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from issue no. 06 - 2003


“When we speak of the primacy...

... we are referring to the primacy of the Church of Rome, that is exercised by the pope in that he is bishop of that See". An interview with Joannis Zizioulas, Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamum

by Gianni Valente

Joannis Zizioulas

Joannis Zizioulas

Joannis Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamum, is one of the Orthodox theologians most respected in the West. «He is one of most original and profound theologians of our time», Father Yves Congar wrote of him at the beginning of the ‘eighties. In the course of the years, this churchman with his courteous and aristocratic manner has developed his acute and penetrating reading of the tradition of the Greek Fathers, deepening a perception that bases all the reality and life of the Church on the sacrament of the Eucharist.
On more than one occasion Zizioulas has spoken up in the theological debate on the primacy, described by him as the «sine qua non of the catholicity of the Church». At the Roman Symposium at the end of May his paper on recent discussions on the primacy among Orthodox theologians was one of the most listened to and discussed.

How has the approach of Orthodox theologians to the question of the Petrine primacy changed in recent times?
IOANNIS ZIZIOULAS: I remember that traditionally the primacy of the bishop of Rome, as it had been structured through the centuries, was considered in the Orthodox Church as a kind of religious imperialism that did not comply with the synodal tradition of the Church, which requires that members of the episcopate, as successors to the apostles, collegially exercise the ministry of authority. In recent decades, chances have occurred for reconsidering the question in a new light. That suggested by ecclesiology of communion, indicated also by Vatican Council II.
What, in your view, are the features of this ecclesiology that could open new prospects for the century-long quarrel over the primacy?
ZIZIOULAS: In an ecclesiology of communion each local Church is a Church in the full sense, in virtue of the Eucharist celebrated by it according to the mission entrusted by Jesus to the apostles and to their successors. From that point of view all bishops are equal: the local Churches guided by them are Churches in the full sense, whatever their size or number of faithful. For that reason, no institution, such as synod, council or the primate should act in such a way as to compromise or cancel the full nature of the local Church.
In what way and within what limits might the Orthodox Churches recognize the exercise of universal primacy?
ZIZIOULAS: According to Tradition the bishop of Rome is the first bishop in all the Church. The difficulty concerning the Petrine primacy lies in the fact that it entails universal jurisdiction whereby the pope can interfere in a local Church. But if we can find a way in which to see the universal primacy of the pope that doesn’t encroach on the full nature of the local Church, we could accept it.
If the Orthodox Church can’t recognize the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, what would be the concrete value of the recognition of his primacy by the Orthodox Churches?
ZIZIOULAS: That aspect has still to be assessed. From my point of view, the first thing is that the bishop of Rome should not do anything without the other bishops. He should always consult them. Additionally, he should not interfere in the normal life of other dioceses and of the other Churches. He is the bishop of his Church. He can have a moral influence and he can have the power canonically to summon synods and to express himself as spokesman for the common voice of the Church. But he can do nothing in solitary manner. He does not as individual represent the whole Church. He can safeguard the depositum fidei only in communion with the other bishops.
What are the criteria that should inspire relationships between the pope and the other bishops?
ZIZIOULAS: First of all, the pope himself is a bishop and all the bishops are sacramentally equal to him, they have received the same grace. As bishop, he himself is head of a local Church. The primacy itself doesn’t belong to him, but to his Church. When we speak of the primacy we are referring to the primacy of the Church of Rome, which is exercised by the pope as bishop of that See.
The bishop of Rome bases his primacy on his being successor to the apostle Peter…
ZIZIOULAS: In the Eastern Churches all can acknowledge that according to the Tradition of the Church the bishop of Rome is the first bishop. But the fact of basing his primacy on succession to Peter is already a problematic issue. Recognition of this primary position in the early centuries was simply a matter of fact, a tradition that could also have to do with the importance of the city of Rome from a political point of view. Obviously the bishops of Rome have always retained that their role in the Church was connected to succession to Peter. Whereas in the Byzantine Church that wasn’t the reason why the pope was acknowledged as first among bishops. A taxis existed, an established order, according to which the first See was that of Rome, the second that of Alexandria, the third that of Antioch. Then there was that of Constantinople, which became second, or was even considered of equal standing to Rome, according to what was established by the ecumenical councils. However, that was accepted as a fact, without there being a defined theory about succession to Peter.
In a celebrated lecture given in Graz in 1976, the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger affirmed that «today what was possible for a millennium may not be impossible from a Christian point of view» and that «as to the doctrine of the primacy, Rome cannot claim more from the East than was formulated and practiced in the first millennium». Does the Catholic approach to this theme seem to you still in agreement with the famous “Ratzinger formula”?
ZIZIOULAS: I think that at the current moment the Church of Rome is taking no account of the formula. In meetings with the Orthodox Church the Catholic representatives tend to set aside the perspective indicated by the experience of unity of the first millennium. Obviously that’s a pity. But we now must look for a way to come together on other premises, and those can relate to the theology, the ecclesiology, of communion.
In the last ten years of official theological dialogue things have become bogged down on the issue of Uniatism. In such a standstill, how can one hope to set up a debate on a question as demanding as that of the primacy?
From my point of view, the first thing is that the bishop of Rome should not do anything without the other bishops. He should always consult them. Additionally, he should not interfere in the normal life of other dioceses and of the other Churches.
ZIZIOULAS: But the problem of Uniatism is closely bound up with that of the primacy, there’s no doubt of that. Indeed, it’s my hope that the theological dialogue can get going again precisely by facing up to the question of the primacy. In that context, and in relation to it, the stagnant discussion on Uniatism could perhaps achieve some new development. That’s another question that can’t be dealt with on its own, as has been happening in the last ten years, but must be part of the overall dialogue on ecclesiology, the theology of communion.
One gets the impression at times, not least because of the influence of the media, that the collective consciousness identifies the whole Church with the Pope and his doings.
ZIZIOULAS: It can be a danger. Because it can give the impression that there is only one diocese in the whole universe, with a sole universal bishop, which wouldn’t help the ecclesiology of communion become the basis for a possible recognition of the primacy of the Church of Rome by the Churches of the East. It can also give the impression that the Church is not a God-given reality, but something constructed by churchmen. Whereas, if we acknowledge the Eucharist as the basis of our ecclesiology, we acknowledge that the Church comes from God as a gift. That we don’t make it.

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