The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Churches in the First Millenium
By Protopresbyter Anastasios Gotsopoulos
The 14th Meeting of the Joint International Committee for the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Theological Dialogue in Chieti, Italy (15-22.9.2016). Were the Western Orthodox Fathers ignored in the committee’s search for a common understanding of the role of the Pope in the First Millenium?
FROM THE CAREFUL STUDY OF THE ACTS AND DECISIONS OF THE ECUMENICAL COUNCILS we can define with certainty the place of the Church of Rome and her bishop within the communion of all the local Churches during the era of the Ecumenical Synods:
The position of the ancient Church has been recorded in an official and categorical manner in the “synodal decree”, the “Horos” of the 5thEcumenical Synod: “During the common deliberations, the light of truth dissipates the darkness of falsehood, once teach of the things suggested for discussion are placed under judgment. Because in matters of faith, no one has the right to go forward on behalf of the entire Church since all of us have need of our neighbor”. It would be no exaggeration for us to say that the 5th Ecumenical Synod, in the Holy Spirit, foresaw the development of the West and censured dogmatically in an explicit and forthright manner Vatican I’s dogma of papal infallibility. According to the Synod, the pope cannot be infallible, either ex sese or ex consensus Ecclesia.
In the official Theological Dialogue of the Orthodox Church and Rome, it has been suggested that the “principle of unity in diversity” can provide a means of overcoming the impasse which the papal dogmas have created. This suggestion, according to its proponents, is based on the decision of the Synod of Constantinople in 879-8801, but as it is currently formulated, it in essence merely carries out the program of the Decree “concerning Ecumenism”2 from the Second Vatican Council3 and seeks the unity of the Churches in spite of differences in dogma. In the other words, the Western Christians will accept their dogma concerning St. Peter and the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility as they have been formulated by the first and second Vatican Councils, without however demanding their imposition upon the Eastern Church, so that the Orthodox are not required to accept them as long as they do not characterize them as an heretical falling away from the ancient faith and practice of the Church. This was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI came to formulate this proposal.4 According to this view, the ancient Church governed itself this way: the West accepted the papal primacy of authority without imposing it upon the East and the East tolerated this difference of Western practice without condemning it as an ecclesiological aberration; East and West believed differently but in spite of this, we remained in full ecclesiastical communion5. Put another way, “legitimate diversity is in no way opposed to the Church’s unity, but rather enhances her splendor and contributes greatly to the fulfillment of her mission”6.
Before we proceed to our necessary and brief critique of this suggestion it is necessary to understand its true implications. Particularly revealing on this point is the speech which Pope John Paul II gave to the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs (Uniates) in 29/9/1998.
Among other things, he said to the Uniate Patriarchs: “I ask you to give the Pope your help in the name of that responsibility for re-establishing full communion with the Orthodox Churches (cf. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, n. 24) which belongs to you as Patriarchs of Churches that share so much of the theological, liturgical, spiritual and canonical patrimony with Orthodoxy. In this same spirit and for the same reason, I would like your Churches to be fully associated with the ecumenical dialogues of charity and of doctrine at both the local and universal levels”. And the pope continues, “The particular role of the Eastern Catholic Churches [he means here the Uniates] corresponds to the one left unfilled by the lack of full communion with the Orthodox Churches. Both the Second Vatican Council’s Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum and the Apostolic Constitution Sacri canones (pp. IX-X) which accompanied the publication of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches have pointed out how the present situation, and the rules governing it, look towards the full communion we desire between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Your collaboration with the Pope and with one another will show the Orthodox Churches that the tradition of ‘synergy’ between Rome and the Patriarchates has been maintained — although limited and wounded — and perhaps also strengthened for the good of the one Church of God present throughout the world”7.
The above texts shows clearly how Rome desires and seeks—despite its assurances to the contrary8—full communion obtained with Orthodoxy on the basis of an enhanced version of the Unia9 which can also include the Orthodox10. Toward this aim, the contribution of the principle “diversity in unity” is formative11, despite the fact that is it neither historically proven nor theologically acceptable as presented here.
