciprocal sharing in doctrinal and spiritual traditions as well as liturgical life; (2) cooperation in our common responsibility for furthering the unity of all Christian Churches and preaching the Gospel to the world; and (3) unity of action between the Churches in responding to the various problems and questions that arise in the numerous Christian communities and the world at large.

In brief, since the main concern of this dialogue is the fostering of conditions that favor full communion between our Churches, it has both a practical and doctrinal orientation. It looks to ways of deepening unity in Christ through both concrete acts of love and theological discourse, for the dialogue in love which nourishes unity includes both act and word.

I. Dialogue in Love-Practice of Love

As a consequence of the estrangement between our Churches that took place many centuries ago, and the accompanying insensitivity toward the ecclesial status of one another, both Churches have attempted to proselytize individual members and particular local communities of the other Church. Such activity has been especially detrimental to the stability and growth of certain Oriental Orthodox Churches. Moreover, this practice is contrary to the demands of an ecclesial dialogue in love, which assumes that both Churches, as Churches of Jesus Christ, should live in a communion which respects the ancient traditions and styles of life of one another.

The long history of estrangement, intensified by well-meaning though at times self-serving ecclesiastical activity, must come to an end. This can be achieved only through a dialogue in love which leads us to seek new ways to remedy the effects of actions of the past which do not harmonize with the new experience of the ecclesial status of both Churches; concrete acts of love, especially when costly, demonstrate that both Churches recognize one another as true Churches of Jesus Christ deserving of the right to life, respect, and support. Therefore the daily life of the two Churches commands our attention. We intend to consider what practical means of cooperation are possible in the social, moral, and political spheres: whatever means can be employed to afford the faithful of both Churches the experience of their oneness in Christ. Beyond this the dialogue intends to respond, where possible, to the needs of other Churches, especially in lending support to heal schisms wherever they exist. Finally, it accepts the task of developing practical suggestions for ways the two Churches can effectively cooperate in common witness to the Gospel before the world.

II. Dialogue in Love-Theological Discourse

Theological dialogue is a requirement of the dialogue in love. For one of the aspects of the dialogue in love is the mutual commitment to seek the truth together so that both partners may live more fully in the truth.

This mutual commitment to seek the truth is not based on speculation concerning the possibility of arriving at knowledge of God and the mystery of the human person. It is grounded on the conviction that divine revelation of these mysteries has occurred in history, reaching its fullness in Jesus Christ; that the Holy Spirit was sent to make this revelation accessible to all people until Christ's second coming by sustaining and nourishing the Church of Jesus Christ in the truth.

The Church is the place where God's word is always present and affirmed. But it is the "tent of the word of God" and, in its proper activity, sacrament of the truth: the way which gives all people access to God. This means that the dogmas, by which the Church formulates its experience of the mystery of God acting in history, function as an introduction into the mystery of faith: God the Father revealing himself in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. The totality of the mystery cannot be expressed adequately in any of its dogmatic formulations. Dogmatic statements are historically conditioned expressions of the divine truth. Although affirming divine truth, they remain in need of continual reinterpretation so as to be made more fully intelligible in changing historical and cultural contexts. Therefore Christian theology has the task of continually re-reading dogmas in the light of Scripture and Tradition as well as the newer insights and expressions of the life of the Church. Just as in the early undivided Church, so now the written Scripture is accepted as our norm of faith in the context of the living Church, which interprets it in the light of past and present ecclesial self-understanding. Since we believe that our Churches possess the Spirit of God, we are also convinced that our mutual witness of faith in dialogue can contribute to a deeper knowledge of the divine truth.

However, this dialogue can be carried on only in the atmosphere of love. For charity furnishes the insight that the Spirit dwells in each of us and that we can only expect the other to accept the witness of faith insofar as he is convinced in faith, and this means in the Spirit. This conviction of the presence of the Spirit in the partners in dialogue, grounded on the experience of mutual love, determines the style of the dialogue. It is only properly conducted in a non-authoritarian, open, and discursive way. Since there exists in all truly Christian dialogue the presence of Christ in the Spirit, the partners should maintain an openness to receive from one another the liberating power of the Gospel and share with one another their personal understanding of the truth as the Spirit reveals it.

1. Conditions for Theological Dialogue
The word dialogue means a speaking together with the accent on togetherness. By its very nature, it aims at broadening areas of mutual agreement. Consequently it is imperative that the partners be open to one another (reciprocity) and ready to learn from one another and change ways of thinking and acting when the truth discovered through the conversations leads in a new direction (mutual commitment). In brief, dialogue aims at mutual enrichment and unity at as many levels as possible: human relations, truth, practical collaboration.

What is demanded of dialogue in general must be found in this dialogue between members of the Churches of the Oriental and Roman Catholic traditions. The partners of the dialogue should consider each other as equals. This means that (1) each should view the other as faithful to the Gospel according to his lights; (2) each should regard the other as possessing the Spirit and so capable of teaching or learning in speaking or listening through the Spirit; and (3) both partners share in common the fundamental spiritual goods which are the mutual possession of both Churches.

