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Parallel Agendas of Vatican II and Crete I?

A Close Look at ‘Relations of the Orthodox Church

with the Rest of the Christian World’

Peter De Mey (KU Leuven)

This volume focuses on the most important event in the Orthodox Church since many decades, the
Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church 1 celebrated in Crete from 18-27 June, 2016 after a
difficult preparatory process of more than half a century and in the absence of four autocephalous
churches.2 In my contribution I compare both the process and some partial results of the Council with
the Second Vatican Council which the Catholic Church organized in 1962-1965. I will first compare a
few more general aspects of the Second Vatican Council with the pan-orthodox Council. I will limit
myself to the role of theologians, of canon law, and of the observers. Thereafter I will focus on the
document on the Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, which allows
for a fruitful comparison with Unitatis Redintegratio and Lumen Gentium, but also contains
comments on the post-conciliar time of ecumenism. A comparison of The Mission of the Orthodox
1
In his article “Die Angst vor dem Geist: Das Heilige und Groβe Konzil und die orthodoxen Anti-Ökumeniker”, in
Ökumenische Rundschau 66 (2017/1), 32-41, p. 32 n. 4 Georgios Vlantis insists on this title. The event cannot be
called a synod since this is „ein institutionalisiertes, periodisch tagendes Gremium. Das Wort ‘Konzil’ bringt
hingegen die Realität eines auβerordentlichen Synodalereignisses zum Ausdruck, und dies ist in Kreta der Fall
gewesen.“ Cyrille Hovorun, “Interview sur le Concile”, in Le Messager Orthodoxe N° 161, 2016/2, 19-22, p. 21 is
of the same opinion : « J’estime que le Concile de Crète a été panorthodoxe, en dépit de l’absence de quelques
Eglises. Le fait est que pas un seul Concile ecclésiastique, Conciles œcuméniques y compris, ne s’est jamais
déroulé en présence de toutes les Eglises. Il y a toujours eu des absentes. » Serge Chapnin, “Le Concile de Crète
a eu lieu, les problèmes restent”, in Contacts. Revue française de l’orthodoxie 68 (2016), 369-375, p. 374, p. 374
holds a different view : « Il est important de trouver le mot juste pour caractériser le statut de cette rencontre.
Je ne suis pas sûr que le mot concile soit le plus approprié. Il n’y a pas eu de concile au sens traditionnel de ce
mot, c’est-à-dire de réunion d’évêques qui décident de participer (ou pas) et d’exercer leur droit de vote de
façon autonome. Pour la première fois, on a utilisé un nouveau format – la rencontre de délégations des Eglises
orthodoxes locales où chaque délégation de 24 évêques n’a qu’une voix. (…) Si l’appellation de ‘Saint et Grand
Concile’ résonne de façon inadéquate et crée des confusions, il faut, pour décrire de nouveaux formats, une
nouvelle appellation, par exemple ‘Synode général’ ou ‘grande Synaxe’ ou ‘conférence épiscopale
panorthodoxe’. »
2
Many scholars comment on the absence of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Patriarchate of Antioch, the
Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Georgian Orthodox Church. Johannes Oeldemann, the co-director of the
Johann-Adam-Moehler-Institut für Okumenik in Paderborn, knows that through their absence more than half
of the Orthodox bishops and almost two third of the Orthodox believers were not represented at the Council,
but is not willing to support the thesis of a conspiracy orchestrated by the Moscow Patriarchate in view of the
reconciling letter sent by Patriarch Cyril. See Johannes Oeldemann, „Die Heilige und Groβe Synode der
Orthodoxen Kirche auf Kreta: Eine erste Einordnung aus katholischer Sicht“, in Ökumenische Rundschau 66
(2017/1), 48-58, 50-51. A member of the delegation of the Patriarchate of Antioch deplores the decision by the
ecumenical patriarchate not to discuss their dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem prior to the celebration
of the Council. See Raymond Rizk, « ‘Saint et Grand Concile’ ou Concile source de tensions ? », in Contacts.
Revue française de l’Orthodoxie 68 (2016), 359-368.

1
Church in Today’s World with both Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes3 would be equally
fruitful but extends the limits of this contribution. 4

1. General points of comparison of both councils

The role of theologians

Looking back at a meeting of thirty Orthodox scholars with the Ecumenical Patriarch and his staff in
January 2016 Paul Gavrilyuk deplores that till now the preparation of the Council had been mainly
the work of bishops.5 He pleads for a greater collaboration of bishops and theologians in the
Orthodox Church, comparable to the role of the theological experts or periti at the Second Vatican
Council.6 Of course one should realize that also in the Catholic Church there was a great difference
between the preparation of the Council and the fascinating con-spiratio of bishops and periti during
the Council. The first impression of Yves Congar after his unexpected nomination as consultor of the
Theological Commission was not particularly positive. Congar wrote in his diary: “We are a hapax in a
text whose context seems to me to be so oriented in a conservative sense! Our being named
consultors is also a way of keeping us from the effective work which will be done by the members of
the Commission.”7

The influence of the small group of Belgian bishops during the Council was the result of the fact that
they had a tradition of cooperation in their episcopal conference and that there was an atmosphere
of trust in their relations with the professors of the university of Louvain who were invited as periti.8

We should however also realize that the collaboration of bishops and theologians remains a
continuous challenge in the Catholic Church after the Council as well. 9

