Vatican hails "step" to healing Orthodox rift
By Phil Stewart
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican has praised an agreement between Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians as a first step towards a possible healing of their millennium-long schism but said the road ahead was long and arduous.
The Vatican issued on Thursday a joint declaration agreed last month that said the Pope held the highest rank in the unified Church before the 1054 Great Schism -- a statement that could allow Catholics and Orthodox to work more closely.
But the document made clear neither side yet agreed on what power came with that rank. The Orthodox in the old Byzantine Empire rejected the universal authority of the Roman Pontiff and gradually developed autonomous national churches with no papacy.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican department promoting Christian unity, said the document gave Catholics hope but cautioned there was still a very long way to go before Catholics and Orthodox could speak of any kind of unity.
"This document is a modest first step and as such one of hope. But we must not exaggerate its importance," he told Vatican radio late on Wednesday ahead of the document's release. "This will not be easy. The road is very long and difficult."
Pope Benedict has made dialogue with the Orthodox a priority of his pontificate. He met in Istanbul last year with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is spiritual head of all Orthodox but has administrative power only over his small flock in Turkey.
Worldwide Orthodoxy is organized under national churches totaling some 220 million members, compared to the 1.1 billion Roman Catholics who all come under the Vatican's authority.
The Russian Orthodox, whose national church is the largest and most influential in world Orthodoxy, abandoned the October 8-14 theologians' meeting in Ravenna, Italy. The document was leaked last month on an Orthodox Web site.
Kasper played down the walk-out, which he said was due to an inter-Orthodox dispute over the autonomy of Estonia's church.
"This is an inter-Orthodox question. We cannot interfere. But we are saddened and concerned because for us it is important the Russian Orthodox Church participates in our dialogue," he said. "We don't want to have dialogue without the Russians."
Kasper said the Orthodox-Catholic talks would next tackle the role of the Pope in the pre-schism Church. Benedict has said this model, which was more decentralized than today's papacy, could help Catholics and Orthodox work together more closely.
But they would then have to discuss more contentious issues from the second millennium, during which the papacy became a powerful, centralized institution and the Pope was declared infallible when he makes decisions on faith and morals.
The Orthodox-Catholic commission document can be viewed at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/c h_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20071013_documento-ravenna_en .html
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)