VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Orthodox leaders are predicting improved relations with the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI.
"The new pope, an excellent theologian, will value our Church's wealth of theology and spirituality and wish to cooperate with it and support theological dialogue," said Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
In an April 20 statement, the patriarch said he welcomed "with satisfaction and hope" the election of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, adding that the German background of the pope offered "hope and certainty that he will be able to express the significance of unity or at least of peaceful cooperation."
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow said he also counted on improved Catholic-Orthodox relations.
"I sincerely hope Your Holiness's pontificate will be marked by the development of good relations between our Churches and fruitful Orthodox-Catholic dialogue," Patriarch Alexy said in a congratulatory message. "The success of this dialogue is important for the whole Christian world."
Catholic-Orthodox ties have been tense over complaints of Catholic "proselytism" in traditionally Orthodox areas, as well as over the post-communist revival of Eastern Catholic Churches.
In his first message April 20 at a Mass with the College of Cardinals, Pope Benedict said the "full and visible unity of all Christ's followers" would be his "primary commitment"; he was determined to "cultivate any initiative" for promoting "contact and agreement" with other Churches and ecclesial bodies.
Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Daniel Ciobotea of Moldava and Bukovina told Catholic News Service that his Church believed Pope Benedict would "be able to adapt to new ecumenical responsibilities," adding that Orthodox leaders would accept papal primacy if it conformed with practices from the first millennium, before Churches became divided.
Metropolitan Ciobotea said the pope was a "a clever theologian."
"He has said Orthodox Churches cannot be expected to accept anything outside our common tradition, including papal dogmas which were formulated without us," said Metropolitan Ciobotea.
"To have a chance of moving forward in fellowship, we have to be more spiritual and less diplomatic. If the new pope rejects the formula of sister Churches, he must at least uphold the idea of fraternity," he said.
Patriarch Alexy told Italy's Corriere della Sera daily that Pope John Paul II's pontificate had worsened interchurch "complications"; he urged "radical changes" in Vatican policies.
However, some Catholics have warned that ties could deteriorate under Pope Benedict, who was responsible, as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for the 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which was a focal point of ecumenical and interreligious discussion when it came out in 2000 because of its firm statement that Christ and the Church are necessary for salvation.
Metropolitan Ciobotea said he believed the document reflected "internal problems in the Catholic Church"; Orthodox Christians agreed with its stress on the "centrality and uniqueness of Christ," he said.
"I don't think the new pope can write more documents like this -- his responsibilities are different now," he said.
"As congregation prefect, he was a defender of the faith, but now he's also a bridge-builder. ... The Holy Spirit works differently according to someone's level of responsibility," he said.
The secretary-general of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, which includes about 25 Orthodox denominations, said in an April 20 message he counted on "renewed commitment" to "ecumenical openness" under Pope Benedict, who was known for his "theological integrity and ecclesial loyalty, evangelical simplicity and pastoral sensitivity."
Metropolitan Ciobotea told CNS that Catholic and Orthodox Churches should stay "faithful to the rich values of their own traditions," while seeking a common position on "synodality, collegiality and reciprocal cooperation."
"As a theologian defending Catholicism, Cardinal Ratzinger's personal values were never in doubt -- he realized the world was changing rapidly and could no longer be viewed in medieval categories," he said.
"Today, we need to find a new a synthesis between the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of primacy. In the meantime, despite all the criticisms, we must work with the pope to make use of today's constructive range of possibilities. The Holy Spirit is at work in the new reality -- surprises are sometimes created out of acts of inspiration," he said.
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