3
See, however, Vasilios N. Makrides, “Le concile panorthodoxe de 2016. Quelques réflexions sur les défis
auxquels le monde orthodoxe doit faire face”, in Istina 62 (2017), 5-26, p. 24 : « Il n’est pas inutile de rappeler
que les orthodoxes ont jusqu’à présent manifesté peu d’intérêt pour la Constitution pastorale Gaudium et Spes,
ce document si important élaboré par le Concile Vatican II, qui a permis aux catholiques de commencer à
s’ouvrir au monde moderne et de s’y engager avec un regard critique. »
4
On the official website of the Council one can find all pre-conciliar documents as well as the documents which
the Council approved. See: https://www.holycouncil.org/. See also Viorel Ioniță, Towards the Holy and Great
Synod of the Orthodox Church: The Decisions of the Pan-Orthodox Meetings since 1923 until 2009. Studia
oecumenica Friburgensia, 62 (University of Fribourg: Institute of Ecumenical Studies, 2014).
5
The almost exclusive involvement of hierarchs in the preparation of the Council documents also may have had
an influence on their style. Cf. Assaad Elias Kattan, « Le concile de Crète : en espérant que nous apprenions », in
Le Messager Orthodoxe N° 161, 2016/2, 11-15, p. 13 : « En effet, le style des textes du concile de Crète, de
manière générale, est un style ecclésiastique orthodoxe dense ‘possédant’ la vérité, qui entend enseigner le
monde et le ré-évangéliser, au lieu de tirer profit des expériences de ceux qui y vivent. » On Vatican II as style
see a.o. Vatican II comme style : l’herméneutique théologique comme style. Unam Sanctam, N.F. 4, ed. Joseph
Famerée (Paris : Cerf, 2012).
6
Paul L. Gavrilyuk, “The Future Pan-Orthodox Council: To Be or not to Be?,” in First Things, 22 January, 2016
(https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/01/the-future-pan-orthodox-council-to-be-or-not-to-be).”
7
Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012), pp. 15-16.
8
Claude Soetens, “La ‘Squadra Belga’ au Concile Vatican II,” in Foi, gestes et institutions religieuses au 19°-20°
siècles, ed. Luc Courtois & Jean Pirotte (Louvain-la-Neuve: Centre d’histoire des religions, 1991), 159-172; The
Belgian Contribution to the Second Vatican Council. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium,
216, ed. Doris Donnelly a.o. (Leuven: Peeters, 2008).
9
Cf. When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church, ed. Richard R.
Gaillardetz (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).

2
The role of canon law

Even if some documents of Vatican II are more practical in nature, they still deserve to be
characterized as theological documents. The task to translate the theology of Vatican II into a revised
Code of Canon Law was after the Council entrusted to canon lawyers. If the result was an imperfect
‘translation’, then the theological experts were also to blame for this because they taught their job
was finished once the Council had come to an end and they left the canonical translation work to
others.10

What are the sources the Orthodox Council has used in its conciliar work? Whereas this was not the
case in the documents of Vatican II, some documents of the Orthodox Council seem partially or
entirely canonical by nature. The document on The Orthodox Diaspora indicates that this problem
needs to be solved “in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, and the canonical tradition and
practice of the Orthodox Church.”11 A similar formulation is found in the 2016 document on
Autonomy and the Means by which it is Proclaimed, when reference is made to “all necessary
ecclesial, canonical and pastoral prerequisites” of a request for autonomy by a local Church.” 12 But
the dominant interest of both documents is canonical. The new document on The Sacrament of
Marriage and Its Impediments luckily pleads for a combination of “necessary strictness” with “proper
pastoral sensibility”, but the document is conservative in its teaching on mixed marriages 13.

The other preparatory documents are more theological by nature. The Importance of Fasting and Its
Observance Today focuses on fasting as “the foremost expression of the Orthodox ascetic ideal” but
leaves it “to the discretion of the local Orthodox Churches to determine how to exercise
philanthropic oikonomia and empathy, relieving in these special cases the ‘burden’ of the holy fast.” 14
The one on Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World starts with an
ecclesiological reflection on the importance of dialogue, but the Catholic Church would not include
the description of its relationship with the World Council of Churches in a conciliar document but

10
See a.o. Myriam Wijlens, “Zur Verhältnisbestimmung von Konzil und nachkonziliarer Rechtsordnung: eine
theologisch-kanonistische Reflexion”, in Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil und die Zeichen der Zeit heute, ed.
Peter Hünermann (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2006), 331-339 and “Die Verbindlichkeit des Zweiten
Vatikanischen Konzils: Eine kirchenrechtliche Betrachtung”, in Zweites Vatikanisches Konzil: Programmatik –
Rezeption – Vision. Quaestiones Disputatae, 261, ed. Christoph Böttigheimer (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder,
2014), 37-62.
11
The Orthodox Diaspora, § 1a. Even if the document is aware that the ideal situation for the diaspora would be
“the existence of only one bishop in the same place”, Ivana Noble for her part analyses the most important
stumbling blocks hindering the “move from being diaspora to becoming a local church”: “the problems of
ethnophiletism but also of accumulated memories of being treated as second-rate ecclesial citizens; the
problem of multiplicity of jurisdictions; and the problem of assuming theological and spiritual uniformity.” Cf.
Ivana Noble, “The Future of the Orthodox ‘Diaspora’ – an Observer’s Point of View”, in St. Vladimir’s
Theological Quarterly 60 (2016), 171-188. Cf. also Noble, « Le Grand Concile panorthodoxe: quelques
remarques issues du ‘reste du monde chrétien’ », in Contacts: Revue française de l’Orthodoxie 68 (2016) 348-
351, p. 351 : « Je trouve étonnant que les Églises orthodoxes locales d’Occident, qui ont dû si clairement
réfléchir à ce que leur mission devait être dans de nouvelles circonstances, n’ont pas été actives en tant que
telles au Concile (bien qu’un nombre important d’évêques de ces Églises y assistaient sous la juridiction de leurs
Églises-mères) et que le seul message transmis au sujet de ladite ‘diaspora’ concernait les assemblées
épiscopales. »
12
Autonomy and the Means of Proclaiming It, § 2a.
13
The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments, § 6.
14
The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today, § 1 and § 8.

