Questioning the prospects of Catholic-Orthodox unity

The latest statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (NAOCTC) begins and ends with questions, and these are both more valuable and certainly more interesting than what is found in many ecumenical statements.

Pope Francis, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the Orthodox churches, attend an ecumenical prayer service at the Church of St. Peter in Cairo April 28, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When I got involved officially in the ecumenical movement in Canada in 1988, I was something of a young Turk who thought we needed some strong leadership at the top to hammer together a few pellucid doctrinal statements permitting no questions but demanding complete assent from everybody. I knew—or thought I knew—exactly who was in and who was out. Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox were in because all of us claimed apostolic succession and sacraments. Once we achieved unity en bloc, we could then dictate terms de haut en bas to the sordid and shabby Protestants, whose fractiousness would melt away in a pique of gratitude for whatever scraps we fed them from our high table (where, my then 17-year-old Anglican self fantasized, I would one day be seated as archbishop of Canterbury in secret talks with the pope of Rome and patriarch of Constantinople).

My 45-year-old self now finds fatuous that whole fantasy, not least because, in 1991, I left home to study psychology, and have never stopped thinking in psychoanalytic categories. From Freud—and later Alasdair MacIntyre and the Eastern Fathers—I learned the value of questions and an apophatic suspicion of overly tidy answers. I’m glad to see that the latest statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (NAOCTC) also raises some psychologically invaluable questions about the prospects for East-West unity. In fact, their newest statement, released this week, begins and ends with questions, and these are both more valuable and certainly more interesting than what is found in many ecumenical statements.

The questions here concern authority. In broad terms these are the same questions I attempted to treat eight years ago in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011), the same ones that Christians have been talking about since at least 1995, the year the landmark encyclical Ut Unum Sint raised the question of how and where we might find new models for the exercise of the papacy.

None of us has totally answered these questions yet because they are so complex, involving many further questions about universal, regional, and local authority; synodality and primacy; the relationship between historical practices and doctrinal claims; and the interplay between structures of the Roman Empire and those of the Church now living in a vastly different world. And in fact the new statement from NAOCTC rightly begins by asking whether we need one single answer to the problems of primacy, authority, and synodality:

Is it necessary, or even desirable, that we have absolutely identical understandings? Perhaps the ecumenical model of differentiated consensus is of service here.

“Differentiated consensus” allows for broad agreement on major issues, but tolerates diversity of thought and practice on what are regarded as secondary or tertiary issues. This has long seemed to me the only realistic and hopeful prospect of Christian unity: we can agree on the importance of unity with the pope, but it is neither necessary nor theologically justifiable to insist, e.g., that everybody accept that every bishop in the world be appointed by him—an entirely novel practice, anyway, that is barely a century old and certainly ripe for reform if not abolition.

On this point, in fact, the new statement of the North American dialogue rightly notes that “the faithful were normally involved in the process of electing a new bishop in the early church.” The question left eloquently unsaid here is: why are they not so involved today? And why, the dialogue asks later on, is the ecumenical focus here and elsewhere today so often on universal or regional structures, and not the local: “In this and previous statements, there is little mention made of the reality of the parish.” And yet the parish is precisely where most people live out their faith and experience all the major moments of their life—baptism, reconciliation, marriage, and so forth.

In an era of globalization, of cultural homogenization thanks to advanced capitalism, and of an often excessive and deeply harmful focus on “universal” leaders such as Roman popes and American presidents, the statement rightly calls for us to recognize that “the early Church had a diversity of ecclesial organizational models, responding to local custom and need.” We need to spend more time on the questions and problems of the local community and less time obsessing outrageously about papal and presidential comments.

The statement raises other questions too little considered in the past, including why the “Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches” are too often overlooked. These Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian Christian traditions have all, in varying ways, lived under Islam, which itself raises another set of questions and problems the dialogue says we have not considered enough:

As Islamic rule extended over most of the Christian East it changed the nature of Church governance, and even Church order. It would be difficult to discuss the matters at hand without also taking into consideration the influence of Islam.

As I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, the role of Islam, and, more recently, communism, both profoundly shaped (and often perverted) the ecclesial consciousness and actual structures of both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. The East has long been aware of this, and recently begun to question this in part, seeking structural reform to remove some of the residue of these nefarious influences.

But what about the West? I’m increasingly coming to think—and here Cyril Hovorun’s recent book Scaffolds of the Church (Wipf and Stock, 2017), is extremely helpful—that the Western Church has not seriously questioned its own “ecclesial imaginary” and how much it has been, and continues to be, shaped unconsciously by universalizing imperialist tendencies and the never-ending reach of the modern state.

Decentralization, the virtues of which the North American dialogue says we must continue to contemplate, is much more theologically, historically, and practically defensible than the Roman centralization and personality cult of the pope we have been enduring for decades. Perhaps all the novelties and peculiarities of this Franciscan papacy will finally bring us to reconsider papal centralization and begin to rid ourselves of it both for the good of the Catholic Church and also the cause of Christian unity.

