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Priest in dialogue group thinks Copt decision is temporary

Coptic Orthodox bishops

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John Burger - published on 03/24/24

Vatican document on blessings is cause for concern for Coptic Orthodox Church, which suspended ecumenical dialogue.

A Catholic member of an international dialogue group with Oriental Orthodox Churches believes that a recently announced suspension of talks is “a temporary issue.”

“I think the Coptic Church, as well as the other Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church, are all committed to this work for unity, this initiative for unity,” said Chorbishop John Faris, a Maronite priest who has been a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches since 2019. 

He told Aleteia that even during the commission’s January meeting in Rome, when the Coptic Orthodox delegates announced that they are withdrawing from the dialogue, “the relationship between everybody was still warm, and not simply cordial but affectionate.”

“I truly consider all of the people on the Orthodox side friends, and we really do sincerely interact in that way,” Msgr. Faris said. “It’s beyond formality.”

The interruption to the dialogue seems to be due to the declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings, published last December by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document, which allows priests to bless individuals in homosexual relationships and other irregular situations, has elicited similar backlash from other Eastern Churches, as well as from Catholic pastors in Africa

In early March, the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, met at St. Bishoy’s Monastery in Wadi El-Natrun, Egypt, and announced suspension of dialogue with the Catholic Church to “reevaluate the results achieved by the dialogue from its beginning 20 years ago, and establish new standards and mechanisms for the dialogue to proceed in the future.”

Although the synod’s statement did not mention Fiducia Supplicans, an accompanying statement on the Church’s beliefs regarding sexuality said:

“God gave man free will for the purpose of living according to His holy will, and to live according to God’s divine design for marriage: a male uniting with a female. … Whoever suffers from homosexual tendencies and controls themselves from sexual behaviors, the control is credited to them as a struggle. … As for someone who falls into homosexual behaviors, they are like the heterosexuals who fall into the sin of adultery/fornication, needing true repentance. Both need continuous spiritual and psychological follow-up.

“As for those who choose to reconcile with their homosexual tendencies, letting go of themselves to homosexual acts, rejecting spiritual and psychological treatment, and choosing of their own free will to break God’s commandment, their condition becomes worse than the one who lives in [struggle against] adultery/fornication. Therefore, they must be warned and cut off from communion until they repent.”

Dissatisfaction

The suspension of dialogue seemed to be on the horizon already on December 23, when Bishop Kyrillos, an auxiliary bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii, who serves as co-president of the Joint International Commission, sent a “Request for Clarification on ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ from the Oriental Orthodox Churches” to the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. The first session of the dialogue commission in Rome a month later included what Msgr. Faris called “a long discussion” about “Fiducia Supplicans.”

Oriental Orthodox members found the unofficial written response from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to be “insufficient” and asked for further clarification, due to the likelihood that the issue might be discussed by many of their synods.

“They expressed their dissatisfaction,” Faris said. 

On Friday, January 26, Pope Francis received the members of the Commission in a private audience at the end of their meeting.

In his greeting, Bishop Kyrillos said, “At the present time we face a real and serious issue relating to the concepts of marriage, baptism, and blessings. We cannot underestimate the impact these issues can have in our dialogue. In 2003, our holy synod decided to stop our dialogue with the Anglican Church due to similar challenges.”

Aleteia reached out to Bishop Kyrillos and other Coptic Orthodox bishops for comment. 

Milestone

In spite of the controversy, the meeting had a celebratory tone. It took place on the 20th anniversary of the dialogue, which is an effort to find a path to restoring communion between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches. 

Not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which have their own dialogue with Rome, the Oriental Orthodox are those Churches that do not accept any ecumenical councils after the 5th-century Council of Chalcedon. In addition to the Coptic Church, they include the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of all Armenians, Holy Etchmiadzin), the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias), the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahido Church.

A major point of contention has been, historically, the understanding of the nature of Christ. According to Jesuit Fr. Steven Hawkes-Teeples, in a handbook on Eastern Christians published by the Knights of Columbus:

“Chalcedon worked out theological explanations of Who Christ is using the Greek Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Their famous phrase is, of course, that Christ is one person in two natures. Unfortunately for the Coptic Egyptians, the Syriac Antiochenes, and the Armenians, this sort of philosophical distinction did not make much sense within their understanding of theology. They also saw no need to create new theological formulas. It seemed that the older, traditional theology they had had up to that point was perfectly good. Despite the many accusations against them, it is clear that they have always believed and always held that Jesus was both fully human and fully God.”

A major breakthrough in resolving the dispute came in 1988, when the Mixed Commission of the Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a “Common Formula on Christology:”

”We believe that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity one with His Divinity without mixture nor mingling, nor confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His Humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.”

Multilateral approach?

Msgr. Faris, who is pastor of St. Anthony Maronite Catholic in Glen Allen, Virginia, said that the Copts’ dissatisfaction with “Fiducia” can be understood, “because they are in a very different cultural situation and political situation than we are in the West, in Western Europe and in North America.” 

The Coptic Church, with its patriarchate based in Alexandria, Egypt, is the largest Christian minority in Egypt, which is about 10% Christian. There is also a small Coptic Catholic Church, based in Cairo. 

“But really, I don’t know whether as Churches we should start the process of challenging each other in the governance of our own Churches,” Faris continued. “It’s kind of a dangerous path to start because in the world today there are many Churches that are doing things and having policies that the Catholic Church would not exactly agree with. But I don’t think it’s on the part of the Catholic Church to go challenge them.”

The priest also speculated about the possibility that the controversy over “Fiducia” is a “pretext on the part of some to put a kibosh on ecumenical dialogue.”

“Pope Tawadros, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pope Francis both have bishops in their Churches who don’t agree with the dialogue and are doing everything they can to take the Church in a different direction.”

Faris said that the Coptic side has not yet presented to their synod for approval the last statement produced by the commission, in 2022, on “The Sacraments in the Life of the Church.”

“I think that there are people on the Orthodox side … that are not exactly happy with the pace we are going, with actually the successes we were meeting,” Faris said. 

In addition to the statement on the sacraments, the dialogue has issued statements on “The Nature, Constitution and Mission of the Church” (2009) and “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and Its Implications for Our Search for Communion Today” (2015).

Faris, who is a canon lawyer, previously served as Deputy Secretary General of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and has extensive experience traveling throughout the Middle East and working with local Churches there. He suggested that the dialogue with other Oriental Orthodox Churches might continue, even while the Copts consider their future steps. 

“Maybe we need to not consider [the Oriental Orthodox] as just one body any longer, that one group is going to determine what all the other participants are doing so that one could slow things up or one could move things faster,” he said. “Maybe it could be almost like a multilateral dialogue where each Church would endorse statements or deny endorsement or endorse with criticism, and allow each Church to speak for itself, rather than grouping all of these Churches together.”

“But again, I’m very optimistic about this group,” he concluded. “It’s a wonderful group of people. And I think we can make progress. This is a bump in the road, and maybe necessary. Maybe at times we need to pause and just say, Where are we going? And are we doing things the best way?”

Tags:
Coptic ChristiansEastern ChristianEcumenismHomosexuality
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