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from issue no. 01 - 2004

The delicate problem of the Greek-Catholic Patriarchy in the Ukraine

And Bartholomew wrote to the Pope...

by Gianni Valente

«I would like to draw your attention to a very serious question… It is the matter in particular of your intention of setting up the united [Greek-Catholic, ed] Patriarchy in the Ukraine, an intention that has been communicated to our brother Alexis Patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia by Your Cardinal Walter Kasper, as the Patriarch of Moscow informed me». So, in the opening lines, the recent letter sent directly to John Paul II by Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew I on the suggested papal recognition of the rank of patriarchy to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church goes straight to the point.
The Patriarch’s long letter bears the date 29 November 2003 and indirectly confirms the top level of the discussions going on in Rome and between the Vatican and the Orthodox Churches on the subject of the recognition of the Greek-Catholic Patriarchy in the Ukraine. Bartholomew reveals that Patriarch Alexis II “passed on” to him and to all the Orthodox patriarchs the letter sent to Moscow by the Vatican to make clear papal intentions on the delicate question. He also adds that the letter had attached a “a backing document” of an historico-canonical nature on the genesis and development of the institution of the patriarchiates, attributed by the Ecumenic Patriarch to the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for the promotion of Christian unity.
Good part of Bartholomew’s long and speculative letter consists precisely in a cogent confutation of this study, strewn with quotations from the canons of the first ecumenical Councils. According to the Patriarch, the text send to him by the German Cardinal contains «baseless interpretations» that «could be considered an anachronistic return to the medieval schemes of theological debate», when Catholic theologians used arguments «against the throne of Constantinople and the very institution of the patriarchates» in order to legitimate «the theory of papal primacy».
Bartholomew first of all challenges the document in question the tendency to interpret the imperial will as the prevailing factor in the historical genesis of the patriarchates (and in particular that of Constantinople). According to him it is easy to show that already in the first three centuries «not only the synodal institution but also the primacy of honorary seniority of the more important ecclesiastical sees (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Carthage, Ephesus, et cetera)» had taken shape in the Church, had taken form, to deal with such grave issues as the periods of persecution and the defense of the faith from heresies. «This tradition working in the first three centuries was consecrated as ancient custom (archaion ethos) in canons 6 and 7 of the first ecumenical Council Nicea (325) and constituted the canonical basis of the definitive configuration of the patriarchal system with the fourth ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451)». Then, according to Bartholomew, «the description of the patriarchal system as an imperial construction of the time of Justinian can be characterized as anti-historical. If, for the sake of hypothesis, this description had any value, it should be attributed with more reason to the See of Rome, See of the capital city of the Roman Empire, titular of the honorary primacy of seniority among the five patriarchal thrones» [Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, ed]. Bartholomew’s historical reconstruction stresses that even the papal delegates to the ecumenical Councils in question were not opposed to the form of the emergent patriarchal system: «The Cardinal knows well that the Bishops of Rome up to the schism between the Churches of East and West behaved and considered themselves as patriarchs of the West». But not even the real multiplication of the patriarchates in the East, brought about in the wake of controversies and doctrinal breaks following on the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, can according to Bartholomew be used as an historical argument to justify in some way the recognition of a new patriarchate for the Ukrainian Catholics of Oriental rite. Bartholomew averts that «setting the canonical system of the patriarchal thrones on the same plane as the Nestorian patriarchates and of the anti-Chalcedonians contradicts the papal position before the great schism», when the Bishop of Rome, in communion with the Church of Constantinople, agreed the break with the Nestorians and with those who had not accepted the canons of the Council of Chalcedon.
After the long historico-canonical excursus, Bartholomew’s letter (which resulted also in Greek on the website of the Ecumenic Patriarchate) warns of the possible negative consequences of an eventual recognition of the patriarchal title to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church: «It will provoke strong reactions from all the Orthodox sister Churches and will destroy the attempts for continuation of the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches, which after the failure of the Baltimore meeting is going through a critical moment». According to Bartholomew there is «the danger of returning to the climate of hostility that reigned up to a few decades ago. Hence it is necessary that you assure with persuasive force the Ukrainian people and all the Orthodox Churches that you do not intend to set hand to the institution of a Greek-Catholic patriarchate in the Ukraine as reported in the text of Cardinal Kasper».
It’s not difficult to imagine that Kasper will also speak of this with Patriarch Alexis II, head of the Orthodox Russian Church, and with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk-Kaliningrad, in the their coming meeting in Moscow announced for the third week of February.

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