VATICAN CITY — Amid new signs of strain between Roman Catholics and other Christian faiths, the Vatican's secretary of state on Friday defended moves by Pope John Paul II to restore his church's influence in the Soviet Union and the formerly Communist lands of Eastern Europe.
At a historic assembly of European bishops, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in effect the Vatican's prime minister, spoke in response to criticism from representatives of Eastern Orthodox churches who see John Paul's call for the "re-evangelization" of Europe as a threat to their own religious authority.
A number of Orthodox churches refused invitations to the synod.
One Orthodox representative who did come, Metropolitan Spyridon Papagheorghiou, representing the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomeus, told the 137 synod bishops and their Pope that Orthodox church leaders from Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece stayed home because of the "very strong tensions with the local Roman Catholic communities."
"The whole of the Orthodox church is understandably perplexed (and has) the impression that we are drifting further and further away from Vatican Council II. Territories and countries, for centuries traditionally Orthodox and now liberated from Communist regimes, are considered by our Roman Catholic brothers as missionary ground.
"The difficult work of reconciliation between the two churches is now seriously compromised," he said in remarks that triggered Sodano's forceful response Friday.
The Metropolitan was alluding to three decades of dialogue aimed at repairing the 1,000-year-old rift between the Catholic church and the 300-million-member Orthodox churches. Defending papal initiatives to name new bishops and help re-establish church hierarchies and influence, Sodano detailed the survival-despite-suppression of Catholic churches in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and said the Vatican feels an obligation to believers there.
Sodano's remarks came a day after the Vatican acknowledged that, after a 25-year search for common ecumenical ground with the Anglican Church, there remain "important differences regarding essential matters of Catholic doctrine."
As the synod, due to end Dec. 14, moved toward its final week, the Vatican issued a report underlining impediments to finding common ground with the 70-million-member Anglican Church, the Protestant denomination whose beliefs are closest to those of Catholics.
Formally responding to a 1981 report of ecumenical dialogue begun in 1967, the Vatican applauded "notable progress." But it said the Church of England's ordination of women priests, its reservations about doctrines concerning the Virgin Mary and its refusal to acknowledge papal infallibility "seriously hinder the restoration of full communion in faith, and in the sacramental life."