Reconciling East and West

Richard John Neuhaus

I

We have no sure plan or program for the healing of
the division between East and West. We have only the
imperative, the call to obedience to the will of Christ.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann was fond of saying that
ecclesial reconciliation between East and West would
require a pan-Orthodox council and, he added, a panOrthodox council is an eschatological concept. In a
similar vein, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has written
over the years that hope for full communion among all
Christians partakes of the eschatological. We must, he
says, be open to a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit, which we cannot anticipate and which we most certainly cannot schedule or control. But to speak of the
eschatological is not to despair. On the contrary, eschatology is filled with hope and entails our readiness to
respond to the unforeseen and unforeseeable breakingin of possibilities not of our own devising. We work,
we pray, we hope, we wait. In ecumenism, as in all
endeavors that surpass our direction, readiness is all.
Faithfulness is all.
Faithfulness is commitment—irrevocable commitment. Once, in conversation with John Paul II, I asked
him, "When you were elected pope, and not knowing
whether your pontificate would be long or short, what
was the one thing that you most wanted to achieve?"
Without a moment's hesitation, he said, "Christian
unity. " He then went on to explain why Christian unity
means,firstof all and above all, reconciliation between
East and West. The healing must begin where the divisions began. This understanding was set forth in 1995 in
the great encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint—
"That They May Be One." Ut Unum Sint, together
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS is editor in chief of FIRST THINGS. with the decree on ecumenism from the Second Vatican
This article is adaptedfrom a lecture delivered this summerCouncil,
at St.
forms the magna carta of the Catholic
Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, New York. Church's irrevocable commitment.

t is no secret that the quest for Christian unity has
come upon hard times. As a Catholic, one's first
duty is to make it clear that the Catholic Church is
neither wearied nor disillusioned about the quest for
unity. To the visible unity of the one Church of Christ,
understood as full communion, the Catholic Church
is, as the present pope and his predecessor have repeatedly said, irrevocably committed. Irrevocably, as in
unshaken and unshakeable. I have sometimes
observed, only half-whimsically, that the only thing
lacking for full communion between East and West is
full communion. It is a goal so very close and yet, or so
it seems, so very far.
For Catholics, recent years have made full communion with Protestants seem a receding hope. This is
notably the case with the Lutherans and the Anglicans,
with whom ecumenical dialogue once appeared to hold
such high promise of reconciliation. The hope for unity
among all Christians is also formidably challenged by
the fissiparous growth of thousands of new Christian
communities in the Global South.
Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Church, however, there are powerful continuities of
apostolic ministry, doctrine, and devotion that bind us
together in our division. It is between us that the
wounds in the Body of Christ began, and it is not
unreasonable to believe that it is between us that the
healing must begin. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have
a unique responsibility as stewards of an understanding
of ecclesial unity that is faithful to the apostolic tradition from which all authentic Christianity is derived.

23

24
Truth to tell, many Orthodox, like many Protestants in the West, do not need to be persuaded that
Rome is irrevocably committed to ecclesial unity. That
is precisely what they worry about. The Catholic
Church is often seen as the threatening giant of the
Christian world. Of the more than two billion Christians in the world, over half are Catholic and, for all the
diversities and tensions, they are united through a vast
network of ministries and institutions under the leadership of the bishop of Rome. There is an understandable
fear, reinforced by long and bitter memories, of Rome's
"ecclesiastical imperialism." There is the understandable suspicion that, for the Catholic Church, ecclesial
reconciliation means ecclesial capitulation by nonCatholics. Such fears and suspicions were centuries in
the making, and it may be centuries before they are
overcome, if they are ever overcome entirely.
Writing in FIRST THINGS in March 2001, the
Orthodox theologian David Hart put it blundy: "As
unfair as it may seem, to Orthodox Christians it often
appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the
pope's supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant
ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the
Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox
concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see
in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous
ecclesial empire."
I am convinced that the dynamic that drives the
Catholic Church's irrevocable commitment to Christian unity is not an exercise of power or desire for
aggrandizement, never mind ecclesiastical conquest.
Quite the opposite is the case. It is not power but
weakness that impels the quest for unity. That is to say,
the Catholic Church frankly admits that she cannot be
fully what she claims to be apart from other Christians
and, most particularly, apart from the Orthodox.
Remember John Paul's frequent references to the
Church once again "breathing with both lungs," East
and West. That is a metaphor, but it is not merely a
metaphor. We need one another to be fully who we are.