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rather in an ecumenical directory.15 The document on The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s
World refers to the “patristic, liturgical and ascetical tradition” as important sources for the teaching
presented in this document.16

The role of the observers

I find it a pity that observers have only been invited to be present at the opening and concluding
session of the Council.17 At Vatican II the observers could not intervene during the plenary meetings,
but the Council fathers – maybe for lack of ecumenical exposure prior to the Council regularly
sought their company during the coffee breaks. Some Catholic bishops complained that one’s voice
was only heard at the Council if one was a cardinal or an observer. During the four sessions of the
Council the Secretariat for Christian Unity organized weekly discussion sessions with the observers,
that followed the rhythm of the deliberations in aula. The theologians of the Secretariat, when
exercising their task to try to improve the ecumenical quality of all documents, made use of their
input.18

Since changes in conciliar documents had to be based on the oral or written interventions of the
Council fathers, sometimes ideas initially suggested by observers were included in a speech of a
Council fathers. A notorious example is the redaction history of the famous paragraph on the
hierarchy of truths. It is a practical recommendation made by the Council to the ecumenical
delegates in future ecumenical dialogues, exhorting them that, “when comparing doctrines with one
another, they should remember that in catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths
since they vary in their connection with the foundation of the Christian faith.” 19 (UR 11)

The suggestion in the Orthodox document on dialogue, that “the existing theological and
ecclesiological differences permit, however, a certain hierarchical ordering of the challenges lying in
the way of meeting this pan-Orthodox objective [the ultimate restoration of unity in true faith and

15
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, §§ 16-21. Cf. A Directory for the
Application of the Second Vatican Council’s Decisions on Ecumenism, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 59 (1967) 574-
592.
16
The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, introduction.
17
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, himself a member of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, deplored
this decision in a recent interview. In his opinion, “we should have incorporated the observers. … We shouldn’t
have been so closed.” When being asked whether he had felt the presence of the Spirit, the metropolitan
confirmed that “the Holy Spirit did gather us together”. Referring to nationalist and ethnic tendencies present
in Orthodoxy for many centuries, he also recognized, however that “there were some other not so holy spirits
at work in the council as well.” Cf.
https://www.osv.com/osvnewsweekly/article/tabid/535/artmid/13567/articleid/20214/metropolitan-kallistos-
reflects-on-orthodox-council.aspx
18
See Peter De Mey, “The Role of the Observers during the Second Vatican Council,” in Saint Vladimir’s
Theological Quarterly 60 (2016), 33-51; « Le rôle des observateurs au Concile Vatican II», in Contacts. Revue
française de l’Orthodoxie 65 (2013), 327-347; “Ο ρόλος των παρατηρητών στη Β´ Βατικανή Σύνοδο”, in “Καιρός
συνεσταλμένος το λοιπόν”: Η μέλλουσα Πανορθόδοξη Σύνοδος. Ζητήματα - διλήμματα – προοπτικές, eds.
Peter De Mey & Michel Stavrou (Athens: Εκδόσεις Εν πλω, 2015), 53-83. This was the opening presentation of a
conference which I co-organized, together with Michel Stavrou, from 16-18 October 2012 in the St. Sergius
Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, a conference dedicated to The Forthcoming Council of the Orthodox
Church: Understanding the Challenges.
19
References to conciliar documents are taken from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner
S.J. (London/Washington: Sheed & Ward and Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1990).

4
love]” seems to be inspired by this important idea of ecumenical hermeneutics. 20 The influential
speech of bishop Pangrazio which contained this idea, had been prepared by the Swiss consulter of
the Secretariat, Johannes Feiner, after a long conversation in which the Reformed observer and
theologian, Oscar Cullman, had proposed this idea. The latter would afterwards speak about this
passage as “the most revolutionary to be found, not only in the ecumenism schema but in any of the
schemata.”21

Two other proposals for modification of the 1963 draft of the Decree on Ecumenism only were made
by observers. Without reference to precise interventions by Council fathers, they were included in
the lengthy relationes which collaborators of the Secretariat for Christian Unity prepared in February
1964 in view of the plenary meeting. These modifications were never questioned and thus ended up
in the final text of Unitatis Redintegratio. I believe it is possible to apply an ex silentio reasoning and
attribute the authorship of these omissions to the observers. 22

The Protestant observers were satisfied to find an implicit reference to the 16th century adage of the
Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius, “in necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in
utrisque caritas”, in a Catholic decree on ecumenism, but were critical about the word ‘aditus’ in the
following passage: “While safeguarding unity in necessary matters, let the faithful, in the various
forms of spiritual life and practice, in liturgical celebrations and in theological discussions of the
truth, and in other legitimately different concerns, willingly preserve a right freedom, and in all things
cultivate charity: by conducting themselves in this manner, they will daily possess more fully and
manifest a genuine catholicity, and the door (aditus) to this catholic home of the Church will be more
widely opened to all.”23 For Oscar Cullmann, to mention but one critic, “the word aditus suggests to
us that the ecumenism of the Catholic Church may not have changed at all and may still consist in
calling us ‘to return’ to the Church of Rome.” 24 In the final version of the decree, this famous passage
ends as follows: “If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to
the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the church.” The door is gone.

