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LA Coptic bishop considers how dialogue will restart

Coptic pope and Roman pope

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE | AFP

John Burger - published on 04/18/24

Theological discussions between Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches need fresh voices, Los Angeles bishop says.

The road to Christian unity is full of stumbling blocks, and a new Vatican document on blessings has presented its own share of challenges. But a Coptic Orthodox bishop from Los Angeles believes a new way forward can be found.

Bishop Kyrillos, co-chairman of an international theological dialogue between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches, said that it would be helpful to supplement the “official” dialogue with unofficial consultations, primarily with scholars.

Kyrillos and Cardinal Kurt Koch co-chair the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

The Oriental Orthodox are a “family” of Churches that have not been in communion with the rest of the Church since a disagreement arose over the 5th-century Council of Chalcedon. In addition to the Coptic Church, they include the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahido Church. 

There is a separate theological dialogue between the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, such as the Greek, Ukrainian, and Russian Orthodox Churches.

The dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox celebrated its 20th anniversary while meeting at the Vatican in January. It was a cause for celebration, but one that was tempered by concerns being raised by ecumenical partners about the recently published Fiducia Supplicans, a declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith which authorizes priests to give non-liturgical blessings to persons in “irregular unions.”

On December 23, Bishop Kyrillos sent to the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity a “Request for Clarification on Fiducia Supplicans from the Oriental Orthodox Churches.” The Oriental Orthodox members found the ensuing response insufficient and asked for further clarification, due to the likelihood that the issue would be discussed by the synods of bishops in their respective Churches. They also requested that pastoral and moral issues be added to the agenda of the Commission.

As the members of the Dialogue gathered in Rome, Bishop Kyrillos said January 23 that the Commission faced “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.”

He added that in 2003, the Synod of Bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church “decided to stop our dialogue with the Anglican Church due to similar challenges. Recently it has resumed but not in theological or dogmatic terms, but simply in terms of exchange of visits and relationships.”

Several Catholic leaders also have been critical of Fiducia Supplicans or said it will not be applied in their jurisdictions

Cardinal Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, said in January that he had “received a long letter from all the Eastern Orthodox Churches” asking for explanations and clarifications on Fiducia Supplicans

Then, on March 7, the Synod of Bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it would “suspend the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church.” 

“After consulting with the sister Churches of the Eastern Orthodox family, it was decided to suspend the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, 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,” the Coptic Synod said in a statement.

While it did not cite Fiducia Supplicans, the synod simultaneously issued a statement reiterating the Church’s rejection of homosexuality as a “sexual perversion.”

Hitting difficult issues head on

In an interview April 11, Bishop Kyrillos, who in 2016 became the first American-born bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that in spite of the disagreement over blessings, the relationship between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches “has been the highest, I think, that it’s been in for centuries.”

While it’s unclear how and whether the dialogue can resume any time soon, Kyrillos pointed out that the Catholic-Eastern Orthodox dialogue – as well as a Catholic-Oriental dialogue that existed prior to 1973 – seemed to make better progress when ecumenical scholars “were at the table.” 

The Eastern Orthodox dialogue, he said, hits difficult issues head on. “It results in very tense meetings, very difficult meetings, and very slow meetings. They might not end up with any document and they might be at a stalemate. There may be issues that they don’t have solutions to.”

But while the methodology of the Catholic-Oriental Orthodox dialogue provides a more positive atmosphere and more reports, “the end result is much less than what it should be, because the difficult discussions and issues are not fully addressed,” he told Aleteia.

“I think that some healthy combination between the two will help. And so I proposed that at the end of our meeting in Rome,” he said.

“And we were kind of brainstorming how that could be, and I said, ‘Well, we need some time to kind of draft and think and see once we are able to find a solution for the second problem [of Fiducia Supplicans]. But one of the things we are going to consider is how that unofficial consultation can help the official dialogue.”

Last month, Chorbishop John Faris, a Maronite pastor in Virginia who is a member of the Catholic-Oriental Orthodox dialogue, said that he feels the impasse will be temporary.

“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,” he told Aleteia.

Meetings at highest levels

That spirit was on display last Friday when a delegation of French Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop Laurent Bernard Ulrich of Paris, visited Pope Tawadros II at his residence in Cairo. The French bishops were visiting Egypt on a pilgrimage.

“His Holiness Pope Tawadros II pointed out the importance of building relationships of love in Christ with all Churches,” according to a report of the Middle East Council of Churches. “For their part, the delegation of bishops expressed the good relationship that links them with the Coptic Church in France, and that the Catholic Churches are keen to open their doors to Copts in France to hold their prayers there. The guests also stressed their great appreciation and pride in the Coptic Orthodox Church and its ancient history, and the bonds of love that connect the two Churches.”

In addition, on February 15, Cardinal Koch presided over an ecumenical prayer in St. Peter’s Basilica for the first commemoration of the 21 Christian martyrs from Libya recognized by the Catholic Church last May 11 following a visit by Pope Tawadros to the Vatican [photo above]. These were the first saints recognized jointly by the two Churches since their split in the 5th century.

Nature of Christ

Historically, a major point of contention with the Oriental Orthodox has been 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.”

Remaining challenges

Kyrillos, 49, auxiliary bishop of the Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles, serves as Dean of the St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Theological School at Claremont University. He said that “there are a number of issues where we have been able to grasp things better and kind of present them in a way that is acceptable,” but challenges remain.

The bishop said that the documents of the Catholic-Oriental dialogue commission function more as “extended reports, but not necessarily joint statements in which we believe we have the same faith in all of these issues and then we signed as was typical in the earlier years of the dialogues.”

That was a concern that the Oriental Orthodox had raised for four or five years and, he said, “one of the main issues” behind their request for a suspension of the dialogue.

“While I always felt that the meetings were good, they were pretty much a preliminary form,” the bishop continued. “We never went to the second stage of, ‘Okay, how do we resolve these differences? We know where we are similar, but how do we resolve the differences? We only state them and write them and then we move on.’ So those concerns kept increasing with time. And so we found ourselves after 20 years, we haven’t resolved the major issues, and many of the people [who were on the commission] either retired, departed, or left the dialogue. So even those initial papers or the people who presented those issues, were not around. So it’s a real challenge for us.”

He said that in addition to issues that stemmed from the Council of Chalchedon there are a number of issues that arose in the Catholic Church that needed to be addressed, including the doctrine of purgatory, the salvation of non-believers, the sacraments, and the priesthood.

“For example, now we are speaking about the Immaculate Conception, but the Immaculate Conception involves the theology of original sin, so we had to extend [discussions], and we’re still in the middle of this challenging issue,” said Kyrillos, who holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and a Ph.D in History of Christianity from the University of Notre Dame School of Theology, among other degrees. 

He noted that in many cases, there are similar issues that the Catholic-Eastern Orthodox dialogue is trying to resolve. 

“On more than one occasion, I even voiced that it would be helpful even for us [Oriental Orthodox] to hear [their discussions], because they’re the same arguments, but they’re different people that are at the table,” the bishop said. “So say, for example, we could have a discussion about primacy or about Immaculate Conception or about original sin. And it’s very similar with Eastern Orthodox, but sometimes our perspective as Oriental is different. But it would be useful to see what is being addressed because there are a number of parallels that should be brought to the table.”

Tags:
Coptic ChristiansEastern ChristianEcumenismHomosexualityOrthodoxy
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