Orthodoxy Cannot be Afraid of Dialogue

Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas: “Orthodoxy Cannot be Afraid of Dialogue”

Metropolitan Ioannis (John) Zizioulas of Pergamon is undoubtedly one of the most influential orthodox theologians of our age. With his concept of eucharistic ecclesiology he has led Orthodox theologians towards a less scholastic way of thinking. His openness for inter-confessional relationships was crucial for starting an institutional dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church in the second half of the 20th Century. This is the reason why he received an honorary doctorate from the Catholic Theology Department of the University of Münster in Westphalia, Germany. On the 2nd of June, Metropolitan Ioannis was made doctor honoris causa together with the Rev. Ishmael Noko, Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation. In an interview with the Germany-based Serbian Orthodox News Agency SOK AKTUELL (Serbian Orthodox Church News), Metropolitan Ioannis discussed his experiences in the ecumenical dialogue, some extreme movements in the Orthodox societies and his contacts with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

-Your Eminence, may I congratulate you for the honorary doctorate you will today receive from Münster University. Is this for you an act of a purely academic or rather of an ecumenical recognition?

Metropolitan Ioannis: I think it is both, in a sense. It is an academic recognition, coming from a renowned and a very important university. It is an honour for me to receive it. At the same time: everything I am and I do, both as a theologian and in general, belongs to the Church, because I devoted myself to it. All the honours I receive are extended to the Church to which I belong and to which I serve. I regard this recognition also as an appreciation of the Orthodox Church by the Roman Catholic Church and the University of Münster

– You are, together with Cardinal Kasper, Co-President of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church. How would you describe the present state of this dialogue and what are your expectations for the future?

Metropolitan Ioannis: This dialogue is, I think, the most important theological dialogue we have at present. I don´t regard other dialogues as not important but I think this dialogue is particularly important because the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church share a common tradition, the entire first millennium, seven Ecumenical Councils, the same Church Fathers, the veneration of the Holy Mother of God and of the Saints. Thus, it is very important that these two churches entered into a dialogue process, as an effort to restore their full communion, which has been broken in the 11th century. This dialogue started in the spirit after Vatican II with the opening of the Roman Catholic Church for Ecumenism. It also started in the spirit of good relationships, especially of the Church of Constantinople under Patriarch Athenagoras and the Church of Rome under Pope Paul VI. I was involved in this dialogue from the very beginning and even took part in the preparations for the dialogue. The subject of this dialogue, the ecclesiology, is a most important subject. There are other differences of course, doctrinal differences, but I think we share a lot of common ground in ecclesiology. We can build on that ground. There are also differences in this area, particulary the differences concerning the question of the primacy and the Bishop of Rome. But the dialogue started from what unites us in ecclesiology and gradually we moved towards the problems we have to solve. As the basis we use the eucharistic ecclesiology, something that particularly the Orthodox have proposed, but which the Roman Catholics, after Vatican II, have accepted to a great extent.

The documents we produced so far: in Munich, Bari and even later in Ravenna, are all common documents which show that the basic principles of ecclesiology are common. Now, when we come to the differences, which are very serious, as I said, we will have to ask ourselves how we can justify our differences since we share this common ground. And that is now where we are.

We have now entered the discussion of the primacy, starting with the first millennium. It is our intention to see how the primacy of the Church of Rome was recognized universally and in what way and under what conditions it was recognized in the first millennium. And the main condition was of course that it was always exercised in the context of synodality. I think up to that point we have a convergence. After we finished the first millennium we will discuss the second millennium, which is the most difficult one, because at that time the Papacy developed without any communion with the East and rather in the spirit of polemics with the East. We will have to see how we can agree on the second millennium and what can be done about that. After we finish with the second millennium, which is a historical investigation, we´ll have to discuss the theological principles concerning the primacy: why the Church needs primacy and on what conditions it can be accepted. Thus, we have still of lot of work to do. We are not near a final agreement at all, but we are going, I think, in a good direction. As I always say, it is the Spirit of God that finally decides. We offer our humble efforts, but God will guide the whole thing.

I believe that if we continue in this spirit of mutual respect and love between the Churches, if we don´t start the polemic as in the past, and if we listen to each other carefully, we may make progress. In the past we received the lesson that it is possible to make progress if you listen to each other carefully.

– It is no secret that in the Orthodox world there exist certain groups which are not ready to “listen carefully”, as you put it. There are many organisations and individuals who oppose the very dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.

