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Conference in the Vatican on Catholics and Orthodox

Date de publication: 24.05.2017

Casino Pius IV, the seat of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City

Institute of Democracy and Cooperation (Paris)

Institute of Eurasian Studies (Pisa)

Pontifical Committee on Historical Sciences (Rome)

Conference held in the Casino Pius IV,

Vatican City, 24 May 2017


"Together in testimony of the faith, even unto martyrdom:

Catholics and Orthodox and the challenges of the 21st century."



Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity;

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith;

Franco Frattini, former Italian Foreign Minister, former European Commissioner;

Monsignor Iosif Tobij, Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo;

Alexander Avdeev, ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Holy See;

Cosimo Ferri, Minister of Justice, Vatican City State;

Natalia Narochnitskaya, president of IDC;

John Laughland, director of studies, IDC;

Andrea Giannotti, director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies.

Text of speech by John Laughland:

For a liturgy and an ecumenical dialogue "ad orientem": limits and possibilities for a new beginning.

John Laughland

Conference "Insieme nella testimonianza fino al martirio, Cattolici e Ortodossi e le sfide del XXI secolo"

Casina Pio IV, Vatican City, 24 May 2017


It is well known that, at the Second Vatican Council, Council fathers from Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands played a key role.  Bishops from these countries succeeded in imposing an agenda on the Council with which the Roman Curia had initially resisted.  To put matters very simply, the Catholics in these North-West European countries were united by a long history of influence from, and proximity to, liberalism and Protestantism.  Their influence on the Council was to some extent perceived as an attempt to de-Romanise the Catholic Church; to dilute Roman traditions, which were decried as medieval and baroque accretions to the primitive liturgy; and to dilute the monarchical power of the Papacy which Vatican I had reinforced.

The two key developments of the Council were ecumenism and liturgical reform.  These two elements were closely linked.  By reforming the liturgy, it was hoped that some obstacles would be removed to better relations with other Christian denominations, especially Protestants.  These twin developments have been described imaginatively if schematically by the title of a well-known history of Vatican II, "The Rhine Flows into the Tiber".[1]

We know from the historical record that the liturgical reform was explicitly done with a view to engineering a rapprochement with Protestants. Moreover, this pro-Protestant operation was undertaken at the expense of cooperation with the Orthodox. During the Council itself, a negative sign was given to the Orthodox sensitivities when the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs were seated below Roman cardinals in rank.  After the Council, Cardinal Annibale Bugnini recalled how, after six Protestant observers had been invited to attend the Consilium which worked on liturgical reform, the suggestion was also made to invite Orthodox observers.   "However, this idea was never followed up,"2] wrote Bugnini.  If Orthodox observers had been invited the history of the period after the Council, and of Christianity in general, might well have been very different. 

More than fifty years after the end of the Council, and after the introduction of the new Mass, we can see the attempt to grow closer to the Protestants, if this is what it was, has been a total failure.  Far from responding positively to the Catholic Church's overtures, during this period many episcopal Protestant churches have moved ever further away from Christian tradition and dogma.  The ordination of a divorced and practising homosexual bishop in the USA, and of women priests and then bishops in the Lutheran churches and the Anglican church, and the espousal by Protestants of ever more heretical positions on matters of faith and morals, are all demonstrations of the failure of this initiative taken with respect to the Protestants.

Ecumenism was not the only goal of the reformers.  Many of them wanted to reform the Catholic Church too, and indeed they pursued ecumenism partly as an instrument for reform.  The new role given to national episcopal conferences, which appeared to give national bishops more say, seemed to resemble the national structures of Protestants and Orthodox alike.

When Benedict XVI became Pope, he famously tried to row back some of the more audacious reforms which had come from the Council.  He dealt with this theme in one of his first speeches - his speech to the Roman Curia in December 2005 - and in his last, to the clergy of Rome after he had renounced the Papacy.  These two speeches gave different accounts of the Council and its failures but everyone remembers the concept of "the hermeneutic of continuity" which he introduced in the 2005 speech to the Roman Curia.  According to this doctrine, the Council should be interpreted as a continuation of Catholic tradition, not a break from it.  Benedict XVI devoted much of his Papacy to ensuring this hermeneutic of continuity in his own liturgical practice, and in the new liberty he accorded to the traditional Latin rite in the Motu proprio Summorum pontificum of 2007.