20
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 12. The parallel has been observed
by Paul L. Gavrilyuk, http://www.theorthodoxchurch.org/The-Future-Pan-Orthodox-Council-on-Relations-with-
the-Non-Orthodox.pdf.
21
Cf. Edward Idris Cassidy, Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue: Unitatis Redintegratio – Nostra Aetate (New
York: Paulist Press, 2005), 10-11.
22
I elaborate this in greater length in Peter De Mey, “As Separated but Closely Related Brethren (Fratres
seiuncti): The Harmonious Collaboration of Council and Observers on the Decree on Ecumenism 50 Years ago,”
in Kommunikation ist möglich: Theologische, ökumenische und interreligiöse Lernprozesse, ed. Christine
Büchner et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Matthias Grünewald Verlag, 2013), 78-97.
23
I make use of the “Draft of Decree on Ecumenism”, an English translation of the Schema Decreti De
Oecumenismo AS II/2, 412-432, found in the Fund Lukas Vischer in the WCC Archives in Geneva, box 4201.3.2.
In the third chapter of the Decree this plea is concretized when speaking about the Orthodox churches: “Far
from being an obstacle to the church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her
beauty and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has been stated. To remove all shadow of doubt,
then, this synod solemnly declares that the churches of the east, while mindful of the necessary unity of the
whole church, have the right to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to themselves, since
these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.” (UR 16) “What
has just been said about legitimate variety must also be taken to apply to the differences in theological
expression of doctrine.” (UR 17)
24
The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, “Meeting of the Observers, Tuesday, November 12, 1963,”
(Université Catholique de Louvain, Centre Lumen Gentium, Fonds Charles Moeller), n° 00431, 1.

5
The 1963 draft included a reference to the Council of Florence in the third chapter of the Decree:
“The wall separating the Eastern and the Western Churches, which the Council of Florence declared
was entirely removed, is again set up between the two; and today, with all our heart and soul, and
with the help of God’s grace, we intend to remove that wall, so that there may be but one dwelling
place, whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus, who will make both one.” The critique by Nikos Nissiotis
was short but sharp: “Such a mention of this Council cannot have any good effect on future
negotiations.”25 In this case the report by the Secretariat implicitly admits that the decision to
remove the reference to the Council of Florence took place in direct response to the critique
formulated by observers: “Because of the mistrust of the separated Orientals against the Council of
Florence, the allusion to this council has been eliminated. But the idea remains the same.” 26

I hope these examples make it clear that a permanent presence of observers at councils can make a
difference.27

2. Comparative analysis of ‘Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian
World’ and Unitatis Redintegratio

The document which the Council fathers received prior to the start of the Council had been approved
during the 5th panorthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy of October 2015. This version was
actually a much shorter summary of two earlier documents, approved during the third panorthodox
pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy (1986), and dealing with ‘The Orthodox Church and the
Ecumenical Movement’ and ‘Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Christian World’. 28 In this
document the Orthodox Church defends its ecumenical mission on the basis of its ecclesiological self-
understanding and on the basis of its view on unity. One can distinguish four parts in the document.
§§ 1-8 discuss the general principles of the Orthodox engagement in ecumenism, §§ 9-15 deal with
the bilateral dialogues of the Orthodox Church; §§ 16-21 with the position of the Orthodox Church in
the World Council of Churches and the conclusion (§§ 22-24) warns against a few problematic points
and repeats the ecumenical engagement of the Orthodox Church. 29

The ecclesiological self-understanding of the Church

The document’s opening words – “The Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic
Church” – display structural similarities with the famous line in LG 8 containing the famous subsistit
in-formulation. In that line it is said in one and the same phrase that “the One, Holy Catholic and
Apostolic Church” is concretely present (subsistit in) in the Catholic Church, and that “elements of
truth and sanctification” are found outside its boundaries. Together with LG 15 this line forms the
doctrinal basis of the ecumenical engagement of the Catholic Church. The content of both lines is,
25
Nikos A. Nissiotis, “Ecclesiology and Ecumenism of the Second Session of the Vatican Council II,” Greek
Orthodox Theological Review 10 (1964) 15-36, p. 32.
26
John Long, “Relatio supra emendationes a Patribus Conciliaribus de Capite III°, parte Ia “De Oecumenismo”
propositas” (24.2.1964; F-De Smedt 1001), p. 13.
27
See also Peter De Mey, « Vatican II comme style œcuménique? De Ecclesia et De Oecumenismo évalués par
des théologiens non-catholiques », in Vatican II comme style théologique, 149-186 and Id., “Conciliarité et
autorité au niveau universel dans l’Eglise: de Lumen Gentium au Document de Ravenne”, in Irénikon 88 (2015),
201-218.
28
Cf. Ioniță, op. cit., 167-176.
29
I follow the division proposed by Oeldemann, art. cit., 52-53.

6
however, a different one. As is well-known the ecclesiological self-understanding of the Orthodox
Church has not made the same Catholic shift from ‘est’ to ‘subsistit’ and presents the Orthodox
Church “as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (§ 1). This statement has to be read
together with § 2 of the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church: “The
Orthodox Church, faithful to this unanimous apostolic tradition and sacramental experience,
constitutes the authentic continuation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, as this is
confessed in the Symbol of faith and is confirmed in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church.”
Antoine Arjakovsky deplores that “it is not specified whether this refers to the ‘mystical’ Orthodox
Church or to the communion of the fourteen historical Churches as they exist in reality.” 30 Ivana
Noble does not even hesitate to qualify their ecclesiological self-understanding as exclusivist.” 31

Johannes Oeldemann for his part insists that the Council has nowhere stated that the Orthodox
Church is the true Church of Christ. In his reading of § 1 the particle ‘as’ “leaves the relationship
between both realities open and is, therefore, in need of interpretation.” 32 The phrase “constitutes
the authentic continuation”, thus Oeldemann goes on, “avoids an exclusivist identification of the
Orthodox Church with the Church of Jesus Christ and leaves room for theological reflections on the
ecclesiological status of the other Christian churches.” 33 He concludes that the Council of Crete
“opted for a similar formula” than the subsistit in-phrase, “in order to create an opening for the
ecumenical dialogue while holding on to the claim to represent in itself the Church of Jesus Christ in
her fullness.”34

