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from issue no. 06 - 2003

AFTER THE SYMPOSIUM OF THE COUNCIL FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

The "Necessitas Ecclesiae" is the criterion for the exercise of the primacy


An interview with Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer, member of the International Theological Commission and professor emeritus of Fundamental Theology at the University of Bochum


by Gianni Valente


Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer

Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer

«If one compares theology with a landscape, the theological tradition on the Petrine office resembles a frontier zone between two long-time hostile countries. At every step one encounters traces and residues of military conflicts: old trenches and bunkers and – as a particularly dangerous legacy - landmines. It is generally considered that the most dangerous mine lurking here is the dogma of the First Vatican Council concerning the primacy of the successor of Peter.»
With this evocative image Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer began his paper to the Roman Symposium on the Petrine office: “Recent debates on the primacy in relation to Vatican Council I”. A member of the International Theological Commission and professor emeritus of Fundamental Theology at the University of Bochum, Pottmeyer has for years focused his research on the role of the Pope and on the historical modes of his exercise of office. He well knew that from the ecumenical point of view, the matter entrusted to him was the “hot potato” of the conference. How will it ever be possible to re-establish unity between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches, after Vatican Council I declared the infallibility of the bishop of Rome and his universal jurisdiction over all the Church?
In his paper, the professor tried to demonstrate that there is a possibility of «defusing the mine».
Professor, at the Symposium you had the task of taking on the thorniest point…
ERMANN JOSEPH POTTMEYER: In effect, it’s no surprise that ecumenical dialogue among the Churches has so far avoided dealing with the dogmas on the primacy of jurisdiction of the Pope and on his infallibility, laid down by Vatican Council I.
Hans Küng suggested “annulling” the dogma, by means of formal justifications, because at the moment of its formulation the Council was conditioned by the historical situation and wasn’t free. It was also suspended because of the war. What’s your suggestion, instead?
POTTMEYER: According to Küng, Vatican I defined the primacy as an absolute papal monarchy and papal infallibility as an infallibility a priori, bringing in elements incompatible with the Bible and with the Tradition of the Church. But Vatican Council I doesn’t deserve the negative reputation that accompanies it. The fact is that a maximalist interpretation of the two dogmas prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries, one that was already sustained by the majority of Vatican Council I, and that has determined its image up to today, inside and outside the Catholic Church.
Which complicates things. How to get out of it?
POTTMEYER: We need to check whether a re-reading and a new reception of the dogmas of 1870 is possible, on the basis of another interpretation, different from the maximalist one that has prevailed, it too recognized as legitimate, and compatible with the ecclesiology of communion indicated by Vatican Council II and with a different mode of exercise of the primacy. Now, this interpretation exists: it’s the one already expressed by the minority at Vatican Council I. It’s documented in the acts of the Council and in some official declarations of the Magisterium itself, made after the Council, with the intent of safeguarding the dogma from misunderstandings.
Let’s come down to details. Can you briefly tell us of the facts and interpretations that got woven into the Council in 1870?
POTTMEYER: First of all it has to be said that the formulation and understanding of the dogma were marked by the historical situation in western and central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Where the modern states, from the time of the absolute monarchies onwards, aimed at affirming full sovereignty in their own territory, in ecclesiastical affairs as well.
With what consequences for the life of the Church?
POTTMEYER: The classical example was the domination of the state over the Church in France, where the king, who appointed the bishops, prevented in French territory the implemetations of the reforms established by the Council of Trent. Gallicanism, as the ideology that inspired the system was called, was taken up in its own way by the French Revolution and then by the restored French monarchy, then it became a lasting model followed by the ruling classes of other European states. Without mentioning that the exercise of strong central power in the 18th century state went along with troubling spiritual developments in Europe, where materialism, atheism and rationalism put the bases of the Christian faith in question.
A situation that helps understand the reaction within the Church that took the form of so-called “Ultramontanism”.
POTTMEYER: For Ultramontane Catholics reinforcement of the papacy represented their only hope of resisting the designs of national governments that wanted to subject the ecclesiastical sphere to their own control. Faced with the danger, it was necessary for them at that moment to affirm the sovereignty of the pope over the Church, that is to say the full freedom of his jurisdictional power internally, so as to guarantee the freedom of the Church externally. In this view, individual bishops, tied to national interest and exposed to pressure from the secular power, were incapable on their own of safeguarding the independence of the Church. And any claim by the episcopate to a share in the direction of the Church that was in any way at odds with the pope’s leadership over the whole Church could be seen as an attempt to fragment and limit papal sovereignty. With the risk of splitting the Catholic Church into a series of national Churches.
How did that situation influence the criteria and intentions of the Council?
POTTMEYER: There was no dispute at the Council on two points: the fact that Christ himself had established Peter as first among the apostles and visible head of the Church on earth, and the fact that the Roman pontiff, as successor of Peter, had primacy over the whole Church. All agreed that proclaiming these fixed points was the response to the exigencies of the moment, according to the criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas, faced with the real dangers threatening the unity and the freedom of the Church and faced with the dangers for the faith.
So on what were the Council fathers split?