It seems to me that the doctrine of the hermeneutic of continuity must apply to the other central aspect of the Council, ecumenism.  Like the liturgical reform, ecumenical dialogue should be compatible with Catholic tradition; ideally, it should ideally even enrich it.  Where reforms have been excessive, or taken a wrong direction, then there should be a reform of the reform in ecumenism, just as Benedict XVI said there should be in the liturgy.  Cardinal Koch made this very point in a speech delivered to a conference on the traditional Latin Mass held in Rome in 2011, where he also indicated the ecumenical potential of a return to the traditional Mass.[3]

It is indeed true that Orthodox clerics have welcomed the Catholic Church's return to its own traditions.  In 2007, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church welcomed Summorum pontificum, saying that the traditional liturgy had helped the Russian church survive the persecutions of the 1920s and 1930s.4]  Both Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion have recalled that the Russian Orthodox Church suffered its own schism as a result of liturgical reform in the 17th century.

Unfortunately many Catholics have pursued ecumenism in the same revolutionary spirit as they pursued liturgical reform. They have sought, in particular, to instrumentalise ecumenism in order to effect radical change within the Catholic church, especially concerning the role of the Papacy.  Groups such as Wir sind Kirche, and the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, campaign for democratised and decentralised structures within the Catholic Church in order to advance their highly heterodox positions on matters of faith and morals. 5] After the publication of  Amoris laetitia, attempts have been observed at regional level, i.e. by national episcopal conferences, to adopt pastoral practices which are not in keeping with the universal dogma of the Church.  

This is where ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church becomes very interesting.  Traditionally, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have been divided not only on questions of authority but also on questions of dogma.  This appears to be no longer the case, or at least much less so than before.  At the Council of Florence-Ferrara, the delegates spent ten months discussing the filioque and only ten days discussing the primacy of Rome.6]  Now, no one discusses the filioque; instead, all discussion is focussed on the primacy of Rome (not, interestingly, on the infallibility of the Pope).  The Orthodox Churches have recognised the principle of the primacy of Rome at Ravenna in 20077]; at Chieti last year (2016)8] Catholics and Orthodox agreed to study the way this primacy was exercised in the first millennium.

The paradox, which is not without its amusing side, is that this debate about the rights of the Papacy is not a debate taking place only with other Churches.  It is, on the contrary, very alive within the Catholic Church today.  I have mentioned the way that progressive contest the rights of the Pope and of Rome in general.  But traditionalists also contest the rights and decisions of the Pope, albeit from a totally different angle, as we know from the behaviour of the Fraternity of St Pius X, traditionalist historians and theologians, and even from that of those cardinals who have expressed doubts about Amoris laetitia.  One almost wants to say to the Orthodox, who recognise the principle of the primacy of Rome but who feel they might disagree about the way it is exercised in practice: "Welcome to what it means to be a Catholic !" It is odd to discuss the jurisdiction of the Pope in the first millennium, as Catholics and Orthodox are doing after the Chieti agreement in 2016, as if this question were not still very much open among Catholics in the third millennium!  

If indeed we agree on dogma, and differ only on secondary matters of Papal authority, then a de facto alliance seems obvious.  Such an alliance is not only obvious; it is also necessary given the civilisational challenges faced by the world today, especially in Europe.  It is my firm conviction, and I have said this in many lectures and articles, that Europe is currently living under the heavy influence of anti-Christian ideology, even Marxist ideology.  I believe very strongly in the prophetic statement by the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, who in 1930s Moscow had the presentiment that what was happening in Russia would be the fate of the whole human race in the twentieth century.  