In the opening lines of the Orthodox statement on dialogue, however, the definition of its own
ecclesiality is not followed by an unambiguous recognition of the ecclesiality of other churches, as
was the case in the famous line of UR 3 that “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as
means of salvation.” Nowhere does our document mention the imperfect communion which exists
30
Cf. Antoine Arjakovsky, http://www.wheeljournal.com/blog/2016/2/20/antoine-arjakovsky-can-the-pan-
orthodox-council-be-saved-from-shipwreck.
31
Cf. Noble, art. cit., p. 350 : « Sur le plan des relations avec les autres chrétiens, le Concile a confirmé la
participation officielle des orthodoxes au Mouvement œcuménique, tout en renforçant en même temps une
compréhension exclusive de la foi et du fondement apostolique de l’Église orthodoxe. (…) Aucune réciprocité
n’est présupposée, dans la mesure où l’une des parties du dialogue réalise la plénitude eschatologique. »
32
Cf. Oeldemann, art. cit., p. 54. One wonders, however, whether the meaning of “as” in this phrase would not
rather be: “The Orthodox Church, as she is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Would the self-
understanding of the Orthodox Church have changed so much in comparison with the Basic Principles of the
Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions, as adopted by the Jubilee
Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000? There, the opening paragraph states the following:
“The Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ established by our Lord and Saviour Himself, the Church
confirmed and sustained by the Holy Spirit. (…) She is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Cf.
https://mospat.ru/en/documents/attitude-to-the-non-orthodox/
33
Cf. Oeldemann, art. cit., p. 55.
34
Ibid. Even if I grant the structural similarity with the subsistit in-phrase, in my opinion the Council fathers
gathered in Crete expressed a stronger desire to identify their Church with the Church willed by Christ than
their colleagues in Rome had been fifty years ago. The interpretation of the substistit by the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith perhaps better fits the understanding of the Orthodox Church as “the authentic
continuation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” than that it does to the actual Catholic teaching in
LG 8. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Notification on the Book Church: Charism and Power by
Father Leonardo Boff OFM (1985): “But the Council had chosen the word subsistit – subsists – exactly in order
to make clear that one sole ‘subsistence’ of the true Church exists, whereas outside her visible structure only
elementa Ecclesiae – elements of Church – exist.” See
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19850311_notif-
boff_en.html

7
between churches as communions of baptized Christians, let alone that it combines this with a plea
for the common recognition of one another’s baptism. 35 Many Orthodox churches in the diaspora
were hesitating to sign agreements on this issue until the Great and Holy Council would make a
pronouncement, but unfortunately recognition of baptism was not discussed there.

Luckily, our document still makes a link between the ecclesiological self-understanding and the
ecumenical mission of the Orthodox Church:

The Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, in her profound ecclesiastical
self-consciousness, believes unflinchingly that she occupies a central place in the matter of the
promotion of Christian unity in the world today.36

The repetition of this idea in § 4 is even stronger:

Hence, Orthodox participation in the movement to restore unity with other Christians in the One, Holy,
Catholic and Apostolic Church is in no way foreign to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church, but
rather represents a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in new historical
circumstances.37

I am unable to mention a line of Vatican II that comes close to this, but the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum
Sint of Pope John Paul II states that ecumenism “is not just some sort of “appendix” which is added to
the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and
consequently must pervade all that she is and does.” 38

An unexpected dispute arose on the opening line of § 6 which read in the October 2015 version: “The
Orthodox Church acknowledges the historical existence of other Christian Churches and Confessions
that are not in communion with her.” The Greek-Orthodox Church insisted that one should hold on
to the terminology of “heterodox communities of confessions” and not use the term “churches”.
Metropolitan Zizioulas showed in his intervention that this historical analysis was not correct. A
compromise could be found in the following phrase: “The Orthodox Church accepts the historical
name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with
her.”39 According to Dagmar Heller in this compromise text it “was left open whether the other
35
Cf. Georgios Vlantis, „Das Heilige und Große Konzil: Herausforderungen und Erwartungen“, in Ökumenische
Rundschau 64 (2015), 357-364, p. 360: „Obwohl die Orthodoxie bereits seit Jahrzehnten eine breite
ökumenische Tätigkeit entfaltet, vermisst man ihrerseits noch immer eine klare Antwort über den ekklesialen
Status der anderen Kirchen. Solange Sie in einem exklusivistischen Verständnis des Schemas Orthodoxie-
Häresie mehr oder weniger gefesselt bleibt, kann die Andersheit der anderen Kirchen nur als Entfremdung und
Inauthentizität wahrgenommen werden. Wenn die Orthodoxie nicht weiter in die Richtung einer dynamischen
Ekklesiologie arbeitet, welche die in via-Situation von Kirchen positiv einsieht, die sich als Kirchen gemeinsam
auf dem Weg zur Wiederherstellung der vollen sichtbaren Einheit des Leibes Christi befinden, dann werden die
anti-ökumenischen Strömungen weiterhin lautstark bleiben.“ See also Michel Stavrou, “Ecumenical Relations
and the Baptism of Other Churches,” in Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 60 (2016), 205-218.
36
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 1.
37
The addition of the words “in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” makes it even more clear that
the Orthodox defend an ecumenism of return.
38
John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint: On Commitment to Ecumenism (1995), § 20. See:
http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-
sint.html
39
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 6. The term “non-Orthodox
Churches” is used in the English, French and Russian versions of the text, whereas the Greek text keeps
“heterodox Churches”. See for a detailed account of this discussion Alberto Melloni, « Le Saint et Grand Concile
de Crète, Héraklion-Kolymbari-Chania, 18-26 juin 2016», in Contacts: Revue française de l’Orthodoxie 68 (2016),

8
communities could be recognized as churches or not, but it was only recognized that they qualify
themselves as churches.”40

The vision of unity of both churches

The term “ecumenism” is not found in our document 41, but the reality is there and many of the terms
used are also found in the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council: “the restoration of
Christian unity” (§ 4), “dialogue” (§ 3).