2. Theological Discourse and Differences between Churches
While the principle of equality between the members of the dialogue must be affirmed, the Churches which they represent have developed characteristic theological approaches to the Christian economy of salvation to which correspond differences in the organizational form of church life, liturgy, and spirituality. Many of the differences are clearly superficial, but others are more substantial. Since we reject that form of doctrinal indifferentism that claims that all positions held by the Churches of Jesus Christ have equal validity, the partners of this dialogue are committed to seeking together resolutions to those seemingly incompatible divergences in content and expression of doctrine and the variations in the concrete style of ecclesiastical life which derive from them.

In this connection, we recognize the existence of a hierarchy of truths within the diverse formulations of Christian faith. The partners of this dialogue, therefore, accept the task of articulating this hierarchy of truths and explaining the relationship between these truths as they see it. Here the problem of language inevitably arises. Since it is a question of establishing communication between two theological traditions, it is clear that the partners must submit the language they use to critical study. To avoid traveling along parallel lines wherein the same thing is meant by different words, the mutual effort must be made to discover the mentality, the genius of the culture, the philosophical outlook, traditions, and styles of life that lie behind what is being said.

3. Methodology of the Theological Dialogue
The method of the dialogue involves several elements which can operate in succession or concurrently: (1) exchange of ideas, where each one presents a point of view on the subject under discussion; (2) comparison of ideas to bring out differences and likenesses; (3) further investigation of shared positions; and (4) highlighting of aspects of the subject previously unnoticed, which leads to further investigation.

Concerning the subjects of the dialogue, a distinction must be made between (1) truths confessed in common; (2) truths obscured in one community but developed in the other; and (3) religious insights even in areas of divergence (e.g., particular forms of worship; emphasis on certain aspects of Christian life).

Once this distinction has been established, the following approach is recommended:

  1. Begin the dialogue with elements that unite the two Churches. This will foster a positive spirit which, it may be hoped, will prevail when dealing with areas of disagreement. Moreover, it will afford a yardstick by which the partners are in a better position to evaluate differences and make changes when necessary.
  2. Explain doctrine in a constructive way-avoiding defining by opposition, which leads to overstressing or hardening of certain positions.
  3. Aim towards a constructive synthesis of doctrine, which attempts to account for the whole scope of revealed truth.
  4. When examining theological problems between the Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, do not ignore the historical developments since the New Testament and Patristic periods, nor the current theological developments and ecclesial practices in both Churches. Also keep in mind that the Spirit of the Church is both a conserving and renewing Spirit.
  5. When examining problems between the two Churches, distinguish between divergences that are compatible and those that are seemingly incompatible with reference to full communion.
4. Themes of the Theological Dialogue
Knowledge of Christian faith comes to us in varied ways. They parallel the ways in which we reach out for and allow reality to enter our consciousness. The world is laid open to us by our moods and feelings (sentient field), by our interaction with people (interpersonal field), by the personal and social stories which serve to organize our feelings and to form a sense of continuous identity (narrative field). In these primal fields, the knowing subject is not consciously detached from the object known. However, the subject may consciously detach himself from the object to be known and seek to know the real in itself (theoretic field).

Corresponding to these ways by which knowledge of the faith is obtained and expressed, theologians distinguish between two types of theological statements: (1) those that derive more directly from the experience of the life of faith and are expressed in self-involving language; and (2) those that attempt to formulate in a scientific way the doctrinal content of the more direct expressions of faith. Since the liturgy, with its self-involving language, is the best expression of the ecclesial experience of the life of faith, it provides an indispensable source of the dogmatic statements of the official Church and the theological reflection of scientific theology. Thus it is fitting that this dialogue begin with the study of the liturgies of the two Churches and, in particular, with the sacraments of the Church.

Moreover, since the mystery of Christ, in which all Christian theology is grounded, is expressed and realized in the Church most perfectly through the celebration of the divine liturgy, the Eucharist, it seems most appropriate that this dialogue begin with and continually return to this theme. For the value of particular theological positions and practices of the Church can be measured by the harmony they display with the faith expressed in the celebration of the Eucharist.

In the discussions about the Eucharist, or whatever topic is singled out for analysis, the participants are resolved to adopt as a working principle the one which Pope John XXIII formulated in his opening address to the participants of Vatican Council II:

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the depositum fidei is one thing; the manner in which it is presented is quite another.1
There already exists a concrete example of the application of this principle which has brought our Churches closer together. The joint statement published by the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Jacoub III and Pope Paul VI at the end of the Patriarch's visit, October 1971, reads in part:
Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Mar Ignatius Jacoub III are in agreement that there is no difference in the faith they profess concerning the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become really man, even if over the centuries difficulties have arisen out of different theological expressions by which this faith was expressed.2
This agreement provides us with a solid basis for the hope that in "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15a) this dialogue will make a contribution to our further growth together "into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom this whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love" (Eph 4:15b-16).

November 1980

Notes

1John XXIII, Opening Address of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962.

2Text in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 63 (1971) 814-81 



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