Despite centuries of theological, liturgical and political controversies between East and West, most Orthodox and Catholic observers believe that today those differences could be understood as healthy diversity, rather than motives for schism. At bottom, there is only one real remaining obstacle to unity, but it's a whopper: the role and power of the pope, summed up in the word "primacy."
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In short, the Orthodox are quite adamant that structural unity will probably never come about, but say that ecumenism should be directed toward issues of common interest: secularization, etc. A Roman attendee was more optimistic on structural unity.
"In the Orthodox world, even the patriarch can't celebrate Mass outside his own diocese without the permission of the local bishop, and sometimes it is refused," he said. "The bishop enjoys a quasi-absolute position."
Another factor, he said, is political.
"There is a small percentage of fanatics in the Orthodox church who see Rome as the enemy, but they have a strong hold on the bishops, who don't want to rile them," Vassiliadis said.
"I think we can enrich one another's theology, we can get to know one another better, and I think we can work together on things we both care about - the fight for the soul of Europe, for example," Vassiliadis said. "To expect more than that is probably asking too much."
One step forward, Vassiliadis said, would be for the Orthodox to do for Catholics what Catholics have already done for Orthodox -- recognize them as "sister churches."
"Catholics recognize the validity of our ministries and sacraments, but it's not as clear from the Orthodox side," he said. "I think it would be very helpful to clarify this."
The senior Catholic official who was optimistic on unity also discussed with Allen the prospects of a papal visit to Constantinople. The Patriarch wants the Pope to come. The Pope wants to go, but the Turkish government is hesitant.
Padovese confirmed something that has long been rumored, which is that the hold-up in terms of making the visit official comes from the Turkish civil government, not the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, which is eager for the visit. It's the opposite of the situation in Russia, where Putin's government has said it has no problem with a papal visit, but it's blocked by the Russian Orthodox.
Why is the Turkish government skittish?
"In part, it has to do with the internal politics of Turkey," Padovese said. "The trip will not be accepted by all. Not everybody wants a dialogue with the Western world, or with the Christian church. There are radical circles within Islam that the government has to worry about," he said.
Padovese said security is undoubtedly also a concern.
I asked if Joseph Ratzinger's reservations about Turkey's admission to the European Union, expressed before he was elected pope, were also a factor.
"If he comes, it would give him the chance to make his views a little more precise," Padovese said. "It was presented in the Turkish press like a complete refusal [of Turkey's candidacy], but it's more open than that."
Padovese speculated that the government may be waiting to formally announce the invitation to the pope until after Oct. 3, when negotiating sessions on membership with the EU begin. If it seems clear from the outset that the negotiations are going well, it would be easier to manage any domestic opposition to the pope's arrival; further, inviting the pope at that time would be an ideal way for Turkey to demonstrate its openness to the West, as well as its capacity to handle security and logistics for the travel of major world leaders.
If the talks go well? In the current political environment, it would be unwise for the Turks to pin the Pope's visit on if the talks go well.