The study of the acts and decisions of the Ecumenical Synods demonstrates as historically fabricated the contention that in the ancient Church of the first millennium the East and West held different beliefs about the position of the Bishop of Rome. On the contrary, we see clearly that in spite of the fact that Church of Rome’s lineage from St. Peter was recognized, even the Western-Latin Church never accepted any form of papal supremacy of jurisdiction (primacy of authority) over the entire Church, nor did it recognize the pope as possessor of an exclusive right to articulate the faith, never mind any form of infallibility. We remind the reader succinctly of:
All of the above demonstrate that in the Western Church in the time of the Ecumenical Synods recognized no “petrine primacy” or “petrine function of unity” nor any supreme authority over the entire Church or the ability to pronounce infallibly on matters of faith. The occasional expressions of papal representatives or of certain papal epistles which explicitly demand some kind of primacy of authority were never representative of the understanding of the whole Western Church nor did they reflect western theology within the patriarchate of Rome during the time of the Ecumenical Synods. Hence, we can see that during the first eight centuries of the life of the Church, East and West held to identical views concerning the basic ecclesiological principles which governed the role of the patriarchal Churches including that of the Bishop of Rome.
Neverthless, even if we did suppose that there existed an important difference in views between East and West during the first eight centuries regarding the essence and role of the primacy of honor of the Bishop of Rome — a fact which as we have demonstrated cannot be proven from the acts and decisions of the Ecumenical Synods—we would stress that the reality we live today is completely different. After the First and Second Vatican Councils we have —according to Rome— fundamental dogmas of faith which belong to the “essential and unchanging structure of the Church”14 and those who deny them are anathematized by the “ecumenical” Synod of Vatican I and this remains the case with the “ecumenical” Synod of Vatican II.
Consequently, the attempt on the part of certain theologians to present the papal dogmas of Vatican I as having the same intended meanings as some declarations of papal legates or papal epistles in the early Church are clearly misleading.
Additionally, the implementation of the “principle of diversity in unity” not merely in ecclesiastical customs of minor importance, but in the realm of basic ecclesiological dogmas which touch upon the very structure and being of the Church ecclesiologically unacceptable. If, according to the papal ecclesiology of Vatican I, the denial of the papal dogmas is evidence of a serious ecclesiological deficiency15 then we do not have a Church of Christ, because a Church with ecclesiological deficiencies is completely unthinkable! Moreover, it is unthinkable that the western part of this “united Church” being established (?) can consider as ecclesiologically fundamental the dogmas concerning St. Peter and papal primacy and infallibility (as articulated by Vatican I and II) while the eastern portion denies them. Never in the life of the Church of Christ were dogmas considered obligatory for the faithful of a particular region (or ritual) while another region was given the ability to deny them. It is not comprehensible how we can belong to the same “united Church” where the Westerners must accept as a dogma of the faith necessary for salvation that the pope is infallible when he pronounces ex cathedra while the rest of the faithful are free to categorically deny this.
It is obviously unthinkable that the Orthodox Church could accept the principle of “diversity in unity” as it has been articulated recently and equally so the proposal stemming from it formulated by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, later pope Benedict XVI.
Hence if the “principle of diversity in unity” as it has been presented in recent years, cannot be implemented to achieve the much-desired union of East and West, what would a suitable proposal look like for the overcoming of the division among Christians? I think the only hope for the restoration of ecclesiastical unity lies exclusively honest repentance alone; an honest repentance which presupposes and at the same time is realized only by a return in humility to the basic theological principles and presuppositions with the which the Church lived by in the time of the Ecumenical Synods. Humility will draw divine Grace and then unity will be achieved not by an untried, diplomatic compromise that relies on ambiguity of dogmatic expression which will only contribute to further bitterness and problems, but instead divine Grace will achieve the real and genuine “unity of faith and communion of the Holy Spirit”.
* This article is the conclusions of the master’s thesis entitled “The Church of Rome and its bishop in the minutes and decisions of the Ecumenical Councils“, 2016, p. 400.
