One thing that many Catholics today don’t realize is how controversial ecumenism still is in many Orthodox circles. Sure, the Catholic Church has pockets of resistance to ecumenism, and there can be some legitimate critiques about how ecumenism is practiced within the Catholic Church, but by and large most Catholics accept ecumenism as a valid activity of the Church. This is not the case inside Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox believers, after all, do not live in the West, where there is a great diversity of religious beliefs and dialogue between differing parties is considered ideal. Your typical Russian, for example, may never have met a Catholic, and only knows about the sad history between the two Churches, which is usually told from a decidedly pro-Orthodox viewpoint (as it is told from a decidedly pro-Catholic viewpoint in the West).
Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew, on the other hand, has been a prominent supporter of ecumenism. Over the years, he or his representatives have engaged in a multitude of ecumenical talks, ranging from encounters with Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and other Christian communities. Not surprisingly, this has opened him up to severe criticism within his own Orthodox Church. This past Sunday, he decided to respond to his critics in an Encyclical for the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the date is telling, for the Sunday of Orthodoxy is when the East liturgically celebrates the triumph of Orthodox Christianity over heretical groups).
A few excerpts:
Orthodoxy is not a museum treasure that must be preserved; it is a breath of life that must be transmitted and invigorate all people. Orthodoxy is always contemporary, so long as we promote it with humility and interpret it in light of the existential quests and needs of humanity in each historical period and cultural circumstance. To this purpose, Orthodoxy must be in constant dialogue with the world. The Orthodox Church does not fear dialogue because truth is not afraid of dialogue. On the contrary, if Orthodoxy is enclosed within itself and not in dialogue with those outside, it will both fail in its mission and no longer be the “catholic” and “ecumenical” Church. Instead, it will become an introverted and self-contained group, a “ghetto” on the margins of history…
Today, Orthodoxy is called to continue this dialogue with the outside world in order to provide a witness and the life-giving breath of its faith. However, this dialogue cannot reach the outside world unless it first passes through all those that bear the Christian name. Thus, we must first converse as Christians among ourselves in order to resolve our differences, in order that our witness to the outside world may be credible…
These dialogues, together with every effort for peaceful and fraternal relations of the Orthodox Church with other Christians, are unfortunately challenged today in an unacceptably fanatical way – at least by the standards of a genuinely Orthodox ethos – by certain circles that exclusively claim for themselves the title of zealot and defender of Orthodoxy. As if all the Patriarchs and Sacred Synods of the Orthodox Churches throughout the world, who unanimously decided on and continue to support these dialogues, were not Orthodox. Yet, these opponents of every effort for the restoration of unity among Christians raise themselves above Episcopal Synods of the Church to the dangerous point of creating schisms within the Church…
They disseminate false rumors that union between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches is imminent, while they know well that the differences discussed in these theological dialogues remain numerous and require lengthy debate; moreover, union is not decided by theological commissions but by Church Synods. They assert that the Pope will supposedly subjugate the Orthodox, because they latter submit to dialogue with the Roman Catholics! They condemn those who conduct these dialogues as allegedly “heretics” and “traitors” of Orthodoxy, purely and simply because they converse with non-Orthodox, with whom they share the treasure and truth of our Orthodox faith. They speak condescendingly of every effort for reconciliation among divided Christians and restoration of their unity as purportedly being “the pan-heresy of ecumenism” without providing the slightest evidence that, in its contacts with non-Orthodox, the Orthodox Church has abandoned or denied the doctrines of the Ecumenical Councils and of the Church Fathers.
Beloved children in the Lord, Orthodoxy has no need of either fanaticism or bigotry to protect itself. Whoever believes that Orthodoxy has the truth does not fear dialogue, because truth has never been endangered by dialogue.
I am very pleased to see the Ecumenical Patriarch address the problem of anti-ecumenical Orthodox so forcefully, and I pray that his witness will help, in some small way, bring us closer to union.
Sts. Peter and Andrew, pray for us!