Last week, Catholic blogs lit up with optimistic headlines such as "Is Catholic-Orthodox Unity in Sight?" They were prompted by two events: an interview given to Italy's Corriere della Sera by the Catholic archbishop of Moscow, Paolo Pezzi; and the first visit to Rome of Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the president of the Department for External Church Affairs of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow.
The interview with Archbishop Pezzi does indeed paint a rosy picture. According to the National Catholic Register, the archbishop declared that reunification "is possible, indeed it has never been so close," and he predicted that it "could happen soon, also within a few months."
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches (particularly the Russian Orthodox Church) have greatly improved in recent years. The Orthodox view Pope Benedict XVI more favorably than they did Pope John Paul II for a variety of reasons, including his theological rigor and his attention to the liturgy. And the recent election of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I has placed a relatively young, and decidedly ecumenical, clergyman at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In fact, Patriarch Kirill previously held the position that Bishop Hilarion now holds, and, as the National Catholic Register notes, in that position "met Benedict on several occasions before and after he became Pope."
Still, despite all of these positive signs, there are reasons to doubt Archbishop Pezzi's assessment. The previous patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, had stated that the election of Pope Benedict opened up the possibility of cooperation between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches on moral and cultural questions, without first settling the question of unity.
During his visit to Rome from September 15 through September 20, 2009, Archbishop Hilarion echoed Patriarch Alexy, noting "the similarity between Catholic and Orthodox teaching on marriage and family life," which he contrasted with "Protestant communities which had pursued the liberalization of the Christian teaching."
In one important sense, however, Archbishop Hilarion went further than Patriarch Alexy ever had, stating that "We should clearly understand, that division is sin, tearing apart body of Church and weakening the power of Christian witness in secular world," and reminding his listeners that "Each of us, conscientiously fulfilling a task the Church has given him or her, is called to personally contribute in treasury of Christian sanctity and work to achieve God-commanded Christian unity."
Both Catholics and Orthodox agree that Christ's prayer that "they may be one, as You, Father, and I are One" requires that the Church be visibly united—not simply on moral and cultural matters, but ecclesiastically. But while we need to pray for unity with the East, we should not be surprised that a millennium of division will be hard to repair.
As one Catholic friend on Twitter remarked after I posted a link to a story about Archbishop Pezzi's interview, "If it takes years to fix the SSPX schism, I don't see how the Orthodox could be resolved in months." Indeed. Yet with the Holy Spirit, of course, all things are possible.