The Primacy Problem (Catholic and Orthodox)

In an interview with the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk talks about his first official visit to Rome in September as chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Affairs. He offers a caution about any Catholic-Orthodox union, something that media reports and at least one Catholic bishop said was imminent. In pointing out that the Roman Catholic understanding of the primacy of the bishop of Rome was a chief sticking point, Archbishop Hilarion also observed that the Orthodox have primacy issues, too. At least from the Russian perspective.

NCR: Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow was recently very optimistic about Catholic-Orthodox unity, saying it could possibly happen in a matter of months. What is your reaction to Archbishop Pezzi’s words, and what is your analysis of the current progress towards reunification?

Pope Benedict and Archbishop Hilarion

Pope Benedict and Archbishop Hilarion

Archbishop Hilarion: I would be more cautious with regard to progress towards unity between the two Churches. Yes, I agree that the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches have a common understanding on issues concerning social and economic ethics, personal morality, family, bioethics and other topical issues facing the modern society.

This agreement enables our Churches already now to bear common witness to Christian ideals in the face of the secular world. A perfect unity between Churches however presupposes first of all harmony in faith, and here the situation appears to me to be more complicated.

The Joint Commission for Orthodox-Catholic Theological Dialogue now begins discussing the most important issue — though not the only one that divides the Catholics and the Orthodox — concerning the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the universal Church.

Unlike Archbishop Pezzi, I do not think we can reach a perfect agreement on this point in a matter of a few months. I have already had to point out that the problem of primacy within the universal Church has not been settled even within the world Orthodoxy.

It will considerably impede progress in the Orthodox-Catholic discussion on this problem. In the course of the dialogue, we can only reaffirm our ecclesiological self-understanding, and we are not entitled to invent some new ecclesiology to bring the order of the Orthodox Church closer to the Catholic model.

The official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has been lasting for 30 years now, and its achievements are obvious. However, it has a number of essential flaws. The principal among them I believe is a tendency of both parties to discuss what brings them together rather than what divides them. Each session of the dialogue is aimed at working out a statement in which both sides tend to smooth away their differences as far as possible, as if making believe that these differences do not exist at all. This results in the emergence of a “convergence statement,” which can be read by each side as it wishes while differences remain, as it were, offscreen, being glossed over, leveled out and hushed up.

If ecclesiological differences between East and West are not stated honestly and examined thoroughly, what unity can we speak about?

Therefore, we will continue serious theological dialogue in a responsible, honest and unhurried way for the sake of the triumph of Truth. We will go deeper into the history and Church tradition of each other, getting rid of mutual prejudices and stereotypes which have developed for a millennium-long division between Christians in East and West. After all, we will work together in the social sphere, bearing witness before the modern society to the Gospel’s eternal Truth.

Read “Catholic-Orthodox (Pipe) Dream?” here.


  1. we can only reaffirm our ecclesiological self-understanding, and we are not entitled to invent some new ecclesiology to bring the order of the Orthodox Church closer to the Catholic model.


    It may also be noted unity is not something that can be (super)imposed. Such a unity (if we could call it that) would cause more problems.

  2. I would offer Apostolic Canon 34 as the only primacy that exists and refer to my essay on the Ravenna document signed in October 2007.

    • Canon 34 would require major concessions on Rome’s part.

      This brings us ante 1056 where Canon 34 provides justification for the schism.

      We go around in circles.

      What is meant or envisioned by this elusive “unity”? Doctrinal unity? Unity of ecclesiological organization? Hierachial unity? These mean vastly different things! It is not altogether clear to me what the goal is here.

      Unity is seductive.

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