"I had a feeling, stronger than I can possible convey, that what was happening in Moscow must happen everywhere.  That it was the focal point or pivot of the drama of our times, whose essential pattern was being shaped here.  That these blank faces processing noiselessly through Moscow's blank streets were mankind processing through the twentieth century."9]  

While Marxism has been thoroughly discredited in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, throughout the entire Cold War it remained alive and well in universities and the media across Western Europe.  Many of the key tenets of Marxism are now part of the intellectual apparatus of the West, especially materialism, evolutionism and the cult of revolution.  Under such conditions, Christians must stick together, all the more so since Christians in the East of Europe have valuable if horrible experience of what Christians in the West are about to live through.

When Pope Francis met Patriarch Kirill in Cuba in February 2016, indeed, they laid stress on this necessary common combat.  They identified both religious extremism (Islamism) and militant secularism as common dangers.  In this, they were agreeing with what Metropolitan Hilarion had said in 2002 in a lecture entitled La testimonianza cristiana per unire l'Europa.10]According to Metropolitan Hilarion, this cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox is important for the survival of Christianity in Europe.  The experience of the persecution suffered by the Russian Orthodox Church recalls that which is currently being experienced by Christian Churches in Europe, who live under permanent attack from militant atheism.  According to Hilaron, Europe could revive Christianity by allying itself with the Russian Church against aggressive secularism and Islamic fundamentalism.

We find no counterpart to Hilarion's arguments in the Protestant churches.  Many of these churches, far from fighting for the preservation of Christian values, have instead allied themselves with the worst excesses of liberalism, tolerating and even promoting homosexuality and other sins. The defence of Christian values proposed by the Orthodox is indeed the only way to promote true European unity, precisely because the continent is divided not along the old lines of the Eastern and Western empire, but instead by the anti-Christian policies of the European Union states.  The European Union defines itself today principally in anti-Christian terms. By renewing with tradition, therefore, the Catholic Church can hopefully repair some of the damage done to its own liturgical practices in recent decades and combat this de-Christianisation; and by launching new judicious alliances, avoiding the errors of previous decades, it can also help to preserve and envigour what is left of Christendom.

In conclusion, our Russian friends should never forget that the Catholic Church has, for a hundred years, accorded a very special place to Russia in her heart.  In 1930, the Pope decreed that special prayers introduced by Leo XIII at the end of every Low Mass should be said for the restoration of religious freedom in Russia: these were the same prayers which had been said in the Papal states for the protection and liberty of the Catholic Church, threatened as it was by the Risorgimento.  By transferring these prayers to the intention of Russia, Pope Pius XI was effectively making a comparison between the fate of Christian Russia and the fate of Christian Rome, both confronted by the same danger of the same terrible revolution.  Moreover, we have just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, at which Our Lady foretold the ravages which the Bolshevik revolution would unleash.  Her prophecy about "Russia's errors" of course came tragically true; but so, it seems, did her prophecy about the conversion of Russia, as was seen when the master of the Kremlin, Dmitri Medvedev, venerated the Holy Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame in Paris in 2011, the symbol of Christ's status as king of all nations.  No European head of state has performed such a gesture for many centuries.  Let us pray that this is a sign of things to come.  As Our Lady of Fatima said, nothing less than the peace of the world depends on it.


[1] Fr Ralph WILTGEN, The Rhine flows into the Tiber, A History of Vatican II (Tan Books: Rockford, Illinois), 1985 (first published 1967).

[2] Annibale BUGNINI, La réforme de la liturgie (1948 - 1975), Desclée de Brouwer, 2015, p. 223.

[3] "Il motu proprio Summorum Pontificum come ponte ecumenico," Cardinale Kurt KochConvegno Internazionale Summorum Pontificum, Angelicum, 14 maggio 2011.

4] "Alexey II praises letter on 1962 Missal," Zenit, 29 August 2007.

[5] Noi siamo Chiesa rivendica l'elezione di vescovi "dal popolo".

[6] See the lecture given by Bishop Kallistos Ware, 3 April 2011, (video)



[9] Malcolm MUGGERIDGE, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Part I, The Green Stick (London: Collins, 1972), p. 219

[10] Pubblicato in Joseph RATZINGER, Benedetto XVI, Europa Patria Spirituale, a cura di Pierluca Azzaro, Roma-Mosca 2009.




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