The Orthodox and the Pope

This past Sunday was my 4-year-old son's first communion at our local Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C. I spent so many Sundays in my childhood doing the same: surrounded by burning candles, icons and incense, my arms crossed against my chest as I sipped the bread and wine of the communion chalice. But here in D.C., like the Orthodox church my family attended in California decades ago, it is in the cafeteria after the service where the real truths come out. In that room this past Sunday two such truths were readily apparent: Easter hadn't yet happened by the Orthodox calendar (painted eggs had just gone on sale; I bought the one my son accidentally broke) and the last thing on anyone's mind was that the pope, who in the centuries leading up to 1054 was considered a fellow leader of this flock, was about to touch down in Washington.

"I'm glad a Christian leader is getting the paparazzi treatment, but it's not spiritually significant for us," says churchgoer Maria Sund. "We're obviously not Catholic—you know about the Schism of 1054. The papacy is a well-established machine at this point, I don't think it's going to reunite with us, like some people believe." For her the Catholic Church is too liberal and too historically divided from the Orthodox. "There are just too many issues, and I don't think Pope Benedict can solve them. He'd have to reduce the power of Rome, among other things, and that's not going to happen." A fellow church member, Nicholas Troyan, says that while the Orthodox could never consider a fellow man—pope or not—to be infallible, that he practically viewed Pope John Paul II as holy. He came from Eastern Europe and fought repression. "He did so much to bring down communism, and the Russian Orthodox Church was one of the great beneficiaries of that. When he died I suggested to our deacon that we mention it in the service, and I got a such a diatribe for that!"

That animosity is hardly new; in fact, it's had almost 10 centuries to fester. The Eastern Orthodox Church refers to the second largest Christian congregation in the world (after the Roman Catholic Church), and includes churches originating in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It hews more closely than most faiths to its ancient theological roots, which stem from the beginnings of Christianity. But the Orthodox do not consider themselves Catholic, as in Roman Catholic, but rather catholic (as an adjective)—in the sense that the church is the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." Included in its communion are the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (and now Moscow). Rome used to be on that list, but that was before 1054, when longstanding disputes between East and West were finally made concrete in what is known as the Great Schism. There were doctrinal issues (Roman Catholics accept an amended version of the Nicene Creed which reads "We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the father and the son" whereas the Orthodox vehemently reject that addition), as well as power issues. Because Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, the bishop of Rome was considered "First among equals" compared with the other four bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Yet as power shifted to Constantinople, that honorific fell under dispute. "Eventually the Church of Rome insisted that their bishop had not only 'primacy of honor' but also 'primacy of authority'," explains Father Andrew Jarmus, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church in America. As a result, the pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other. "The real question was that of the authority of Rome, especially in matters of doctrine and governance," Jarmus says.

That question—the primacy and legitimacy of the pope—has yet to be satisfactorily answered as far as the Orthodox are concerned. After the split of 1054, says Jarmus, "East and West had little official dialogue until the 1960s, when the pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople met for the first time in centuries." In the Orthodox retelling of that event, it was a watershed moment, leading to some first real steps towards reconciliation. "In 2001, Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusaders sacking Constantinople," says Jarmus. "Personally, I felt vindicated. If there is going to be any reconciliation, both sides will have to take ownership of the hurt they have caused."

The Vatican, however, seems more prone to play down those differences. As Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., told NEWSWEEK: "One of my favorite quotes, and this was from the ecumenical patriarch years ago, was his answer to the question: 'What separates the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church?" He said "Nothing more than nine centuries'." Wuerl thought it was an excellent answer. "What he was saying was, when you get through all the history and politics and overlay and get down to what's at the heart of our faith, there's very little that separate us. And I think John Paul II made valiant efforts to build those bridges, and I think Pope Benedict XVI is profoundly committed to continuing to build and cross those bridges."

Chester Gillis, head of the theology department at Georgetown University, says Pope Benedict is following up with Pope John Paul's dream of uniting the churches. "It pained him greatly that the churches were not united. He always dreamed that the gap would be bridged and that dream is carried on by Benedict." Yet while there has been an effort to reach out, says Gillis, the differences run deep. For example, John Paul II was never able to visit Russia as he had hoped. (As a reporter based in Moscow for much of the '90s, I can remember countless times the Russian wire services reported he was coming, then he wasn't coming, then maybe he was coming again.) Gillis says that's because the Russians wanted him to come on an official state visit, whereas he wished for it to be a church-to-church visit. "He didn't want to come as a head of state. But the Orthodox Church didn't want him to come as a church-to-church exchange because it would mean that they were recognizing his leadership, it would have given him a certain religious cache they couldn't accept."

George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a Vatican analyst, maintains that the Orthodox say they don't want to talk about the primacy of the pope, yet their actions tell a different story. "The Vatican has been approached by the Patriarch of Moscow and the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople asking if he could help them resolve their longstanding issues. If that is not an example of primacy, what is?" Although relations may not be strong with Moscow, Weigel adds that ties are close with the church in Ukraine, which—like the Catholic Church—voiced support for the democratic "Orange Revolution" of 2004-2005. Also in 2005, meeting with a committee designed to open dialogue between East and West, Benedict called the openness for discussion "a new phase of dialogue" after 15 years of renewed difficulty—this time in part because of the rise of Catholic churches in formerly Soviet territory, which—according to a Vatican statement—"re-opened wounds in Catholic-Orthodox relations that had never healed." In November 2006, Pope Benedict also visited Constantinople, walking alongside Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in what press releases described as a day of "worship, ecumenical dialogue and fraternal embrace" with the two leaders committed toward "the restoration of Full Communion between the two Churches." The trip's "hope-filled conclusion" was heralded, but the union has yet to happen.

Because he is a theologian who has emphasized ancient Christian writings, there is some sense among Orthodox leaders that Benedict might bring new emphasis to reconciliation. But visit a Russian Orthodox Church, and that merely feels like idle speculation. After all, it's been nearly 10 centuries and the churches are still separate. As Russian Orthodox churchgoer Troyan says, "I don't know much about Benedict. To me he doesn't have the fame John Paul did, or maybe he just hasn't been 'propagandized'—to use that infamous word—as much as John Paul II had been. The most I've been hearing about the trip is how many traffic jams it will cause."