I

t is different with the self-understanding of the various Protestant denominations and ecclesial
communities. They generally have a different ecclesiology, a different understanding of what it means
to be the Church. They believe, as indeed do Orthodox
and Catholics, in the "invisible Church" of all believers, living and dead, but here on earth their churches are
viewed as human constructs of voluntary association.
While most of them agree that greater unity among
Christians, in terms of understanding and cooperation,
is highly desirable, it is not necessary to being what
they believe they are. An exception must be made for
some Anglicans, such as those in the Fellowship of St.

FIRST THINGS

Alban and St. Sergius, but it seems increasingly, and
sadly, obvious that they do not represent the future of
the Anglican communion.
For Catholics and Orthodox, it is very different.
While it is true that the sacramental fullness of the
Church is present in every righdy ordered particular or
local church, the constitution of the one, holy, catholic,
and apostolic Church is comprehensive, as in universal.
The Church is the apostolically ordered community of
faith and worship through time until the end of time.
That understanding is grievously violated and weakened by our disunity, depriving each of us of spiritual
gifts intended to be shared with all. This, combined
with obedience to our Lord's will that we be visibly
one, is the driving dynamic of the Catholic Church's
irrevocable commitment to Christian unity understood as full communion.
To be sure, there are Catholics, as there are also
Orthodox, who are content to say that theirs is the one
true Church, and, in their inflated sense of self-sufficiency, they reject the ecumenical imperative. For
them, ecumenism is too often an optional interest to be
indulged only up to the point that it threatens to disturb their contentment with the way they are. This way
of thinking is alien to the ecclesiology of both Catholic
and Orthodox Christians—for whom the Church, as
apostolically constituted by our Lord himself, is in its
visible unity to be the witness through time of God's
saving purposes for all mankind. Our divisions are a
skandolon, a stumbling block, a snare, and a trap, an
evidence of our disobedience. For this reason, Ut
Unum Sint repeatedly insists that genuine ecumenism
requires conversion. John Paul writes:
Here once again the Council proves helpful. It
can be said that the entire Decree on Ecumenism is permeated by the spirit of conversion. In the Document, ecumenical dialogue
takes on a specific characteristic; it becomes a
"dialogue of conversion" and thus, in the
words of Pope Paul VI, an authentic "dialogue
of salvation." Dialogue cannot take place
merely on a horizontal level, being restricted
to meetings, exchanges of points of view, or
even the sharing of gifts proper to each Community. It has also a primarily vertical thrust,
directed towards the One who, as the
Redeemer of the world and the Lord of history, is himself our Reconciliation. This vertical
aspect of dialogue lies in our acknowledgment,
jointly and to each other, that we have sinned.
It is precisely this acknowledgment which creates in brothers and sisters living in Communities not in full communion with one another
that interior space where Christ, the source of
the Church's unity, can effectively act, with all
the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete.

DECEMBER

John Paul, like his predecessor Paul VI, candidly
acknowledged that the primacy of Peter, established by
Christ for the unity of his Body, has, in the eyes of
many, become a chief obstacle to reconciliation. He
therefore asked the churches not in communion with
Rome to join with the bishop of Rome in seeking "to
find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no
way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is
nonetheless open to a new situation."