The desire some have (as my younger self did) for the pope to ensure and enforce absolute uniformity everywhere in the world is psychologically questionable, and probably based on an unconscious ecclesiological mistake. Here is where a totally new reading of Freud’s Future of an Illusion allows us to raise new questions about how and why Catholics can be infantilized by images and actions of an earthly and human (pace Freud) “holy father.” These images are unconsciously beholden to old Roman-imperial, and more recent West-European monarchical, ideas of the omnipotent and absolutist ruler whose coronation formula effuses about him “that you are Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Questioning the rococo spectacle of a papal coronation was easy after 1963. But interrogating our unconscious desire to be ruled by Rome (or Moscow or Alexandria or Constantinople or Etchmiadzin) will take longer. The “service of unity,” as Pope John Paul II wrote, is not about

exercising power over the people—as the rulers of the Gentiles and their great men do (cf. Mt 20:25; Mk 10:42)—but of leading them towards peaceful pastures. … The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the College of all the Pastors consists precisely in “keeping watch” (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular Churches. In this way, in each of the particular Churches entrusted to those Pastors, the una, sancta, catholica et apostolica Ecclesia is made present. All the Churches are in full and visible communion, because all the Pastors are in communion with Peter and therefore united in Christ. With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. (UUS, 94)

It is up to us—encouraged by the good work of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, by John Paul II in 1995 (cf. Ut Unum Sint nos. 94-96), and Pope Francis in 2013 (cf. Evangelii Gaudium nos. 16 and 32)—to keep before us these two crucial questions with which the dialogue ends its newest statement: “Are we asking more of each other than we did when we shared communion? With all we share and with all the cost of the division, do we still have the right to remain divided?”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Interesting….but in the author’s and Pope Francis’s mind how does the decentralization of the papacy protect and inform the Deposit of Faith in one continuing stream without the constant challenge and attempts to change that which has been declared infallible?

  2. I think that practically the most important thing we can do is follow Pope John’s idea of praying and working together, knowing that the gift of unity will only come from above given the hardness of human hearts. The fall of the Soviet Empire is a demonstration of this. Within five years of the consecration requested at Fatima, the problem mysteriously began to fall into place in a way that defies human calculations.

    • Not so. The Soviet authorities planned the “collapse” of the Soviet Union. The real conversion of Russia will happen when 1) the Third Secret of Fatima (I.e. the exact words of Our Lady which follow: “In Portugal, the dogma of the Faith will always be preserved…) and 2) the Collegial Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the Holy Father in union with all the bishops of the world.

  3. Perhaps the age of the laity, an orthodox and vocal laity defending Tradition and their rights, will help initiate this much-needed decentralization.

  4. I’ll wait for the Second Coming when all truths are fully revealed before I get on board to any of these “corporate” mergers which is what this appears to me to be. I can fully respect any of the Christian sects that are in existence now and have no animosity towards them or their traditions. I am however very concerned of a centralized church because they, the RCC, have shown themselves to be more interested in power and control, in secrecy and evasion in their dealings. Too much corruption coupled with untouchability steeped in scandal of the highest magnitude indicates the flawed and fallen state of any human attempt to regather under one tent the Christian faith. Why is Christendom finding it so difficult to respect and cooperate with each other while maintaining traditions and identities. History has shown an all consuming RCC does not necessarily produce goodness and Christlike faith and even though I am catholic and believe in my faith, the power dynamic of the institutional church especially in this day and age does not instill peace and brotherhood. I’ll wait for the return of Jesus to gather us together where we do not need to fear the corruptions of Man and our less than holy tendencies.

  5. Thank you, Prof. De Ville, for calling attention to this statement of the North American Catholic-Orthodox Theological Consultation. Yes, there are many questions to be faced, and we pray for wisdom in seeking Catholic-Orthodox theological consensus. At some point the question of the number of general or ecumenical councils must be faced. My sense is that most Orthodox will not be willing to accept any councils as ecumenical after Nicaea II (787)—with the possible exception of the Photian Synod of 879–880.

    Also, at some point the question of divorce and remarriage must be faced. As is well-known, the Catholic Church, following Trent, would seem definitively opposed to the Eastern Orthodox acceptance of divorce and remarriage. In this regard, it’s interesting that in his June 17, 2012 Letter to Benedict XVI, Bishop Fellay of the SSPX gave as a historical example of re-integration without full doctrinal agreement the reunion of separated Greek Churches after Florence while passing in silence over the Greek acceptance of divorce because of adultery:

    We, of course, must pray and work for reconciliation of the separated Eastern Churches with the Catholic Church. Over the years, though, I have also come to see how complex some of the matters really are.

  6. The author really ought to take a closer look at ‘Orthodoxy’, a house more divided against itself for poiitical, nationalist and sometimes even religious reasons, is hard to find.
    The oecumenical patriarchate has no real authority and continues to exist in Istanbul by the grace and favour of the Turkish government. Fall outs between national churches are common as is the tiresome habit of non recognition of hierarchies. The current situation in Ukraine is rather typical. Resentment by Arabic speakers of perceived Greek ethnic dominance is note worthy.
    It was a situation of internecine feuding that may well have allowed Islam to make easy headway in the Near East and Egypt.
    Any Catholic ‘decentralisation’ will simply occasion yet more Christian disunity. Better the thing we know than a dangerous experimentation with novelty. The Catholic Church has already had enough of that to last a millennium.