The document at two places gives a clear definition of the criteria for Christian unity:

The Orthodox Church founds the unity of the Church on the fact of her establishment by our Lord Jesus
Christ, and on the communion in the Holy Trinity and in the Sacraments. This unity is expressed through
the apostolic succession and the patristic tradition and is lived out in the Church up to the present day. 42 

The shorter version is found in a section contrasting the Orthodox vision of unity from the one
sometimes held within the WCC: “The unity that is sought within the WCC cannot simply be the
product of theological agreements, but must also be founded on the unity of faith 43, preserved in the
sacraments and lived out in the Orthodox Church.” 44

In my reading of the Decree on Ecumenism the Council fathers preferred not to give a precise
definition of Christian unity.45 It was a conscious choice of the Council Fathers to use terminology
which can be interpreted in diverse ways. The term communio allows for gradations; the term
“ecclesial communities” still make it possible to recognize the ecclesiality of the Protestant churches

323-337, p. 334. The president of CEC, Rt. Rev. Christopher Hill, is very positive about this: “After much
agreement a consensus was achieved with the descriptive phrase ‘non-Orthodox Churches’. The retention of
the word Church was a significant victory for an open Orthodoxy. While the final text is less than some
Orthodox ecumenists wanted, it is positive and important because it brings the ecumenical movement into the
Synodal DNA of orthodoxy.” See, http://www.ceceurope.org/the-holy-and-great-council-reflections-from-cec-
president-rt-rev-christopher-hill-kcvo-dd/, p. 5. The “not in communion” of the same phrase clearly suggests,
however, that the Orthodox Church is not willing to repeat the terminology of degrees of communion, found in
the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
40
Dagmar Heller, „Das (Heilige und Groβe) Konzil der Orthodoxen Kirchen auf Kreta in ökumenischer
Perspektive“, in Ökumenische Rundschau 66 (2017), 59-72, p. 68: „Die endgültige vorliegende Formulierung ist
offenbar ein Kompromiss, der letztlich die Annahme des Textes möglich machte. Dabei wird nun offen gelassen,
ob diese anderen Gemeinschaften als Kirchen anerkannt werden können oder nicht, sondern es wird lediglich
anerkannt, dass sie sich selbst als Kirchen bezeichnen.“
41
In § 4, 6 and 7, however, the term “Ecumenical Movement” is mentioned.
42
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 2.
43
Cf. Heller, art. cit., p. 71: „Für viele Protestanten bleibt allerdings unklar, was dies im Einzelnen bedeutet.“
44
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 18.
45
This was also the opinion of the Lutheran observer Edmund Schlink, who distinguished between three
Catholic conceptions of unity in his article “The Decree on Ecumenism,” in Dialogue on the Way: Protestants
Report from Rome on the Vatican Council, ed. George A. Lindbeck (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1965), 186-230, pp.
206-208: “a) Those who are convinced that the Roman Church in her present form is a renewed and fully
Catholic church will interpret the call to reunion to mean a return to the Roman Church. b) But suppose the
Roman Church looks upon this Decree on Ecumenism as a mere beginning. The renewal of the church is still to
come. Thus the call to reunion is not the result of the Roman renewal, but a call to all Christians to have a
change of heart, to engage in dialogue, to talk with the separated brethren. (…) c) But there are also
theologians and lay people within the Roman Catholic Church who are less definite in their understanding of
future Christian unity than are the Decree on Ecumenism and the Constitution on the Church. They are
completely open on the question of the way this goal may be reached and even concerning the goal itself.”

9
without having to call them churches; despite the fact that on the website of the Vatican the term
defectus ordinis is still translated as the absence of the ordained ministry of Protestant churches 46,
ecumenists, in faithfulness to the official relatio at Vatican II, prefer to speak about deficiencies. 47 The
Catholic ecumenist Michael Root calls these “scalar concepts that allow for discernment of more or
less, rather than only an all-or-nothing concept of validity.” 48

The criteria for plena communio within the Catholic Church, however, are very clear. They are found
in LG 14, a paragraph repeating the tria vincula as formulated by Robert Bellarmine. LG 14 reads:

They are fully incorporated into the society of the church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept its
whole structure and all the means of salvation that have been established within it, and within its visible
framework are united with Christ, who governs it through the supreme pontiff and the bishops, by the
bonds of profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion.

There are Catholic ecumenists who consider these criteria as the Roman Catholic view of unity. This
is the view expressed by the current chair of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Kurt
Cardinal Koch, for whom “the goal of ecumenism is visible unity in the communion of faith,
sacraments and ecclesial ministry.”49 Such a definition comes very close to the criteria for unity
mentioned in the recent Council document of the Orthodox Church and cited above. I wonder,
however, whether the Council fathers considered the enumeration of the criteria for full communion
within the Catholic Church in LG 14 to be at the same time the Catholic view on Christian unity or
whether they preferred to stick with the absence of an unambiguous definition of the goal of
Christian unity in Unitatis Redintegratio so that both the defenders of an ecumenism of return and
Council fathers with a more open view on ecumenism could vote in favour of the decree.

