Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
The recent visit of Pope Francis to the Phanar for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Thronal Feast of St. Andrew has attracted significant attention.
Responses have varied greatly, from exaltation to condemnation to a shrug of the shoulders, as if this is yet one more “merely symbolic” event without any practical promise.
Yet symbols have power, as all Orthodox Christians know. Understanding the purpose of this weekend’s symbolism requires attention to its “genre.”
Pope Francis’ visit on November 29-30 was the most recent event in what is called the “dialogue of love,” which has been taking place for fifty years. The “dialogue of love” entails Orthodox and Catholic leaders meeting together on high occasions, exchanging official greetings, and expressing solidarity in the face of common challenges (e.g. the persecution of Christians in the Middle East).
It is only because of these intentionally symbolic events, which highlight that which is common between us — belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior, as articulated in the ancient creed of the Church — that another equally important encounter between East and West is taking place: the “dialogue of truth.”
The “dialogue of truth” involves official theological dialogues, which occur on the international and local levels amongst senior church leaders and theologians. Through earnest and honest study, especially of the doctrinal authorities we hold in common (the Bible, as well as the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils of the first thousand years of Church history), the “dialogue of truth” seeks to clarify and potentially resolve disputes over points of doctrine and ecclesial life. While its purpose is not polemical, its focus is dogmatic; it seeks to understand other Christians and at the same time give witness to the truth of Orthodoxy.
Not surprisingly, the “dialogue of truth” is no easy thing. Christian division is very real and, unfortunately, very deep. A bit of symbolic good will and charity is sometimes what is needed to keep things going.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Ecumenical Patriarch at the Phanar in 2006, the encounter revived and reinvigorated the international Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue, which had, in reality, suffered a complete impasse. Thanks to the good will engendered by that one instance of the “dialogue of love,” the “dialogue of truth” restarted with renewed commitment and productivity.
Since then, great strides have been made in tackling the thorny issue of papal primacy. The Roman Catholic Church has moved away from the medieval papal claims and, in many ways, is in the process of reviewing and renewing her theological understanding of the unity of the Church, including such issues as synodality and primacy. For that we can thank not only the 20th century patristic ressourcement in Roman Catholic theology but also, in large part, the ecumenical dialogue of recent decades — based on the Word of God and the ancient Tradition of the Church, and conducted in a spirit of mutual respect between East and West.
Although some seem to think otherwise, both dialogues — love and truth — support and complement each other. As Fr. Georges Florovsky observed, charity can never be set against truth. Most Orthodox understand Fr. Florovsky’s point: a latitudinarian approach to Christian division, which downplays doctrinal difference, can never be truly Orthodox. Yet, as St. Augustine reminds us, charity is the first principle of Christian hermeneutics, and is crucial to the knowledge of truth itself. Without charity, without bonds of affection and solidarity in the name of Christ, a constructive dialogue of truth is impossible.
We have yet to see what, exactly, will come from the high-profile meetings of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Tangible fruits take time, but experience reveals that without the “dialogue of love” there is no “dialogue of truth.”