MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Romanov) - Predictably, recent media reports that the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican were going to sit down at the negotiating table to resolve their long-standing differences were greeted by the public with a yawn.
Although most people decided that the talks had little chance of success and so forgot the news as soon as they had heard it, this attempt at reconciliation should be taken seriously.
Monsignor Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Moscow, said that both Churches face many obstacles, such as historical prejudice, liturgical differences and the experience of religious life. These divisions have accumulated over the 950 years since the schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. Monsignor Kondrusiewicz believes that both sides must try and reach a consensus on these and other issues. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What is important is that we have started negotiating," he said.
Although the talks have little chance of success, they at least represent an improvement; until recently, such an ecumenical dialogue would have been unthinkable. The hierarchs of both Churches have been prompted to move toward reunification by numerous factors: the increasing threat of radical Islam, the decline in moral values among the faithful, and the attempt by European politicians to banish Christianity from public life. A prime example of the latter is the European Union's reluctance to mention the Christian roots of European civilization in the EU Constitution.
The Russian Orthodox Church has problems of its own. It has been weakened by decades of repression, and its followers are a people whose moral character was corrupted by Soviet rule. Unlike the EU, however, Russia's secular authorities are doing their best to work with the Church to overcome the Soviet legacy, but there are many issues that still have not been resolved. Moreover, church and state have not yet divided up their respective spheres of influence after a long period of official atheism.
All this regularly leads to heated discussions, especially about the pros and cons of religious education at state schools. Monsignor Kondrusiewicz is quite concerned about modern global challenges, and he said many laws are being passed that run counter to basic Christian values and traditions.
The Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church are teaming up in order to deal with these challenges. The threat they pose is a clear indication that Christianity should not prolong the existing schism. Nevertheless, removing the obstacles to reconciliation mentioned by Monsignor Kondrusiewicz is no easy task.
He mentioned the many theological differences between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Holy See. These include the Pope's position of supremacy over both the Latin and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, as well as the so-called filioque controversy. This divisive difference between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions is most often referred to as simply "filioque" or "the filioque," a disputed part of the Nicean Creed. In the Orthodox tradition, the line in question reads "We believe in the Holy Spirit ... who proceeds from the Father", while in the Catholic tradition it reads "We believe in the Holy Spirit ... who proceeds from the Father and the Son." Monsignor Kondrusiewicz also mentioned the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic dogma asserting that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was preserved by God from the stain of "original sin" at the time of her own conception.
It is fairly obvious that none of these contradictions can be overcome unless Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders have the courage to move away from their traditional religious canons in search of a compromise. It may seem like a paradox, but the conservatism of Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded the late John Paul II in 2005, makes success more likely because the more conservative the Vatican's position, the closer it matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics have repeatedly tried to meet each other halfway, although unsuccessfully. These efforts were way ahead of their time and heralded the official clergy's current attempts at reconciliation. Far from all Catholics who visited Russia in the past came to proselytize; many of them openly strove to reconcile both faiths. Unfortunately, few people on either side of the religious "front" could understand the motives of these people, who found themselves in no-man's land.
Russia also tried to mend relations with the Holy See. For instance, Emperor Pavel I (1754-1801), who was a mystic, had no problem combining Orthodox Christianity with Catholicism and was the de facto head of the Catholic Maltese Order. Although the Maltese Cross became part of the Russian state emblem under Pavel I, this did not threaten the position of the Orthodox Christian Church. Likewise, between the reign of Catherine the Great (1729-1796) and Alexander I (1777-1825), the Russian nobility believed that Jesuit schools provided the best education. Catherine the Great allowed the Jesuits to settle in Russia after their order was banned in Europe.
In the early 20th century, the supporters of famous Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, who called themselves Russian Catholics, preached: "And there shall be one fold, and one shepherd" (John 10:16). This group, which formally recognized the primacy of the Pope, wanted to preserve their Orthodox Christian and Russian national values and advocated reunification through compromise, rather than subordination. They favored a situation in which the Russian Patriarch would merely inform the Pope in writing when he ordained new priests. Archpriest Alexander Ustyinsky wrote in the group's journal, "The Word of the Truth," that Catholics and Orthodox Christians would each preserve their religious dogmas and their liturgical, administrative and disciplinary systems after reunification. However, even this cautious move in the direction of the Vatican was soundly rejected by Russian Orthodox hierarchs.
This time, top religious leaders on both sides, rather than ordinary believers, are trying to bring about a rapprochement. The difficulty is that although they have more power than ordinary parishioners, they are shackled by existing traditions, religious canons and prejudices.
The fact that the two sides are sitting down to talk is encouraging, even if the chances of success are slim. God works in mysterious ways; his present intentions may be clarified at the first round of talks in Italy this fall.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.