Both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are convinced, however, that there exists “an
indissoluble bond between true faith and sacramental communion” 50, or, in the Catholic formulation
of UR 8, “worship in common (communicatio in sacris) is not to be considered as a means to be used
indiscriminately for the restoration of Christian unity.” Restoration of the Eucharistic communion
between Churches can only be the celebration of a rediscovered unity.
46
Cf. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-
ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html § 22: “especially because of the absence of the sacrament
of Orders…” and the response to question 5 of the Responses to Some Questions regarding Certain Aspects of
the Doctrine of the Church (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2007)
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa
-quaestiones_en.html : “… specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood.”
47
The official Relatio indicates that the Council Fathers “had to point to an essential deficiency (deficientiam
essentialem) in the celebration of the Eucharist with the communities in the West.” Cf. the following
recommendation found in the 2004 U.S. Lutheran-Catholic dialogue statement The Church as Koinonia of
Salvation: “Ecumenical understanding would be furthered if in official Roman Catholic documents Vatican II’s
reference to defectus in the sacrament of Order among “ecclesial communities” were translated by such words
as “defect” or “deficiency.” Translations of defectus as “lack” misleadingly imply the simple absence of the
reality of ordination. Translation as “defect” or “deficiency” would be consistent with the sort of real but
imperfect recognition of ministries proposed above.” (§ 108) Cf. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-
teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/lutheran/koinonia-of-salvation.cfm
48
Michael Root, “Bishops, ministry, and the Unity of the Church in Ecumenical Dialogue: Deadlock,
Breakthrough, or Both?,” in CTSA Proceedings 62 (2007), 19-35, pp. 27-28.
49
Kurt Kardinal Koch, “Progress in the Ecumenical Journey: The State of Ecumenism Today. Prolusio to the
Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, November 15, 2010,” Information Service N°
135, 2010/3-4, 75-93, p. 82.
50
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 3.

10
Dialogue as preferential ecumenical method

The preferential instrument in the attempt to restore Christian unity both for the Orthodox
document and for the Decree on Ecumenism is that of engaging into theological dialogue. 51 (UR 4)
Just as “the Orthodox Church does not underestimate the difficulties inherent in this endeavour” 52,
also UR 3 recognizes the existence of many differences between the other Christian churches and the
Roman Catholic Church. Also the idea “that this dialogue should always be accompanied by witness
to the world through acts expressing mutual understanding and love” 53 has its counterpart in UR 12:
“United in their efforts, and with mutual respect, let them bear witness to our hope which does not
disappoint us.” If proselytism is in a very nuanced way denounced in the Declaration on Religious
Freedom Dignitatis Humanae54, the list of unacceptable attitudes in the Orthodox document on
dialogue is longer and includes “very act of proselytism, uniatism or other provocative act of
interconfessional competition.”55 Both documents, finally, also see a link between efforts for
ecumenism and the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. The strongest statement of the two in this
regard remains the opening paragraph of Unitatis Redintegratio, stating that the divisions within the
one church of Christ are “contrary to Christ’s will. It is a scandal to the world and damages the sacred
cause of preaching the gospel to every creature.” (UR 1)

3. The time of ecumenism

As mentioned in the introduction, the document on Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest
of the Christian World invites not only for a comparison with the position on ecumenism developed
by the Second Vatican Council, but can also be read as a commentary on the ongoing ecumenical
dialogues in what was for the Catholic Church already a post-conciliar period.

51
The Orthodox document on unity speaks about “dialogue(s)” (§ 4, § 6, § 8, § 9, § 10, § 11, § 12, § 13, § 14, §
23) and “theological dialogue(s)” (§ 5, § 6, § 7, § 9, § 10, § 11, § 12, § 14, § 15, § 20, § 23), but always without
the addition of the word “ecumenical”.
52
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 8.
53
Ibid., § 23. The document insists, however, that the Orthodox Church should “attempt to offer with eagerness
and solidarity a response [the “unanimous response” of the draft version has been mitigated] to the thorny
problems of the contemporary world, based on the prototype of the new man in Christ.” The tone of this line is
quite similar to that found in The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and
Rights, a document adopted by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2008. Cf. the conclusion
of section I on ‘Human Dignity as a Religious and Ethical Category’: “According to the Orthodox tradition, a
human being preserves his God-given dignity and grows in it only if he lives in accordance with moral norms
because these norms express the primordial and therefore authentic nature not darkened by sin.” See
https://mospat.ru/en/documents/dignity-freedom-rights/
54
Cf. DH § 2: “This Vatican synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Such
freedom consists in this, that all should have such immunity from coercion by individuals, or by groups, or by
any human power, that no one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, nor
prevented from acting according to his conscience, whether in private or in public, whether alone or in
association with others, within due limits.”
55
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 23. The draft version did not ask yet
for an explicit condemnation of uniatism, but asked to exclude “any practice of proselytism or any outrageous
manifestations of inter-confessional antagonism.” (§ 23) In the so-called Balamand statement of the Joint
International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Church, Uniatism, Method of Unity of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion (1993), uniatism as a
method for the search for unity as well as the practice of proselytism are rejected, but the document also asks
to respect the religious freedom of Eastern Catholic Christians.

11
First the Orthodox Church expects all theological dialogues to focus on “the whole ecclesiological
question, and most especially of their more general teachings on sacraments, grace, priesthood, and
apostolic succession.”56

Thereafter the organization of the bilateral theological dialogues is described from its inception to its
conclusion. The agreement of all local Orthodox churches is required before a dialogue can start. 57
The 1986 draft version had to formulate an answer in response to a critical situation which had
occurred during the meeting of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic international dialogue in Bari one year
earlier. Because an exposition of icons from Macedonia took place at the Vatican, even if this did not
imply the recognition by the Vatican of the local Church authorities, several delegations left the
dialogue team in the course of the meeting. 58 One year later the pre-conciliar commission
determined that “the dialogue continues as long as the decision is not a pan-orthodox one.” 59 As a
post factum justification of what happened in 2007 in Ravenna, the 2015 revision determined the
canonical procedure, “should one or more local Orthodox Churches refuse to take part in the
sessions of the Joint Theological Commission of a particular dialogue, citing serious ecclesiological,
canonical, pastoral, or ethical reasons.”60 A more constructive new point about ecumenical
hermeneutics was also added, that “the distinctive problems of each bilateral dialogue require a
differentiation in the methodology followed in it, but not a differentiation in the aim, since the aim is
one in all the dialogues.”61 Also in 2015 the remarkable statement about the “the successful
conclusion of the work of any theological dialogue” was repeated, that then, a pan-Orthodox
decision would be taken “about the restoration of ecclesiastical communion.” 62 The longer
assessment of all the existing bilateral dialogues in the order of their official starting date was
omitted as of the 2015 draft.