POTTMEYER: The pressure to strengthen the authority of the pope came as we have seen from the grass-roots of the Church. But the desire to employ an extreme reaction to the external attacks provoked a new danger. The fact of declaring the pope absolute sovereign of the Church would have meant a break with the divine constitution and with the tradition of the Church. And in effect, the first draft subjected to the scrutiny of the Council fathers was founded on an extreme conception of the primacy understood as monarchic sovereignty.
What reaction was there?
POTTMEYER: In the discussion of the project, the bishops who made up the minority of the Council re-affirmed that the Church is not an absolute monarchy. That as well as the supreme authority of the pope, that of the college of bishops and the authority of individual bishops also belong to the divine constitution of the Church, that they are not simple “vicars” of the pope. The criticisms of the minority focused precisely on the designation of papal jurisdiction as «ordinary, immediate and truly episcopal».
What did they challenge in the definition?
POTTMEYER: In it, papal jurisdiction seemed to them a competing power, one that undermined the power equally «ordinary, immediate and truly episcopal» of the bishop in his own diocese. According to the bishops of the minority, the subsidiary nature of direct intervention from the pope in local Churches should be given prominence. And it should be clear that the pope is not a “universal bishop” who can consider the whole Church as if it were his own diocese.
What response did the observations of the minority get in the course of the Council’s work?
The Council wanted to stress that the decisions of the pope are without appeal according to the traditional principle whereby «Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur». But from the dogmas promulgated by it the absolute sovereignty of the pope cannot be deduced. And nor can one deduce that the current highly centralized mode of exercising the primacy is the sole one compatible with the dogmas of 1870. The mode is to be measured according to the flexible criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas, the same one followed by Vatican Council I.
POTTMEYER: The speaker of the Commission responsible answered the objections with clarifications that are usually neglected but that are still essential today for interpretation of the dogma…
Can you summarize them for us?
POTTMEYER: First of all he said that there was no danger of reaching a conception of the Church as an absolute monarchy under the pope. For the primacy to remain faithful to the divine constitution of the Church it was required to respect the authority of the college of bishops and of individual bishops. The pronouncements in preparation were only intended to prevent any human authority having the power to limit papal authority in any way.
And on the relationship between pope and college of bishops?
POTTMEYER: According to the speaker’s declarations, it could be legitimately affirmed that full and supreme jurisdictional power in the Church existed in a twofold manner: that exerted by the college of bishops in communion with the Roman pontiff, its head, and that which belonged to the pope as visible head of the Church, independently of his acting together with the other bishops. In effect, the mission from Christ concerned both the group of the apostles with Peter at the head, and Peter alone. But the two forms could in no way be considered as separate and competing powers, as in the Gallican conception.
And on the definition of the papacy as «ordinary, immediate and truly episcopal» power, what clarification was offered?
POTTMEYER: It was made clear that the definition was in no way equivalent to considering permanent intervention of the pope in the dioceses a normal thing. The term “ordinary” was employed in opposition to the term “delegated”, and meant to stress that the primacy was founded not on delegation from the Church, but on the commission given by Christ to Peter. In addition, it meant to guarantee the fact that when Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, the pope can intervene in any part of the Church, without passing through mediation and authorization requiring other authoritys. Here again, the primary aim was to oppose the Gallican view that considered intervention in a diocese by the pope as infringement of the rights sacramentally reserved and attributed to the local bishop.
Why are these clarifications so decisive?
POTTMEYER: Because they help one grasp the real intentions of the Council. The Council didn’t aim at narrowing the rights of the episcopate guaranteed by divine law or at defining the primacy as absolute monarchic sovereignty of the pope. It certainly meant to teach that the pope has full freedom of action, when Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, and that his decisions are without appeal. No human authority, whether it be that of the civil power or even a Council, could set limits to his mission, when the decisive criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas came into play.
How were these intentions translated into the definitive text adopted by the Council?
POTTMEYER: The distinctions and the underlinings of the minority were taken up in the preamble and in the fundamental chapters of the constitution Pastor aeternus, where it was stressed that the apostolic mission had been entrusted by Christ to all the apostles, that the main objective of the primacy was the unity of the episcopate and that the Council intended to define the primacy and the infallibility of the pope with respect for the universal Tradition of the Church, with reference also to the Tradition of the still undivided Church of the first millennium. The third chapter is of particular importance…
What points does it deal with?
POTTMEYER: It stresses the fact that the primacy does not threated the ordinary and immediate jurisdiction of the bishops, the most important point raised by the minority in its criticism. The same chapter also circumscribes the specific objective which at the time made necessary the definition of the dogma of the primacy. It was a matter of defending the mission entrusted by Christ to the successor of Peter from Gallican theories, according to which the pope’s decisions should be subject to the appeal of the ecumenical council and the civil power could legitimately prevent free communication between pope and bishops and declare pontifical decrees to be without effect on its own territory. The dogmas referred to these precise points and did not specify in established form the mode of relationship between primate and episcopate.
The fact remains that there is no mention of the collegiality of the bishops in the canonical formulas of the final definition of the dogma …