1 MANSI 17, 489B : “The holy synod said, each throne has ancient traditional customs, and concerning these there should be no disputation or quarreling one with another. The Church of the Romans guards her customs and this is fitting, while the Church of Constantinople guards her own customs which she has received from above and all of the sees of the East do in like manner”. The Synod however, as it mentions later, speaks about mass ordinations and not about the crucial theological issues which have implications for the very structure and essence of the Church and the faith such as the papal doctrines about Rome.
2 For a detailed analysis from an Orthodox perspective of UR, see Fr. Peter Alban Heers, The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II: An Orthodox Examination of Rome’s Ecumenical Theology Regarding Baptism and the Church, Uncut Mountain Press. Simpsonville, 2015.
3 “We can say without reservation that at the heart of the Decree we encounter the issue of unity and diversity. And even though the issue is raised explicitly in the three chapters of the text, nevertheless it emerges as mean of reading and comprehending the entire text”, See W. Henn, “At the Heart of Unitatis Redintegratio. Unity in Diversity”, Gregorianum 88(2007) 2, 330. “Decree on Ecumenism”, §16-18, found online at <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vat…>: “16. Already from the earliest times the Eastern Churches followed their own forms of ecclesiastical law and custom, which were sanctioned by the approval of the Fathers of the Church, of synods, and even of ecumenical councils. Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls. The perfect observance of this traditional principle not always indeed carried out in practice, is one of the essential prerequisites for any restoration of unity. 17. What has just been said about the lawful variety that can exist in the Church must also be taken to apply to the differences in theological expression of doctrine”, See also Ut Unum Sint § 57. The proposal of “unity in diversity” is put forth as the basis for the union of all Christians by Pope Leo XIII. The Synod of Constantinople answer him in 1895 in a letter contained in Karmiris’ collection of dogmatic documents, vol. 2, p. 934. [tr. An English translation is available online at the “Orthodox Christian Information Center <http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/encyc_1895.aspx>].
4 According to J. Ratzinger : “Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium . . . Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had”, From his Principles of Catholic Theology, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1987, p. 199. The suggestion of the then-Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland is in the same vein («Τί τὸ μόνιμον καὶ τί τὸ μεταβλητὸν εἰς τὴν πετρίνειον διακονίαν. Σκέψεις ἐξ Ὀρθοδόξου ἐπόψεως»[“What is permanent and what is changeable in the petrine ministry. Thoughts from an Orthodox perspective”], Στάχυς, 52-67(1977-1981) 508, D. Papandreou, “Ein Beitrag zur Uberwindung der Trennung zwischen der romisch-katholischen und der orthdoxen Kirche” found in Vasilios von Aristi, Das Papsamt: Dienst oder Hindernis für die Ökumene? Regensburg 1985, p. 162, 166-167), τοῦ H. Scutte, in Chr. Savvatos (now Metropolitan of Messinia), Τὸ παπικὸ πρωτεῖο στὸ διάλογο μεταξὺ Ὀρθοδόξων καὶ Ρωμαιοκαθολικῶν [The papal primacy in the dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics], Athens 2006, p. 14 καὶ τοῦ E. Lanne, in Damaskinos’ article, «Τί τὸ μόνιμον καὶ τί τὸ μεταβλητὸν εἰς τὴν πετρίνειον διακονίαν. Σκέψεις ἐξ Ὀρθοδόξου ἐπόψεως», Στάχυς, 52-67(1977-1981) 516-517
With much pain we must say some things about what Ratzinger has written: It is very tragic for an entire local Church, the greatest, most glorious and the most famous of the first millennium to have fallen into such confusion so that:
I ask that these observations not be taken as hostile or polemical against Roman Catholics, but only as an expression of grief as well as concern and vigilance for us Orthodox.