T

25

2008

he response to this invitation has been, to put it
gendy, mixed. In 1999, the Anglican-Roman
Catholic International Commission published
a noteworthy document, "Authority in the Church,"
which recognized the need for a primacy in the universal Church and recognized also the ways in which
Rome has supplied that need in the past. Regrettably,
recent developments have raised the question of
whether the members of that commission are reflective of the identity and direction of the Anglican
communion.
As for the Orthodox, Patriarch Bartholomew of
Constantinople at one point flady stated, to the surprise of many, that Christ gave Peter no higher authority than that given to all the apostles. At a symposium
in Rome in 1997, however, several Orthodox theologians addressed the Petrine ministry, with Prof.
Dumitru Popescu suggesting that there are four main,
and not mutually exclusive, interpretations of the
words of Jesus in Matthew 16, "You are Peter." The
first is that Peter himself is the rock on which Christ
would build his Church; the second is that the promise
is given to all the aposdes who share Peter's confession
of faith; the third is that the rock is the faith confessed
by Peter; and the fourth is that the rock is Christ himself, whom Peter confessed.
After tracing the history of these different interpretations, Propescu suggested: "Orthodoxy accepts a
primacy of the bishop of Rome, but a primacy of service— The government of the Church is synodal or
collégial. The experience of the papacy can be of great
importance for Christian unity but, in order to be
accepted by everyone, it has to be exercised in the context of an ecclesiology which situates communion both
at the visible level and at the invisible level of the
Church, that is, which relates communion to the institutional aspect of the Church." In making the distinction between the two aspects of the Church, communion and institution, Propescu referenced the great
Dominican ecclesiologist Yves Congar.
At the same symposium, Metropolitan John of
Pergamon (John Zizioulas) declared that it would be a
grave error to reduce the pope's primacy to his status as
patriarch of the West. "Such an understanding of the

Roman primacy," he said, "would lead to a scheme of
division of the world into two parts, the West and the
East." Among other problems, that leaves unaddressed
the question of who holds primacy over parts of the
world that were unknown at the time of Rome,
Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.
In Propescu's view, a universal primacy would be not
only useful but also necessary in a unified Church governed by an ecclesiology of communion. Such a primate, he explained, would be "the President of all heads
of churches and the spokesman of the entire Church in
promulgating decisions reached by consensus."
In another contribution to the symposium, Nicolas
Lossky of Saint Sergius in Paris contended that the primacy of Rome cannot be reduced to a mere primacy of
honor, which, he says, means "practically nothing."
Primacy and conciliarity, he says, necessarily imply
each other. Were communion to be restored between
Rome and the Orthodox churches, Rome could again
serve as the final court of appeal in disputes among
bishops. Most Orthodox theologians, he believes,
would accept the primacy of Rome as it was exercised
during thefirstmillennium.

T

he most thorough response to the invitation of
John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint is that of Olivier
Clement, also of Saint Sergius, in his 1997 book
translated under the title A Different Rome? An
Orthodox Reflects on the Papacy. As Avery Cardinal
Dulles wrote, "This book, solidly rooted in the
Orthodox tradition, is, I suspect, almost exacdy the
kind of response for which Pope John Paul II was
hoping." Dulles connects Clement's argument to the
thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar and notes that "In
any discussion of office and primacy, care must be
taken not to let that one question dominate the whole
field of ecclesiology." Balthasar, it will be remembered,
distinguishes four archetypal dimensions of the
Church: the Petrine, representing hierarchical office;
the Pauline, representing charismatic mission; the
Johannine, representing contemplative love; and the
Marian, representing virginal fruitfulness and the universal call to holiness. Since he is addressing the primacy, Clement naturally accents the Petrine, but he keeps
all four dimensions in play.
In his Trinitarian theology, Clement depicts the
Church in familiar terms as the House ofthe Father, the
Body of the Son, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
The universal Church exists as a plurality of local
churches, in each of which the whole Church is mystically present. This is, of course, in full accord with the
Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church,
Lumen Gentium, which says, "The Church of Christ
is truly present in all legitimate local congregations of