POTTMEYER: But the Acts of the Council demonstrate that the doctrine of the equally full and supreme power of the college of bishops was considered a datum of Tradition. The unilateral and, so to speak, targeted slant of the canonical formulas is to be seen in relation to the specific objective that the Council aimed at. Gallicanism put into question the power, also full and supreme, of the pope which authorized him to act even independently of any participation by the episcopate. The canonical formulas had the circumscribed function of re-iterating the universality and extension of the primacy, to which no human authority could set limits. This circumscribed function of theirs didn’t entail the need to make references to the most suitable modes of exercise of the primacy, even in regard to the jurisdiction of bishops. Which is why the canons include no reference to the collaboration of the episcopate in guiding the Church, not least to prevent Gallican sympathizers from manipulating such reference. And then, there were other reasons for the silence of the canons on the matter…
What do you refer to?
POTTMEYER: The Commission responsible rejected the request of the minority to set out the doctrine of the co-responsibility of the episcopate Pastor aeternus not least because it knew that it would be dealt with later. In fact the doctrine of the episcopal ministry and of the college of bishops should have been dealt with in the second constitution, that on the Church. Scrutiny of that constitution never took place, because the Council was suspended ahead of time because of the Franco-Prussian war. But we know the draft of it. And in it the full and supreme power of the college of bishops is there designated as «fidei dogma certissimum».
In your paper you produce evidence to show that it was precisely the unilateral and limited nature of the canons that make it possible for the maximalist interpretation of the primacy as absolute sovereignty to take the dogma of 1870 as its basis in some way.
POTTMEYER: That interpretation has in fact justified an ever more central exercise of the primacy. And in its turn, increasing centralism in the exercise of the primacy, expressed, for example, in the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law with the legal dispositions binding on the whole Church, has strengthened the general impression that the dogma did effectively define the primacy as an absolute sovereignty. Despite the fact that from the beginning some important interventions from the Magisterium belied that interpretation…
Which interventions do you have in mind?
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.
POTTMEYER: For example, the joint declaration of the German episcopate. In a circular letter of 1872 Chancellor Bismarck warned European governments that by this dogma the bishops in their countries had become mere tools of the pope. Three years later the German bishops answered that it was a «complete misunderstanding to believe that, because of the decisions of the Vatican Council, “episcopal jurisdiction has been absorbed into the papal”, that the pope has “in princiole taken the place of each individual bishop”, that “the bishops are now no more than tools of the pope, his officials, without responsibility of their own”». These were the same illegitimate interpretations that the Council itself, in response to the fears of the minority, had rejected. Pius IX himself twice quoted this declaration of the German episcopate, confirming it by his Magisterium, in the apostolic letter Mirabilis illa constantia of 1875 and in a discourse to the Consistory.
In the last analysis, where does your re-reading of Vatican aim to go?
POTTMEYER: The Council wanted to stress that the decisions of the pope are without appeal according to the traditional principle whereby «Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur». But from the dogmas promulgated by it the absolute sovereignty of the pope cannot be deduced. And nor can one deduce that the current highly centralized mode of exercising the primacy is the sole one compatible with the dogmas of 1870. The mode is to be measured according to the flexible criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas, the same one followed by Vatican Council I…
And what does that involve?
POTTMEYER: 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.
From the point of view of dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, how can a re-reading of Vatican Council I help?
POTTMEYER: It’s a re-reading that we must still engage in together. Starting from the distinction between the real nature of the Council and its maximalist interpretation. And by showing them that the dogma, thanks above all to the intervention of the minority, has remained open to an ecclesiology of communion, and hence to an exercise of the primacy in terms not of monarchic sovereignty, but of ministry of communion and of unity.
But in concrete terms, how is it possible to think that what was established by Vatican I could become binding on the Eastern Churches?
POTTMEYER: The whole debate still has to take place. There may be a great many paths to check out… For example, thirty years ago Joseph Ratzinger proposed a distinction between the Petrine office of the pope and the one he exercises as patriarch of the West…
But aren’t the criticisms of papal centralism themselves an expression of historical conditionings? Now the watchword of the powers of the world is often democracy…
POTTMEYER: The Petrine office has to do with the nature of the Church, with its being mystery and sacrament of communion. The strongest argument against a centralizing papacy, centralizing almost to the point of “absorbing” within itself the whole ecclesial body, doesn’t appeal to democracy, to human laws and liberal demands, but to the very nature of the Church, as Jesus himself wanted it.
In your paper you laid much stress on Considerations on the primacy of the successor of Peter in the mystery of the Church published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998.
POTTMEYER: It’s an interesting document that should be better known. It recognizes that the mode of exercise of the primacy is historically conditioned and modifiable, whereas usually the view of the Roman Curia was to insist on the fact that the current extent of Rome’s jurisdiction is something willed by God.
The document also contains some pregnant expressions on the “frailty” of Peter…
POTTMEYER: They come in the closing sentences. They say: «Peter, a weak man, was chosen as rock, precisely so it would be evident that the victory is Christ’s alone and not the outcome of human forces. The Lord wished to carry his treasure across time in fragile vessels: thus human frailty became sign of the truth of the divine promises».



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