Rome (AsiaNews) – Catholics and Orthodox have agreed that when the Church was undivided the bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope, was the first of the patriarchs, hence of the bishops. However, they cannot agree as to what that actually entailed. This in a nutshell is the conclusion that the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue reached in the paper it produced in last October’s Ravenna meeting with regards to the role of the Pope. It is a “working paper” and therefore does not entail any joint acceptance by either the Catholic or the Orthodox Churches. Orthodox Churches are also not likely to accept it because of their lack of a central authority and the decision by the Moscow Patriarchate to quit the Ravenna meeting over the presence of the Estonian Apostolic Church which it does not recognise.
But it is also true that the paper clarifies some key points, hence its significance as a step forward along the ecumenical path. Having said this, the “recognition” of the “primacy” of the bishop of the “see” of Rome—never seriously questioned—does not mean an end to the division between Catholics and Orthodox. The question which the paper leaves unanswered at the end is how to actually reconcile the principle of synodality, which necessarily characterises the relations between bishops and whose decisions require “consensus” among the participants, and that of “primacy” which acknowledges a particular role, one of presidency, to one participant.
The ten-page paper which is divided in 46 points starts therefore from the notion of “synodality” or “conciliarity,” which reflects the Trinitarian ministry and finds its ultimate foundation in it. As with the Trinity, the paper says that the designation as “second” or “third” person does not imply any diminution or subordination. Similarly, an order among local Churches also exists, but does not however imply inequality in their ecclesial nature. The bishops are not only united among themselves in faith, charity, mission, reconciliation, but have in common the same responsibility and the same service to the Church. Synods and councils are the main path in which communion is concretely exercised. Each local Church, when in communion with the other local Churches, is a manifestation of the one and indivisible Church of God. Being “catholic” therefore means to be in communion with the one Church at all times and in all places.
In this Church there is a three-levelled synodal dimension, local, regional and universal. At the local level of the diocese it is entrusted to the bishop; at the regional level to a group of local Churches with their bishops who “recognise who is the first amongst themselves”; and at the universal level, where those who are first (protoi) in the various regions, together with all the bishops, cooperate in that which concerns the totality of the Church. At this level also, the protoi “must recognise who is the first amongst themselves.”
It is in this context that the issue of the Church’s authority is dealt with, starting from the statement that, from Jesus onward and in conformity with the mandate received from him, the authority of the bishops includes the proclamation and the teaching of the Gospel, sanctification through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, and the pastoral direction of those who believe. It is then linked to the grace received in ordination and “is not the private possession of those who receive it, nor something delegated from the community.” It is rather “a gift of the Holy Spirit,” destined for the service (diakonia) of the community and never exercised outside of it.
In any case the exercise of authority must be, in all its forms and at all levels, a service (diakonia) of love, as was that of Christ. Since the authority which we are speaking about expresses divine authority, it “cannot subsist in the Church except in the love between the one who exercises it and those subject to it.” It is for that reason an authority without domination, without physical or moral coercion, radically different from that of leaders of nations and of the great of this world since its exercise and spiritual efficacy are assured through “free consent and voluntary co-operation.” After all the authority is linked to the “essential structure” of the Church which is oriented towards salvation.”
In actual terms, authority is exercised at three levels which correspond to the three levels of ecclesial institutions: the local, the regional and the universal. At the local level authority is exercised by the bishop and his Church is universal; it includes all the faithful, extols their charismas, works for their salvation and manifests itself in communion with the other Churches which confess the same apostolic faith.
Then there is the regional level in which the bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is first (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories. But the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. This way concord (homonoia) prevails.
At this point we get to the universal level. The paper focuses a great deal on the ecumenical councils that brought together bishops from all regions, in particular those from the five major sees—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem— according to the ancient order (taxis). The councils of the undivided Church made “solemn doctrinal decisions” and common faith formulations, especially on crucial points, binding all the Churches and all the faithful, for all times and all places.
Catholics and Orthodox who took part in the meeting’s activities agree that the order (taxis) was recognised by all in the era of the undivided Church. They also agree that Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs. They disagree however over the interpretation given to the historical evidence from this era with regards to the bishop of Rome’s prerogatives as protos, a matter that was already understood in various ways in the first millennium. They agree nevertheless that conciliarity at the universal level, exercised in ecumenical councils, implies an active role for the bishop of Rome as protos of the bishops of the major sees, through the consensus of the assembled bishops.
In conclusion, primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent, which is why primacy at the different levels of the life of the Church—local, regional and universal—must always be considered in the context of conciliarity, and conciliarity likewise must always be considered in the context of primacy.
Concerning primacy at the various levels, the paper makes the following points:
1. primacy at all levels is a practice firmly grounded in the canonical tradition of the Church;
2. whilst the fact of primacy at the universal level is accepted by both East and West, there are differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which it is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations.
Hence, for the paper the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches remains to be studied. What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinônia and in view of what we have said on conciliarity and authority in the present text? How should the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy be understood and lived in light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium? These are crucial questions to be addressed through dialogue. (FP)