26
the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called churches in the New Testament." As the
council added in its decree on bishops, in each diocesan
church "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is
truly present and operative."
Clement holds, as does Vatican II, that the primacy
accorded to Peter is primacy within, not over, the college of bishops. He insists that the preeminence of
Rome from early times was based not on geographical,
political, or economic considerations but on the persons of Peter and Paul, who conducted their ministries
in Rome and there died as martyrs. He holds that the
three famous Petrine texts—Matthew 16, Luke 22, and
John 21—clearly accent the person of Peter. While
Peter is reprimanded by the Lord and on one occasion
rebuked by Paul, this is nothing to the point, since it is
never suggested that Peter and his successors are without sin. Indeed, John Paul writes in Ut Unum Sint, "It
is important to note how the weakness of Peter and of
Paul clearly shows that the Church is founded on the
infinite power of grace."
Clement is a master of the patristic tradition and
marshals an extraordinary collection of testimonies
from the early centuries to the transmission of Peter's
office of primacy to the bishops of Rome. The testimonies to the primacy extend well into the second millennium, as is evident in the distinguished Byzantine
theologians of the eleventh, twelfth, and even fifteenth
centuries who were critical of popes precisely because
they held them responsible, as the successors of Peter,
for the direction of the universal Church. It is by no
means adequate, says Clement, to describe this merely
as a primacy of honor or to say that the pope is "the
first among equals."
But the primacy is always to be exercised collegially. This truth, says Clement, was obscured by Vatican I
but recovered by Vatican II, which, he says, restored to
the episcopal ministry its full sacramentality and
reestablished the common responsibility of pope and
bishops for the leadership of the universal Church.
This correction was crucial to the establishment of the
"dialogue of charity" initiated by Paul VI and Patriarch
Athenagoras I of Constantinople and the later dialogue
of the "mixed commission" that, whatever the difficulties encountered, must be viewed as a sign pregnant
with hope for eventual reconciliation.

O

ne notes that the pontificates of John Paul II
and Benedict XVI have continued to build on
the initiatives of Paul VI. While Benedict has
not to date issued new teaching documents on the
Catholic Church's relationship with the East, one notes
that he, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was John Paul's
closest collaborator in statements such as Slavorum

FIRST THINGS

Apostoli (1985), Euntes in Mundum (1988), Orientale
Lumen (1995), and, of course, Ut Unum Sint. While
Clement's book was published eight years before the
election of Benedict, the trajectory of Catholic teaching
and action that he examines with critical appreciation
has only accelerated in subsequent years.
At the same time, Clement is critical of certain
developments in Orthodoxy. He is most particularly
critical of the autocephalism of national churches that
became a prominent feature of Orthodoxy in the past
two centuries. Catholics will recognize disturbing parallels with Gallicanism, which practically withdrew
French churches from their allegiance to Rome for several centuries, along with similar nationalistic movements in Germany and Austria. The papal revival of
the nineteenth century entailed the rejection of what
might be described as a Western version of autocephalism by which nationalism and civil government controlled the direction of the Church. In the West, this
circumstance was called, and many still call it today, the
ancien régime, but of course there was nothing ancient
about it. It was, rather, a distorted moment of history in
which nationalism and the unbridled ambitions of
nation states radically disordered the apostolically constituted leadership of the Church of Christ.
Fr. Schmemann wrote that "the need for and the
reality of a universal head, that is, the bishop of Rome,
can no longer be termed an exaggeration. If the Church
is a universal organism, she must have at her head a universal bishop as the focus of her unity and the organ of
supreme power. The idea, popular in Orthodox apologetics, that the Church can have no visible head because
Christ is her invisible head is theological nonsense. If
applied consistendy, it should also eliminate the necessity for the visible head of each local church, i.e. the
bishop." Schmemann continued: "The principle of
autocephaly has indeed been for the last few centuries
the unique principle of organization in Orthodoxy
and, therefore, its 'acting' canonical rule. The reason is
clear: 'Autocephaly' with this particular meaning is
fully adequate to the specifically Eastern form of
Christian 'nationalism,' or reduction of the Church to
the 'natural world.'... All the deficiencies in the ecclesiological conscience of the East can be ascribed to two
major sources: the close 'identification' of the Church
with the state . . . and religious nationalism. Both
explain the unchallenged triumph of the theory of
'autocephaly.'"