  7. In religious or secular terms, in this age, the great temptation is the globalist one: submission to centralized power itself: power which is almost without content and reference – except to itself.

    The Church’s temptation lies in its own nature; better, in its misinterpretation and misuse. By her nature, the Church is universal, a universality mandated to reach into every nook & cranny of human (and civic) life.

    The danger lies in her viewing that a globalist world, its organizational structures and compulsion for population control, could, in any way, be an handmaid to hers: its global reach something to be partnered with, mirrored, or even co-opted.

    That the Church is, even now, being wooed by such temptation can be seen (in this time of crisis and confusion) in the push for the Roman papacy to act outside its bounds and against its constitutional nature. A temptation teasingly attractive to both the “right” and “left” within the Church. Papal cults being the most public.

    With the Catholic “left” now sensing that Pope Francis is “their man”, one sees the temptation on full display. Increasingly, in a near panic to see their agenda through before the next conclave, they are pushing Francis to secure their goals by applying absolutist papal proclamation/acts over the universal Church.

    The author’s essay, though not addressing this concern, as such, is a helpful (and healthy) template to waylay both that temptation and the fears propelling it.

    Maybe with some justification, yet for far too long we have been instructed to fear disunity. Anything to cripple that, even if it means finding unwarranted good in the universal/globalist ways (and institutions) of the world.

    Better what the author describes. Who knows, maybe the world could be tempted to take a look!

  8. A good dose of humility on both sides would be very helpful. The Greeks have had a visceral hatred of almost everything Latin considering themselves superior. REading Orthodox websites, it is not unusual to find them harping back to the 4th Crusade. Of course, they never mention the massacre of thousands of Latin Christians of Italian origin in 1182 who lived in Constantinople and the fact that the Orthodox clergy stood by and did nothing. I am not justifying what the crusaders did, but it had a lot to do with Byzantine politics and the memory of the previous massacre was not lost on them. Pope Innocent III excommunicated the crusaders for what they did in the sacking of Constantinople.

    The Church order of the early centuries can hardly be a model for our day, at least not in all its details. The Orthodox have a very serious problem regarding their own internal unity as the recent failed attempt at a Pan orthodox council demonstrates. There is a serious problem of nationalism and excessive dependence on the political authority; as the coziness of the Russian Orthodox Church with Putin demonstrates. This is a manifestation of a lack of catholicity. We have more serious problems than before as the Francis Papacy seems to clearly demonstrate.

  9. Deville’s occasional splurts on the otherwise respectable CWR site reminds me why, whenever I am asked by a student about studying Catholic theology, I very thoroughly warn them away from the University of St Francis in Fort Wayne. No sense in getting a degree from there.

  10. Re. “differentiated consensus”, the Catholic Church already uses that concept with respect to the differences in understanding between the Roman rite and the various “sui juris” eastern Catholic Churches. Certainly the understanding of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary is an example, when compared to the Dormition of Mary, its equivalent in the eastern Catholic Churches. Also, many eastern Catholic Churches follow eastern Orthodox practice regarding divorce and remarriage. These are just two examples. The major obstacle is Petrine primacy. But from a historical perspective, the eastern and Roman Churches can both claim to be “right”, as both understandings of Church leadership are ancient. The ecumenists challenge is to find a way to articulate a cohesive complementarity that recognizes the antiquity of both viewpoints, is true, and achieves a modern expression of primacy that is agreeable, utilitarian, and ecclesiastically sound. The idea of returning to the common practice of the early Church during the time of the Pentarchy is attractive, but while both eastern and Latin Churches enjoined in this arrangement, they did not agree on what that arrangement signified. So maybe we go back to that practice, where the eastern Patriarchates are self-governing but refer to the “Patriarch of the West” inter-Patriarchal disputes for resolution, but back off from the interpretation of what that practice meant. From the Latin perspective, it was evidence that the Roman Church had universal jurisdiction. From the eastern perspective, it was simply an expedient way of resolving local and regional issues between Patriarchates. The Church of Rome was, geographically speaking, distant and not a player in eastern Mediterranean Church affairs, so it could act as a fair arbiter; so from their standpoint this practice emphasized the federal aspect of Church governance.

  11. “We need to spend more time on the questions and problems of the local community and less time obsessing outrageously about papal and presidential comments.”

    The above statement could just as truthfully been written as follow:

    “We need to spend more time on the questions and problems of the local community and less time obsessing about outrageous papal and presidential comments.”

  12. One serious consideration not mentioned here is the fact that most of the Orthodox Churches are essentially national churches. While there are various rites and ethnic communities in churches loyal to Rome, in Orthodoxy these is far too close a relationship with the state. Whether this stems from a desire for stronger secular protection or is an assertion of independence matters little. The state sees the churches as bastions of support and, in turn, offers them privileged status within the state. In the long run, this benefits neither and certainly goes counter to rendering to God and Ceasar separately. As long as this situation exists, true unity will be quite difficult, if not impossible.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Questioning the prospects of Catholic-Orthodox unity -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.