5 The position is explicitly formulated in “Cretan Draft on the Role of the Pope” in §§ 15, 22 and especially in § 32 : “The experience of the first millennium profoundly influenced the course of relations between the Churches of the East and the West. Despite growing divergence and temporary schisms during this period, communion was still maintained between West and East. The principle of diversity-in-unity, which was explicitly accepted at the council of Constantinople held in 879-80, has particular significance for the theme of this present stage of our dialogue. Distinct divergences of understanding and interpretation did not prevent East and West from remaining in communion. There was a strong sense of being one Church, and a determination to remain in unity, as one flock with one shepherd (cf. Jn 10:16). The first millennium, which has been examined in this stage of our dialogue, is the common tradition of both our Churches. In its basic theological and ecclesiological principles which have been identified here, this common tradition should serve as the model for the restoration of our full communion“. Metropolitan Damaskinos Papandreou takes a similar position in «Τί τὸ μόνιμον καὶ τί τὸ μεταβλητὸν εἰς τὴν πετρίνειον διακονίαν. Σκέψεις ἐξ Ὀρθοδόξου ἐπόψεως», Στάχυς, 52-67(1977-1981) 508.
6 Encyclical Letter “Ut Unum Sint: On Committment to Ecumenism“ of Pope John Paul II, 25 May 1995, § 50, found online at <http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyc…>
7 “Address of the Holy Father Pope John Paull II To the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs,” Tuesday, 29 September 1998 <https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/spee…>
8 “The Sacred Council feels great joy in the fruitful zealous collaboration of the Eastern and the Western Catholic Churches and at the same time declares: All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation until such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity”, ?rientalium Ecclesiarum, § 30 available online http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_%20council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html. The Synod “feels great” at the present work of the Unia…
9 Concerning the Unia in the theological dialogue with Rome see Th. Zisis, Οὐνία, Ἡ καταδίκη καὶ ἡ ἀθώωση [Unia, Condemnation or Acquittal ], publ. Vryennios, Thessaloniki 2002, G. Kapsanis, «Οὐνία, Ἡ μέθοδος τοῦ παποκεντρικοῦ Οἰκουμενισμοῦ» [“Unia, The Method of Papal-centric Ecumenism”], Παρακαταθήκη [Heritage], 60(2008), 3-10. For an historical approach to the Unia, see G. Metallinos, D. Gonis, I. Fratseas, Eu. Morarou, Bishop Athanasios (Yevtits), Ἡ Οὐνία, χθὲς καὶ σήμερα [The Unia, yesterday and today] publ. Armos, Athens 1992. For a more extensive bibliography regarding the Unia, cf. K. Kotsiopoulos, Ἡ Οὐνία στὴν Ἑλληνικὴ θεολογικὴ βιβλιογραφία [The Unia in Greek theological literature], publ. Vryennios, Thessaloniki 1993.
10 It is characteristic that Rome issued its decree “Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite” as “a kind of ‘insurance’ that the restoration of communion with Rome will not be carried out with any renunciation of elements of the non-Latin ecclesiastical traditions”.
11 Th. Zisis, «Ἡ οὐνία ὡς πρότυπο ψευδοῦς ἑνότητος. Τὰ ὅρια τῆς ποικιλομορφίας ἐν σχέσει πρὸς τὴν ἑνότητα» [“The Unia as a model of false unity. The limits of diversity in relation to unity”], – «Πρωτεῖον» Συνοδικότης καὶ ἑνότης τῆς Ἐκκλησίας, Πρακτικὰ Θεολογικῆς Ἡμερίδος [“Primacy” of Synodality and Unity of the Church, Acts of a Theological Conference], publ. The Holy Metropolis of Piraeus, Piraeus 2011, p. 107-114.
12 From the letter of Pope Agatho read at the Third Synod of Constantinople, available here, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3813.htm>
13 Tr. Translation taken from the English edition of the Rudder available online: <http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/councils_local_rudder.htm>
14 Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, Letter Communionis notio, § 17. 3 (28.5.1992), available online at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_28051992_communionis-notio_en.html.
15 “Unitatis Redintegratio: Decree on Ecumenism” from the Second Vatican Council §3 found online here <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vat…>. I. Maragou, Οἰκουμενικὰ Α΄ [Ecumenical Topics, vol. 1], Athens 1986, p.33, as well as the 29/6/2007 response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei) of the Roman Curia, found online at <www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_200 70629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html>.