Ravenna Was “Breakthrough” in Orthodox-Catholic Ties

Cardinal Kasper Looks Ahead

ROME, FEB. 18, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The so-called Ravenna Document is a real breakthrough in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, says the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In an interview with Gerard O’Connell for Our Sunday Visitor, Cardinal Walter Kasper explained what made the breakthrough possible, and what’s left in the process of achieving full unity.

His comments centered on the concluding document of the Oct. 8-14, 2007, plenary assembly of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, held in Ravenna, Italy.

“We started the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches as a whole in 1980. The first phase of the dialogue between the 1980s and 90s sought to reaffirm what we have in common: the Eucharist and the other sacraments, episcopacy and priesthood,” Cardinal Kasper explained. “Now, we are discussing the canonical and theological consequences; for the first time, we approach the questions: What is the Church? Where is the Church? What are the structures of the Church?

“We came to the concept that the Church is realized on three levels: the local level, that is, the diocese with the bishop; the regional level, that is, the metropolitan or patriarchate; and the universal level. And on every level we have a tension between authority — bishop, patriarch, and the ‘protos,’ Greek for primate, that is, ‘the first of the bishops’ — and the principle of synodality, synodal structures.”

Cardinal Kasper explained that at each level, there is a tension between authority and synodality, “which is essential to the nature of the Church — “ecclesiologically constitutive” — and that is already an important point on which to have agreement.”

But the real breakthrough, he said, was that “the Orthodox agreed to speak about the universal level — because before there were some who denied that there could even be institutional structures on the universal level. The second point is that we agreed that at the universal level there is a primate. It was clear that there is only one candidate for this post, that is the Bishop of Rome, because according to the old order — ‘taxis’ in Greek — of the Church of the first millennium the see of Rome is the first among them.

“Many problems remain to be resolved, but we have laid a foundation upon which we can build.”

A Catholic challenge

Cardinal Kasper clarified that the foundation reached is a challenge also for the Catholic Church.
“Whereas the Orthodox must clarify more deeply the question of ‘primacy, ‘protos,’ on the universal level, we Catholics have to reflect more clearly on the problem of synodality and conciliarity, especially on the universal level,” he said.

The prelate continued: “The Ravenna document is only a first step and a basic statement. It quotes the Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans — around 100 A.D. — stating that the community of Rome presides in love. Other early statements concur. When in the first millennium local churches were in difficulty or in distress, they often appealed to Rome. Rome was an instance of appeal, and had therefore already in the first millennium an important role to play.

“The Ravenna document mentions this, but when we in Ravenna spoke in detail about it, it became obvious that there are often different interpretations of the same facts.

“These differences existed partly already in the first millennium. For instance, the doctrine of primacy was much more developed in the West than in the East. Therefore, it is necessary to study the first millennium in detail, in order to come to a common understanding of the Fathers, both the Western and the Eastern ones. I hope we will find a common view of the first millennium.”

The pontifical council president clarified that a common view does not mean “a totally unified view.”

“There can still be a difference in understanding,” he affirmed. “For we have to distinguish between differences that are complementary and those that are contradictory. Complementarity existed already in the first millennium. So we have to look if we can transform our contradictions into new, fruitful complementary positions.”

Cardinal Kasper said the atmosphere in Ravenna was “so positive” that he is hoping to reach such a point of agreement with the Orthodox.

“We will not arrive at uniformity, that is not the goal, but we can come to a common view, a common basic understanding; and within this common basic understanding there can be different accents and different emphases. This does not necessarily prevent Church unity. But we must overcome the contradictions of the first millennium.”

Moving on

The president of the pontifical council clarified that a consensus on the first millennium is not enough.

“When we have finalized the discussion about the first millennium, then we have to go to the second millennium,” he said.

The cardinal clarified that in the second millennium there was “a decisive development not only in the Latin Church, but also in the Eastern Churches, a development which till today continues to give reason for the existing schism.”

