When the pope and the patriarch come together for the first time today after 1000 years, one of Christianity’s most enduring divisions could edge closer to becoming ancient history.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have been at odds for over 1,000 years. Today’s meeting in Havana — where Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill will sign a joint accord — could be a critical step towards helping heal the rift.
But while the Vatican billed the religious rendezvous as an “important stage” and sign of hope, the event could be more about symbolism than substance.
There are more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. That number dwarfs the overall Orthodox congregation of 225 million — which is divided between the 15 separate and equal eastern churches. The Moscow Patriarchate oversees the largest flock of about 160 million people.
Not only is it larger, but the Catholic Church has its own state: the Vatican. The Moscow Patriarchate, meanwhile, is closely aligned with the Russian government.
Why Are They Different?
On many major theological issues Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians remain closely aligned. But the issues that divide them run deep.
The central theological divide dates back to the eighth century and is based in differing philosophical interpretations of the Holy Trinity — the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Christianity.
The Orthodox Church also does not believe in purgatory, which Catholics believe precedes heaven.
There’s the key political distinction — the Orthodox Church totally rejects papal authority — and differences on social issues. The Orthodox Church is more hardline on homosexuality, while Pope Francis famously said: “Who am I to judge?”
The question of clerical marriage is also treated differently by the Russian Church, in which parish-level priests are permitted to be ordained as married men.
Why Meet Now?
While there’s huge symbolic significance to the pope and patriarch’s meeting, experts do not anticipate any major progress on the issues that have stood between their two churches for many centuries.
It’s important to remember that while Kirill represents the largest flock of Orthodox, he doesn’t speak for the whole Eastern church.
Still, that’s not to say that overall progress isn’t possible.
In any case history is set to be made today in Havana, Cuba and it is great to be here.