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Catholic, Orthodox theologians agree on first new text since 2016

A joint commission of Catholic and Orthodox theologians reached agreement this week on a new document addressing synodality and primacy in the modern era.  

The iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Evangelismos in Alexandria, Egypt. Roland Unger via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).


Members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church approved the text “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today” at a meeting in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. 

It is the first time in almost seven years that the commission has approved a new document, following the 2016 text “Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium.” 

The meeting, hosted by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, took place at a time of considerable ecumenical turbulence, driven by the Ukraine war.

In addition to an 18-strong Catholic delegation — led by Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity — 24 representatives of 10 autonomous Orthodox Churches took part.

The Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches are respectively the world’s first- and second-largest Christian communions.

Historians date the division between Eastern and Western Christians to the Great Schism in 1054, but the separation of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches was a long process driven by political as well as theological differences.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians continue to disagree over the precise nature of the Bishop of Rome’s relationship with other sees, with different perspectives on “papal primacy of jurisdiction,” also known simply as “primacy.”

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have synodal structures, meaning that synods of bishops play a fundamental role within the autonomous Churches. Pope Francis has launched a worldwide process aimed at promoting “synodality” in the Catholic Church.

The commission said in a communiqué that participants were presented with a draft of the new text at the start of the June 1-7 meeting.

It said: “A first reading of the text over several days brought numerous suggested amendments and revisions, which were then implemented by a drafting committee composed of three Orthodox and three Roman Catholic members. During the discussion there was an exchange of different views.” 

“The revised text was then submitted to the plenary, which discussed it in detail and reached agreement on the document … Disagreement with some paragraphs of the document was expressed by the delegation of the Patriarchate of Georgia.”

The communiqué noted that the theologians had sought to achieve “as far as possible a common reading” of the history of synodality and primacy in the East and West in the second millennium (between the years 1001 and 2000).

The document, which runs to almost 7,000 words in English, says that “major issues complicate an authentic understanding of synodality and primacy in the Church.” 

“The Church is not properly understood as a pyramid, with a primate governing from the top, but neither is it properly understood as a federation of self-sufficient Churches,” it says. 

“Our historical study of synodality and primacy in the second millennium has shown the inadequacy of both of these views.”

It concludes that “the interdependence of synodality and primacy is a fundamental principle in the life of the Church” and the principle “should be invoked to meet the needs and requirements of the Church in our time.”

Orthodox participants represented the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of Romania, the Patriarchate of Georgia, the Church of Cyprus, the Church of Greece, the Church of Poland, the Church of Albania, and the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

Absent from the list provided by the Vatican were other autocephalous Orthodox Churches such as the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church, highlighting the tensions within Orthodoxy over ecumenism and other matters.

In 2019, Patriarch Theodore II recognized the autonomy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), prompting the Russian Orthodox Church to sever ties with his Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa and create a rival Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa.

The joint international commission was established by the Holy See and 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches. There are separate commissions for theological dialogue with the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East.

The Orthodox Church joint commission has previously approved documents at Rhodes (1980), Munich (1982), Bari (1987), Valamo (1988), Balamand (1993), and Ravenna (2007), as well as the 2016 document in Chieti. The new text will also be known as the “Alexandria Document.”

At a June 1 opening ceremony in Alexandria, Patriarch Theodore II stressed the need for “sincerity, honesty, and mutual respect” in theological dialogue.

“The course of the theological dialogue between the two Churches to date has shown us that in order to start a dialogue, conditions of mutual trust and goodwill must be created. Conditions of freedom and love. This is very important,” he said.

On behalf of Pope Francis, Cardinal Koch, the commission’s Catholic co-chairman, gave Theodore II a copy of St. Peter’s Square’s foundation stone, laid in 1657. 

On June 3, the patriarch attended a Catholic liturgy celebrated by Koch at St. Catherine’s Cathedral, the cathedral of the Apostolic Vicariate of Alexandria of Egypt.

Also present were Metropolitan Job of Pisidia, the commission’s Orthodox co-chairman, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, and the U.S. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a member of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

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