T

he contentions, suspicions, andrivalriesgenerated by autocephaly sometime lead Catholics to
view Orthodoxy with a certain condescension.
As David Hart explained, "Often Western Christians,
justifiably offended by the hostility with which their

DECEMBER

advances are met by certain Orthodox, assume that the
greatest obstacle to reunion is Eastern immaturity and
divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of 'psychology,' and the only counsel offered is one of
'patience.' Fair enough. Decades of Communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible
tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox
world into a contentious f ederacy of national churches
struggling to preserve their own regional identities
against every 'alien' influence, and under such conditions only the more obdurate stock survives."
Fully aware of such dynamics, Olivier Clement
nonetheless insists on the special role of Peter in the
New Testament, the "mystery" of the presence of Peter
and Paul in Rome, and the "presidency of love"| that
ancient Eastern authorities consistently attributed to
the Church of Rome. It was, Clement believes, an antiCatholic hysteria that swept over Eastern Orthodoxy
that poisoned the atmosphere so that the fifteenth-century Union Council of Florence was misrepresented as
a council of capitulation. Like Hart, he discerns a disturbing degree of such anti-Catholic hysteria in some
parts of Orthodoxy only recendy freed from the Soviet
imperium.
At the same time, Clement is sharply critical of
aspects of the Catholic Church, and some of his criticisms must be taken to heart by Catholics. He highlights historical instances in which popes failed to be
fully faithful to the "faith once delivered to the saints,"
even if they did not invoke the fullness of their authority in support of error. And, of course, Catholics will
agree on the exaggerated claims some popes made for
their office during the Middle Ages, especially with
respect to their authority over the secular realm. And
nobody should want to deny that, in reaction to the
Protestant schism of the sixteenth century, the Catholic
Counter-Reformation sometimes too narrowly construed the Church in jurisdictional and legalistic terms,
which stifled the many charisms of the Holy Spirit.

I

27

2008

n Catholicism, the patristic revival of the early
twentieth century, advanced under the banner of
ressourcement, did much to correct the narrowly
institutional ecclesiology that had dominated for several centuries, lifting up a more organic understanding of
the Church as the Mystical Body. These changes,
drawing heavily on the previously neglected wisdom
of Orthodoxy, contributed to the muchricherand livelier ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. Without that ressourcement associated with figures such as
Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Yves
Congar, it is hard to see how Vatican II could have
done justice, as it did, to a complex and coherent ecclesiology in which the Church is understood both as a

visible community of hierarchical order and as an invisible community of grace animated by the Holy Spirit.
Nobody should deny that the Catholic Church
has attimestreated the Eastern churches with insufficient respect and even hostility. In his book After Nine
Hundred Years, Yves Congar showed how hostilities
on both sides were frequendy driven by political and
cultural conflicts. In the Middle Ages, the papacy was
too much a party of the Carolingian Empire in its
rivalry with Byzantium. Nonetheless, Leo III and his
successors, fearing a break with the East, resisted the
pressure of Western emperors to insert the filioque—
the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the
Father and the Son—into the creed. Finally, in the
ninth century, the papacy relented and accepted aie fil·
ioque on the grounds that it was theologically orthodox, it guarded against Arian tendencies, and it was in
harmony with the sense of the faithful at prayer, as
experienced in local churches over three or four centuries. Today, in the Catholic understanding, the fil·
toque is no longer a church-dividing issue, and it is
of great importance to note that the Eastern-rite
churches that are in full communion with Rome do
not include thefilioquein the creed.

Y

et there are so many memories that reinforce
bitterness and alienation. Historians dispute
precisely who did what to whom and why, but
among such memories is certainly the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. When he visited Athens
on May 4, 2001, John Paul II addressed Archbishop
Christodoulos with these words: "Some memories are
especially painful, and some events of the distant past
have left deep wounds in the minds of hearts of people
to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the
imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long
the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that
the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for
Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own
brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin
ChristiansfillsCatholics with deep regret. How can we
fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the
human heart?"
As Cardinal Dulles writes, "It is important for
Catholics and Orthodox to review the past together,
listen respectfully to one another's stories, and recognize the faults and errors of their own forebears." Only
after such a candid and painful review, says Dulles,
"can we begin to construct a common history in which
the past of the other community becomes, at least to a
significant extent, our own past. Only then can we
hope to achieve a common future."
From the Catholic perspective, one is tempted to
say that the only thing lacking for full communion