The section on the relationship with the World Council of Churches underwent quite some changes
in the different drafts. Whereas the 1986 text reflects the growing dissatisfaction of the Orthodox
churches about certain aspects of the WCC policy, the 2015 draft and the approved conciliar
statement express satisfaction about the work achieved by the Special Commission on Orthodox
Participation in the WCC in 1998.63 There is a remarkable change in the description of the reasons
why a number of local Orthodox Churches prefer to remain members of the World Council of
Churches. The 2015 draft mentioned that, in so doing, they “contribute to the witness of truth and
promotion of unity of Christians”. The final version mentions as goal “the advancement of peaceful
co-existence and co-operation in the major socio-political challenges.” 64 Johannes Oeldemann draws

56
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 6.
57
Ibid., § 9.
58
Cf. Patrice Mahieu, Se préparer au don de l’unité: la commission internationale catholique-orthodoxe 1975-
2000 (Paris: Cerf, 2014), pp. 207-210.
59
Ibid., p. 220. Compare Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Christian World (1986), § 4 and Relations of
the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 9.
60
Ibid., § 10.
61
Ibid., § 12.
62
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Christian World (1986), § 10. Cf. Relations of the Orthodox Church
with the Rest of the Christian World, § 15.
63
The Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement, § 11. Compare Relations of the Orthodox Church with
the Rest of the Christian World, § 17. Cf. Elina Hellqvist, The Church and Its Boundaries: A Study of the Special
Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches. Schriften der Lucas-Agricola-
Gesellschaft, 65 (Helsinki: Luther Agricola Society, 2011).
64
Ibid., § 17.

12
attention to the fact that the long quote from the 1950 Toronto Declaration of the World Council of
Churches is limited to the restrictive passages in this document, insisting that the WCC is no “super-
Church”, is not entitled to prepare Church unions, cannot impose a particular ecclesiology on
member churches or even oblige them to recognize each other “as churches in the true and full
sense of the term.”65 I appreciate the addition of a word of praise – besides indicating the need of a
critical reception of the dialogue results – for the theological work done in the Commission for Faith
and Church Order.66 The most remarkable result of the latest redaction is, however, the clear
rejection of the position of those so-called “traditionalists” who consider ecumenical engagement to
be heretical:

The Orthodox Church considers all efforts to break the unity of the Church, undertaken by individuals or
groups under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy, as being worthy of
condemnation.67

Conclusion

A first sign that the Orthodox Church remains willing to be a constructive dialogue partner of the
Catholic Church was given three months after the Council of Crete. Nine years after the Ravenna
document had been approved in the absence of the delegation of the Moscow Patriarchate, a
modest-sized agreed statement was released in Chieti on Synodality and Primacy during the First
Millennium. The subtitle presents it as a long term goal to work “towards a common understanding
in service to the unity of the Church.” 68 It is also to be hoped that the Council of Crete will lead “to a
reinforcement of panorthodox synodal structures” 69 so that the remaining themes on the original
agenda of the panorthodox Council can be discussed and solved in the near future as well.

65
Ibid., § 19. Oeldemann concludes: „Ob den orthodoxen Bischöfen, die das Ökumene-Dokument
verabschiedet ahben, bewusst war, dass die Toronto-Erklärung auch positive Aussagen über die anderen
Kirchen enthält? Wenn Aussagen wie „Die Mitgliedskirchen erkennen an, dass die Mitgliedschaft in der Kirche
Christi umfassender ist als die Mitgliedschaft in ihrer eigenen Kirche“ oder „Die Mitttgliedskirchen des
Ökumenischen Rates erkennen in anderen Kirchen Elemente der wahren Kirche an“ ebenfalls zu den
„ekklesiologischen Voraussetzungen“ zählten, die „von entscheidender Bedeutung für die orthodoxe Mitarbeit
im Rat“ sind (Nr. 19), stünde das ökumenische Engagement der Orthodoxen Kirche auf einem ähnlichen
Fundament wie das der katholischen Kirche.“ Cf. Oeldemann, art. cit., 53-54.
66
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, § 21. The final line of this paragraph
adds the theological reason for the Orthodox Church’s “reservations concerning paramount issues of faith and
order”: “because the non-Orthodox Churches and Confessions have diverged from the true faith of the One,
Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
67
Ibid., § 22.
68

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2016
0921_sinodality-primacy_en.html
Cf. Oeldemann, art. cit., p. 58: „Meine abschlieβende These lautet, dass die in Chieti erfolgte orthodox-
katholische Verständigung gerade durch die Auseinandersetzungen um die Synode von Kreta befördert wurde.
Denn sie hat den Orthodoxen vor Augen geführt, dass die auf orthodoxer Seite immer wieder betonte
Synodalität kein Selbstläufer ist, sondern konkreter Verfahren und Umsetzungsformen bedarf, damit synodale
Beratungen erfolgreich geführt werden können.“
69
Georgios Vlantis, art. cit., p. 41.

13