Communion, Conciliarity and Authority
The Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church recently held their tenth plenary session in Ravenna, Italy from 8-14 October 2007. The fruit of that dialogue is a new document, entitled Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority. The text of the document can be found here.
Cardinal Walter Kasper and Metropolitan John Zizioulas led the respective delegations and were deeply involved in the work. That is about as good a theological “dream team” as I can imagine. Kasper’s comments on the document can be found here, and he is appropriately sober about what it represents. That sobriety has, alas, been absent from some of the press coverage, which seemed to suggest that the Catholics and the Orthodox were on the verge of putting the Great Schism behind them. I’m afraid we’re still very far from that point.
One interesting point for me is the (albeit limited) discussion of national episcopal conferences in the Catholic Church:
29. In subsequent centuries, both in the East and in the West, certain new configurations of communion between local Churches have developed. New patriarchates and autocephalous Churches have been founded in the Christian East, and in the Latin Church there has recently emerged a particular pattern of grouping of bishops, the Episcopal Conferences. These are not, from an ecclesiological standpoint, merely administrative subdivisions: they express the spirit of communion in the Church, while at the same time respecting the diversity of human cultures.
30. In fact, regional synodality, whatever its contours and canonical regulation, demonstrates that the Church of God is not a communion of persons or local Churches cut off from their human roots. Because it is the community of salvation and because this salvation is “the restoration of creation” (cfr. St Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 1, 36, 1), it embraces the human person in everything which binds him or her to human reality as created by God. The Church is not just a collection of individuals; it is made up of communities with different cultures, histories and social structures.
The language used is very careful and it probably cannot be used to score points in the ongoing debate within the Catholic Church about “theological status” of national episcopal conferences. Still, the statement that such conferences, as regional groupings of local churches, are not “merely merely administrative subdivisions” but “express the spirit of communion in the Church” is an important one to reflect on. It also suggests that the role of conferences within the Catholics Church has implications for our dialogue with the Orthodox.
The statement, of course, has no official status within either the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church at this point. It will have to be “received” and pondered prayerfully by both. I think we can all pray that this reception would be fruitful.