He explained: “In the first millennium we had five Patriarchates, now we have 15 Patriarchates and some autonomous Churches. In the West we had the development that led to the First Vatican Council — 1869-70 — with the definition of the primacy of jurisdiction and the infallibility of the Pope, a development the Orthodox never accepted. Therefore, we have to discuss how to interpret these different developments on the basis of the first millennium. This will not be an easy discussion; on the contrary, it will be very difficult to reach an agreement about the First and the Second Vatican Councils.

“So the next step after the study of the first millennium will be the study of the second millennium, and only when we have finished that discussion will we be able to draw the consequences for the future of our relationship. Only then will the documents be mature enough to be formally submitted to the respective authorities of the Churches.”

Asked how long he thinks this process will take, the cardinal answered: “Nobody can know exactly. But I think at least one decade! But we should leave this to God’s providence and in his hands. We should only keep in mind that this is not just an intellectual and an academic process, but that we have to involve the whole body of our Churches, thus entailing also an emotional process.

“We are aware that much resentment, prejudice, and misunderstanding continue to persist, and that all kinds of oppositions and obstacles need to be overcome. Such a change of deep-rooted mentalities takes time; you cannot do it from one day to another.

“We need a reception process not only on the level of our hierarchies but also on the level of our faithful. Or to put it in a more spiritual way: Ecumenical rapprochement is not possible without the conversion of hearts. Here everybody has to begin with himself or herself.”

A guiding light

In the extensive interview, Cardinal Kasper gave some hints as to how varying concepts of primacy could be reconciled.

“In this context it should be noted that already today we have two forms of exercise of Roman primacy within the Catholic Church,” he explained. “We have two Codes of Canon Law: one for the Latin Church, the other for the Eastern Churches which are in full communion with Rome. According to these Codes of Canon Law, primacy is exercised in a different way in the Latin Church and in the Eastern Churches.

“So we do not want to impose the system which today is in the Latin Church on the Orthodox Churches. In the case of the restoration of full communion, a new form of the exercise of the primacy needs to be found for the Orthodox Churches.

“Already the apostolic constitution enforcing the Eastern Code of Canon Law stated that its regulations were valid only in the intermediate term, that is, until full reconciliation with the Eastern Churches not in full communion. Thus, the model of the exercise of primacy we have in the Eastern Catholic Churches is not necessarily the model for the future reconciliation with the Orthodox Churches.

“At this stage, however, it would be premature to speculate on what form the final outcome will take.”


Asked what is the biggest obstacle in moving forward to unity, Cardinal Kasper affirmed that a “‘spirit of possessiveness’ is a main obstacle, which can also be seen as lack of willingness to ‘metanoia,’ that is, to conversion. It is also a lack of love, an unwillingness to open oneself to a partner, to learn from and be enriched by the other, and to share with the other.

“This implies purification of memories, to ask for forgiveness and to correct wrong and non-evangelical attitudes of the past. Pope John Paul II often affirmed that there cannot be ecumenism without the conversion of hearts. The same Pope defined the ecumenical dialogue as the sharing of gifts. All this is a spiritual problem and a spiritual task, which can be done only in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

It’s because of this that spiritual ecumenism is so important, the cardinal said.

“According to the Second Vatican Council spiritual ecumenism is the heart of ecumenism,” Cardinal Kasper affirmed. “This means: personal conversion of the heart, sanctification of life, of shared Bible study and above all of prayer. We as weak human beings cannot ‘make’ or organize the unity of the Church; unity is a gift of the Spirit. We have to pray for the Spirit to make ours the prayer of Jesus on the eve of his suffering and death ‘that all may be one.’

“Spiritual ecumenism is also an ecumenism that is not reduced to academic circles and academic dialogue or to a kind of Church diplomacy. All this is important, but it is too far away from the basis of the Church. In spiritual ecumenism everybody can participate. This is important for the reception of the ecumenical documents, because without reception in the body of the Church they remain just pieces of paper.”

1 Comment

  1. Before Cardinal Kasper says anything further,he would do well to consider the numbers of former Roman Catholics who have left that body to become Orthodox, and who would revolt en masse at anything remotely resembling another “false union with Rome.”

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