Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Squaring the circle on papal primacy - a guest blogger writes

In his general audience on 5 March, in the course of an exposition about St Leo the Great, Pope Benedict XVI focussed on the issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome:

Leo the Great, constantly thoughtful of his faithful and of the people of Rome but also of communion between the different Churches and of their needs, was a tireless champion and upholder of the Roman Primacy, presenting himself as the Apostle Peter's authentic heir ... it is clear that the Pope felt with special urgency his responsibilities as Successor of Peter ... And the Pontiff was able to exercise these responsibilities, in the West as in the East, intervening in various circumstances with caution, firmness and lucidity through his writings and legates. In this manner he showed how exercising the Roman Primacy was as necessary then as it is today to effectively serve communion, a characteristic of Christ's one Church.
At the time, a number of commentators interpreted these remarks as a shot across the bows of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I, who Benedict was due to meet the following day, by restating with clarity the claims of papal primacy for the first as well as the second millennium. Yet there is also a very different way to interpret what is going on here. The crucial phrase is, "communion". But first, it is necessary to take stock of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue.

In October 2007, the joint international commission for the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church agreed the Ravenna statement on ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority (see the ENI and the Catholic News Service articles). The document is too rich to be summarised in a few sentences, but both sides at the Ravenna meeting accepted that before 1054, the Bishop of Rome had the first place among the other bishops, though the Catholic and Orthodox participants disagreed, "on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome". The document also says that there must be "synodality", that is, responsibility exercised by all the bishops together, on the universal level. Central to this convergence in views is the perspective of koinonia/communion. The document concludes:
It remains for the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches to be studied in greater depth. What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia 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 the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium? These are crucial questions for our dialogue and for our hopes of restoring full communion between us.
There are two interesting aspects about this conclusion: firstly, the specific function of the bishop of the "first see" is to be seen from the perspective of an "ecclesiology of koinonia, and secondly it is the "ecclesial practice of the first millennium" that appears to be normative for interpreting the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy. This latter point seems to have more than some resemblance to the perspective outlined by Joseph Ratzinger himself for the reunion of the Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism in his "Principles of Catholic theology", while seeing ecclesiology as related to koinonia owes much to the insights of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, one of the Orthodox participants at Ravenna. The NCR's John Allen has himself pointed to the parallels between the thought of Zizioulas and Ratzinger:
Zizioulas pioneered the concept of "communion ecclesiology," the idea that the church is constituted by the celebration of the Eucharist around the bishop, which has had great influence also in Roman Catholicism in the period after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In his own theological work, Joseph Ratzinger has written that the "ecclesiology of communion" is a useful point of departure, though he's warned that it must not exalt the local church at the expense of the universal. For his part, Zizioulas has argued that Orthodoxy can accept the universal primacy of the pope, if it is "fundamentally qualified," meaning that it respects the autonomy of local churches and acts through a synodal structure.
Now back to Pope Benedict's general audience on 5 March. It is noteworthy that when Benedict described the primacy exercised by Leo the Great, he twice referred to "communion" as the defining feature of Leo's primacy. AsiaNews, in its report of the the audience, said that Benedict had referred to the "primacy of communion" (though this actual phrase is missing from the official text issued by the Vatican). Ratzinger himself in 1965 had already referred to the idea of a "primacy of communion", noting that "the primacy of the bishop of Rome in its original meaning is not opposed to the collegial character of the Church but is a primacy of communion in the midst of the Church living as a community and understanding itself as such". (Later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with Ratzinger as its prefect would issue what was described in America magazine under the title "Primacy in Communion" as a "remarkable" document, "Reflections on the Primacy of Peter")

But a Google search, at least, turns up precious few other references to "Primacy of Communion". The exception is the work of the German theologian Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer: "
Of special interest to us is his exegesis of Vatican II, from which emerges a '(papal) primacy of communion.' What this mean is that it is the pope's role 'to represent and maintain the unity of the universal communion of the Churches.' (Reference) Even more interesting, however, is his exegesis of Vatican I, as in this interview in 30 Days:
In the nineteenth century, because of the concrete historical situation that had been created, the Church felt the urgent need to stress that when Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, the pope can intervene throughout the whole Church, his freedom of action is not subject to the authorization of any human authority and his decisions are without appeal. But when the same criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, the mode of the exercise of the primacy can and must be changed, without that meaning the truth of the dogma is put in question. And the restoration of unity so as to re-arrive at the condition of the undivided Church of the first millennium is a part of Ecclesiae necessitas.
In other words, approaching the issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome from the standpoint of "primacy in communion", not only links back to the way in which this primacy was exercised in the first millennium (the first task outlined in the conclusion of the Ravenna document), but also offers a way of understanding "the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy" in the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium (the second task).

(And it's worth noting that both Zizioulas and Pottmeyer took part in a 2004 symposium on papal primacy.)

So far, so good, but ... three days after the Pope's general audience on the primacy of the bishop of Rome, Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he had concerns about the Ravenna document, saying that it appeared to rely too heavily on Orthodox terminology and did not give enough emphasis to the Catholic position that the jurisdictional primacy of the pope is an essential part of the structure and nature of the church.

So, is the circle squared? Only time will tell.

1 Comment:

marcelo said...

Wherever a Christian is... the Church is present. that's my summarized opinion on the crucial issues you raised in this amazing post.