28

FIRST THINGS

with the Orthodox is full communion. If there are
doctrinal differences, they are few, and one can see the
way not around them but through them. To be sure,
there are understandable anxieties about the relation­
ship between primacy and "jurisdiction." Vatican II,
and the statements of John Paul and Benedict, make
clear that the pope governs as a bishop among bishops,
not as an emperor or king. In statements on reconcili­
ation with the East, there is no suggestion that papal
jurisdiction as it is exercised in the West is a condition
for full communion. In these and other matters, it is
suggested that such ecclesial reconciliation would in
some ways resemble the "undivided Church" of the
first millennium rather than the Catholic Church of
the second millennium.
There is, of course, the question of the ecumenical
councils that the Orthodox do not recognize as being
ecumenical. One remembers, however, that the West
did not view Constantinople I (381) or Nicea II (787) as
being ecumenical, and for understandable reasons. But
they were subsequendy approved by Rome and
became, so to speak, ecumenical after the fact. Dulles
writes: "The dogmatic decrees of the Western ecumeni­
cal councils purport to declare truths that should be
accepted by all Christians on the basis of divine revela­
tion. But unless or until these councils have been
received in the East (as re-read in the light of Oriental
tradition), their decrees cannot be binding on Ortho­
dox believers. Full communion, as I understand it, will
require the acceptance by both Catholics and Ortho­
dox of all the dogmas that are held by the other com­
munity to be matters of faith."
Here, too, one can agree with Orthodox theologian
Fr. John Erickson who has written that, in order to
reach unity, we cannot simply return to the "undivided
Church of thefirstmillennium." Neither Catholics nor
Orthodox could live with an agreement that simply
ignored the developments of the last thousand years.
This does not mean that it is necessary to agree on all
these developments. The definition of infallibility by
Vatican Council I, for instance, is a major obstacle.

Clement writes that Orthodox and Catholics must
"proceed to a common reflection on decisions made in
the centuries of division, and especially on a re-exami­
nation of the dogma of 1870, already partially balanced
by Vatican II."
It does seem possible that we could agree on
revealed doctrine while, as Cardinal Dulles suggests,
"allowing certain secondary questions to stand as mat­
ters for theological discussion." Already, for instance,
there would seem to be no essential dogmatic disagree­
ment on the procession of the Holy Spirit as that is pre­
sented by thefilioque question. And it seems possible
that the Orthodox could agree on the Bishop of Rome
as the successor of Peter with a primacy of teaching and
ruling authority along the lines suggested by Ut Unum
Sint. This assumes that there would be accommoda­
tions and differences with respect to how that authori­
ty is exercised in the East and the West, and, quite
likely, different ecclesiological opinions that would be
in the realm of theological discussion and would pose
no obstacle to full communion.
We do not know how much time we have. It is pos­
sible that, in the larger picture of God's purposes in his­
tory, we are the early Church. As Dulles notes, it took
fourteen centuries for Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians to begin to realize that they were fundamen­
tally in agreement about the divinity and humanity of
Christ. "We may hope that the deep wounds mutually
inflicted on each other by Orthodox and Catholics at
the dawn of the second millennium will not take four­
teen centuries to heal."
I cited at the outset the view of Alexander Schme­
mann and Joseph Ratzinger that reconciliation
between East and West can seem an eschatological
horizon. This is not an excuse for procrastination or
indolence. On the contrary, eschatological hope is rea­
son for temporal urgency. Such hope underscores that
what we do or fail to do matters eternally. Because it is
the will of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we be
one, our present work for reconciliation matters
eternally. Ξ

Self-portrait at Fifty
None of this can be denied:
crabby,flabby,full of pride;
hypertensive, pensive, snide;
slowing, growing terrified.

—A.M. Juster

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