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Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church

The origins of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue can be traced back to the warming of relations that took place between the two churches in the 1960s. From the Catholic perspective, the convocation of the Second Vatican Council – at which Orthodox observers played a significant role behind the scenes – heralded a greater appreciation of Orthodoxy. A positive evaluation of the Orthodox is found in the Council documents, including a favorable assessment of their many legitimate traditions that diverge from Latin practice, and an unqualified recognition of the validity of Orthodox sacraments. From the Orthodox perspective, the third pan-Orthodox conference (Rhodes 1964) encouraged the local Orthodox Churches to engage in studies preparing for an eventual dialogue with the Catholic Church.

Both sides realized, however, that before any fruitful theological dialogue could take place, there would have to be an increase in confidence and trust between Orthodox and Catholics. This would be accomplished through a “dialogue of charity,” marked by historic encounters and symbolic gestures that began in January 1964 with the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in Jerusalem. In a common declaration issued by them simultaneously in Rome and Istanbul on 7 December 1965, the mutual excommunications of 1054 were lifted and “erased from the memory” of the Church. In 1967 the Pope and Patriarch exchanged visits in Rome and Istanbul.

This more positive atmosphere made possible the establishment in 1976 of a joint commission to prepare for an official dialogue. In 1978 it submitted a document to the authorities of both churches in which it recommended that the goal of the dialogue be clearly defined as the reestablishment of full communion. It proposed a methodology according to which the dialogue would concentrate first on the many areas that the two churches have in common, establishing a firm theological foundation with a new theological language that would enable them at a later stage to address effectively the more divisive issues. The commission recommended that the sacraments be considered first, especially as they relate to ecclesiology.

The official announcement of the beginning of the theological dialogue was made jointly by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios I in Istanbul on 30 November 1979. This new “Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church” was to include bishops and theologians in equal numbers from both churches, the Orthodox side including representatives from all of the autocephalous and autonomous churches.

The first plenary session took place on the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes in 1980. This was an organizational meeting that unanimously adopted the plan for dialogue set forth in the 1978 document and chose initial themes for examination. Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, President of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and Archbishop Stylianos of Australia (Ecumenical Patriarchate) were named as co-presidents.

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