Metropolitan Ioannis: I think these people still live in the psychology of the second millennium when the Roman Catholic Church made many attempts to dominate the Orthodox. It is true that there was a strong suspicion that in every dialogue there is an attempt to bring the Orthodox under the domination of Rome. Thus, these people are afraid that this can happen again with the current dialogue. I can understand their fear, but I believe that what we will have to ask this people is, firstly, whether it is impossible that something may have changed in the attitude and the mentality of the Roman Catholic Church? Is it still certain that the Roman Catholic Church will operate in the way it operated in the second millennium? I think there are signs since Vatican II that the Roman Catholic Church has changed its attitude towards the Orthodox Church. They do not want to bring us under the domination of the Pope. And the other thing I ask these individuals is: what is wrong with speaking with people, even with enemies, even with those we do not fully trust and are suspicious of? I think there is no danger in speaking with them. The dialogue is not something we must be afraid of, because the Orthodox  will not lose anything by the dialogue. Unless we do not have self-confidence, and are afraid that we cannot present the Orthodox faith to the Roman Catholics faithfully. Than we have to say: “We are not ready for the dialogue because we do not think we can present our faith. We do not have theologians and theology that can present our faith faithfully.” If that is what they believe, I think it is wrong, because the Orthodox theology is very strong and it is respected, even very deeply, by the West in general. Therefore we must be self-confident. We have the true faith and we are able to confess our true faith faithfully. Up to this moment, no one has accused those who participate in the dialogue of not being faithful to the Orthodox faith. What they accuse them of, is that they speak with others, that they take part in the dialogue. This is totally unacceptable, because Orthodoxy cannot be afraid of the dialogue. This is what I say to these people. If they have a criticism to make as to whether we are faithful to the Orthodox faith: I will welcome that. But if they criticise us merely for having a dialogue with other people, than I cannot follow them.

We cannot stop the dialogue. We are responsible towards God. It is tragic if we are just satisfied with ourselves and do not care about the unity of the Church.

– One also notices certain insecurities regarding the preconcilliary meetings in Chambésy concerning the Bishops´ Conferences in the Orthodox diaspora. In some parts of the Orthodox society they are sentiments equalling almost to a suspicion that there is a tendency of domination by the Church of Constantinople. How do you see this process of regulating the diaspora?

Metropolitan Ioannis: I think, quite objectively speaking, that there is no sign at all that the Church of Constantinople can or would like to impose anything to the other churches. All our decisions have been made with the consent of all other churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople  has never decided anything referring to the Orthodox Church as a whole without consulting the other Patriarchs. Thus, this fear is unfounded. On the other hand we have to recognise that, as an Orthodox Church, we have to be somehow united and not be simply a confederation of churches. I always suffer when we are treated, by the Roman Catholics particularly but also by other Christians, as “churches” and not as a “Church”. And we offer them ground to think like that because we have not managed to have a synod for such a long time. How can you say you are united without being able to have a synod? I am afraid that many orthodox churches would like to stay in this situation: each as a separate church which is totally independent and has nothing to do with the other churches. I think this is wrong ecclesiology; it is very bad. And it does a lot of harm to the Orthodox Church. In order to appear as one Church we need to have someone who will coordinate the Orthodox churches. Now, if we do not like Constantinople to be our coordinator, let us have someone else. The tradition, our canonical structure has given us Constantinople. And that´s what Constantinople is doing: it coordinates the Orthodox Churches, so that they will appear as one Church and not as many churches. And I think we should all be grateful for that and not complain about it.

– The extremist views today are most frequently presented in the internet, which is becoming the leading medium of the century. People who would normally not be able to publish, can express their opinion publicly in the internet…

Metropolitan Ioannis: Yes, I know. It is true about the internet: anyone can say anything, so it is difficult to correct the views, if they are wrong. I hope an interview like this can help correct certain opinions. That is all we can do.

Serbian Theology Leading in the Orthodox World

– Your Eminence, you are very well known and highly respected in the Serbian Orthodox Church, also in Serbia generally. You hold an honorary doctorate from the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Belgrade. How would you describe your relationship with Serbia?

Metropolitan Ioannis: My relationship with the Serbian Orthodox Church is a very, very warm one. Also, on the level of personal relationships with  the people and particularly with the Serbian Orthodox theology; I notice that almost everything I write in English is already translated into Serbian even before it is published in the Greek language. That makes me feel that I am in constant theological contact with the Church in Serbia. I believe, judging from what I saw during my visits to Serbia, that at this moment the Serbian Orthodox theology is leading in the Orthodox theology as whole. It has very good theologians and goes in the right direction. I noticed young theologians from Serbia, who are in my view the most promising ones that I know. I met one of those excellent young Serbian theology students just yesterday, here in Münster.

The Serbian Orthodox Theology has, to a great extent, liberated itself from the influence of scholasticism, which is sometimes not true about theology in Greece, Romania and other places. There are still strong Western influences and unfortunately, we have not found our way as Orthodox theology just yet. But in Serbia, I think, theology is patristic and very Orthodox in the right way. Thus, I hope and expect that one day the Serbian Orthodox Church will lead the Orthodox world, theologically.

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