The Orthodox Church is a kind of confederation of autocephalous (independent) and autonomous Churches that have reciprocal communion with one another, and recognize the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the "first among equals".
A dispute began in April, when Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko forwarded a request to establish a national Ukranian Orthodox Church to Patriarch Bartholomew. If honored, the request would result in the unification of the two existent "schismatic" Orthodox Churches.
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople pondered the request, met Aug. 31 with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and after the meeting started the process of granting the "tomos" (document) of autocephaly for a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Moscow Patriarchate opposed the decision, noting that the Patriarchate of Constantinople granted the Moscow Patriarch the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev in 1686. Ever since, the Moscow Patriarchate remarked, Ukraine has been the Moscow Patriarchate's "liturgical territory."
In making the decision to grant the tomos of autocephaly, the Patriarchate of Constantinople also annulled the 1686 synodal letter.
Moscow considers the Constantinople decision "an invasion". For this reason, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, gathered Oct. 15 in Minsk, made the decision to break communion with Constantinople.
The position was explained by Metropolitan Hilarion October 27 on Russian television program, 'The Church and the World,' aired by Russia-24.
Speaking about his Oct. 18 meeting with Pope Francis, Metropolitan Hilarion said that a big part of the discussion was dedicated to the situation in Ukraine, but that "the breakoff of the Russian Orthodox Church's relations with Constantinople has also to do with the relationships with the Roman Catholic Church since, along with the bilateral relations between the Russian Church and the Roman Church, there is also a pan-Orthodox-Catholic theological dialogue. And we have withdrawn from this dialogue as well."
This internal issues of the Orthodox Church might now have consequences on the Catholic Church, particularly because of the special relationships Pope Francis has with both Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill.
Pope Francis and Bartholomew were together in Jerusalem in 2014, in the Vatican Gardens for the "Prayer for Peace in the Middle East" in 2014, in Lesbos in 2015 and in Egypt in 2017, and they have written joint messages for the World Day for the Care of Creation.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill had a historic meeting in Havana, Cuba, Feb. 12, 2016, and last year the relics of St. Nicholas were temporarily moved to Russia, for veneration by Russian faithful. The two developed a dialogue on cultural issues, with a common commitment to the education of youth, as expressed Oct. 18 by Metropolitan Hilarion in his speech at the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
The freeze in theological dialogue comes at what had been a particularly favorable moment for ecumenical dialogue.
The latest document of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Theological Commission was released after the 2016 Chieti meeting.
The final document underscored that the Church of the first millennium recognized a primacy to the Church of Rome, whose prerogatives were cooperation in recognizing a council as ecumenical and the possibility to receive appeals.
Those prerogatives were exercised, the final document reads, in synodality; that is, in relation with bishops of the other major sees of the first millennium or together with the synod of the Roman Church.
After the meeting in Chieti, the coordinating committee of the commission met Sep. 5-9, 2017 in Leros, Greece. The meeting ended with the decision to draft a document on the theme "Toward unity in faith: theological and canonical issues."
The drafting of this new document was entrusted to a subcommission composed of four Orthodox and four Catholic members.
The document will be divided in two parts. The first part will be about the fruits of the dialogue already in action, the second part will be about the theological and canonical issues that need to be resolved in order to get to full communion.
The next meeting of the coordinating committee is scheduled for the end of 2018.
The Moscow Patriarchate's decision to withdraw from dialogue has been read by some observers as a sort of pressure on the pope to operate some persuasion on Bartholomew, without asking for it explicitly.
In the Russia-24 interview, Metropolitan Hilarion said: "We do not assume that the pope of Rome can be an arbiter in this dispute – it is absolutely impossible. It would be wrong to involve him in these problems and expect that he would take some actions or identify with a particular side. The Orthodox Church lives according to her own laws and rules. We will solve this problem on our own, without the participation of the pope of Rome."
Moscow's move shows that, though the primacy of Rome has been recognized more and more in theological dialogue, none of the Orthodox Churches will ever consider this primacy concretely.
So, while the Catholic Church already spoke about the possibility of establishing new forms of exercising Petrine ministry in order to reach full unity, the Orthodox Church seem stuck in an internal dispute that will likely further divide it.
Pope Francis will not be involved in this process, nor is the Catholic Church going to be welcomed as an effective mediator. Ecumenical dialogue, however, has been impoverished because of this dispute.