I haven’t really dug into the relevant papal statements, but my impression is that there’s some ambiguity, perhaps purposeful, on this score. Anyway, what do y’all think? “Part of the Church” is probably not a good way to say it, but what exactly is the relationship? In? Out? Ambigously somewhere between? ~Maclin Horton
Coming at this question from the Orthodox side, I can appreciate the reasons for the confusion that seems to prevail about the status of the Orthodox in Catholic eyes. Very simply, from what I understand about it from the encyclical, Dominus Iesus, which I previously remarked on here, and the Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church regards the Orthodox as being in some form of substantial communion that is nonetheless short of full communion. To the Orthodox, this sounds deliberately ambiguous and also ecclesiologically meaningless. There is koinonia and the absence of koinonia; I think it is correct that there is not really much of a sliding scale between the two, though I do not mean to rely unduly on the ideas of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) for this understanding of communion. Koinonia has several important basic features: unity of bishop, unity of Eucharist and unity of faith or homonoia. Very plainly, Catholics and Orthodox lack all three of these, so it often puzzles me what it means when the Catholic Catechism says that we are in some “profound” communion with Catholics when we Orthodox do not see it at all.
However, it is the officially approved teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, if I understand what the Catechism and papal encyclicals represent, that the Orthodox are in communion with Catholics to some considerable degree on the grounds that we are supposedly in schism but not in heresy (though some strict anti-Palamites on the Catholic side would probably disagree here). How there can be communion without oneness of mind on basic doctrines, I cannot say, but it is really not my purpose here to get into confessional disputes here. I want to lay out very simply the Orthodox attitude as I understand it and give my assessment of what the Catholic Church seems to hold about the status of the Orthodox.
Of all the non-Roman Catholic hierarchical churches, the Orthodox Church seems to receive the most sympathetic treatment in Dominus Iesus and the Catechism, but it is not only the Orthodox who are considered to be in communion with the Catholic Church to some degree. Provided that they believe in Christ and have been baptised “properly,” there is some measure of imperfect communion. Obviously, full communion would only be attained by agreement with Catholic doctrine in “its entirety” and acceptance of the authority of Rome. But about the Orthodox, the Catechism clearly states:
With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.” (CCC 838)
Of course, the Orthodox virtually to a man do not see things this way at all. From the Orthodox perspective, there are significant and, as it stands now, apparently insurmountable barriers to reunion. Of course, with God all things are possible, but it appears improbable in the extreme that there will be any progress in this direction in this century or indeed in this millennium if both Catholics and Orthodox hold to the doctrines they currently hold. Much does hinge on papal claims to universal jurisdiction, which are the source of so many Orthodox objections, but as much hinges on significantly different charitological (doctrine of grace), ecclesiological and theological understandings.
For that matter, I would be genuinely surprised if most Catholics saw things as the Catechism states them, which may not be relevant to what their authorities teach but is certainly an important reality that any ecumenically-minded Catholics would have to take into serious consideration. Ecumenically-minded Catholics have a very real problem in that most Orthodox Christians, if I may overgeneralise rather broadly, have no great interest in reunion with Rome. If asked directly, I assume most everyone would say that they desire the unity of all who confess the Name of Christ and they would be absolutely sincere in this, but if such unity were to come at the price of giving up any part of Orthodox Tradition it would immediately be met with hostility. Ecumenism for many Orthodox Christians has simply become an ugly and dirty word, and in its sloppy and careless formulation and practice over the years (of which the rather painful language of “two lungs” of the One Church has been a prominent example for Traditionalist Orthodox) ecumenism has been seen as an ecclesiological heresy and not only by hard-line Old Calendarists. In what is probably absolutely infuriating to ecumenically-minded Catholics, their very efforts at outreach convince us all the more that they are in some sort of doctrinal error.
At the present time, some Traditionalist Orthodox think that far-out crazy liberal reconciliation means having the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad join together in full communion; for some of us, as I only half-jokingly remarked to a friend of mine this weekend, ecumenism means talking in a friendly fashion to New Calendarists. Any idea of reconciliation with Rome seems so far off, so outlandish to so many Orthodox that it would probably stun some of our Catholic friends. Simply put, for Pope John Paul II reconciling fully with the Orthodox was something of a priority (and, on a related point, Pope Benedict has an admirably good understanding of many of the Greek Fathers that causes me to like him personally a great deal), but for the Orthodox it has never been a terribly high priority and we have tended to view such moves with suspicion born of unfortunate historical experiences with Eastern-rite and “Byzantine” Catholicism. Few would be more glad to see the old schism healed than I, as I have many Catholic colleagues and friends (and, on my Hungarian side, Catholic ancestors), but I remain doubtful that it will be healed here below. God willing, it shall be, but only in the fullness of the truth.