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from issue no. 06/07 - 2010

THE PRIMACY OF THE BISHOP OF ROME. Dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics

Non-protagonism helps ecumenism


An interview with the Dominican Charles Morerod, General Secretary of the International Theological Commission and Rector of the St Thomas Pontifical University: “The representatives of different Orthodox Churches hold Benedict XVI in high esteem because he is a pope who does not put himself forward and repeats only what he has received. And a pope who, in exercising his ministry, concentrates on the essential is destined to please the Orthodox more”


Interview with Charles Morerod by Gianni Valente


The next gathering is to be in Vienna. The members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church have arranged to meet in the Austrian capital, on 20 September, to continue joint reflection on the subject that for centuries has represented a stumbling block in relations between Catholicism and Orthodoxy: the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome.
The basis of the discussion is the document entitled “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium”, which was already the focus of the previous plenary session of the Mixed Commission, held in Cyprus last October. The text, leaked to the media in recent months, represents only a working draft. The knots are all still to be untied.
30Giorni examined them talking with the Dominican Charles Morerod, secretary general of the International Theological Commission, rector of the St Thomas Pontifical University and, since 2005, member of the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue with the Orthodox.

Charles Morerod

Charles Morerod

What, in broad terms, is the road map that you follow in your works? And what are the steps for approaching the goal?
CHARLES MOREROD: The first step, set out in the document signed in Ravenna three years ago, is to verify whether there exists, at a theoretical level, a definition of universal primacy that could be also accepted by Orthodox synods. They usually recognize that the bishop of Rome is primus inter pares. The Ravenna document revealed a remarkable consensus on the sense in which the bishops are pares, showing that they are not so from every point of view, even within the Orthodox Churches. At the regional or ‘patriarchal’ level some bishops have a more important role, a primacy, even though all sacramentally are equally bishops. Beginning with the meeting held last October in Cyprus, verification is being sought as to whether this road might serve to understand together the role of the bishop of Rome. In practice we are trying to see whether and how what has been said about a certain regional “primacy” might be applied universally. And one proceeds in this attempt by confronting the historical data and the theological considerations that were recorded and which emerged during the first millennium, during the period preceding the schism.
In practice, the guideline is clear: look at what preceded, and update it for new contexts. And what, in its essential features, is emerging?
MOREROD: It emerges that in the East and West already in the first millennium there were different understandings of the role of the bishop of Rome. On the level of facts at that time, a clear consensus on a number of points is recorded: Rome was recognized as Prima Sedes, and the Roman See was perceived as a reference for resolving conflicts. Everyone sees that at some moments the bishop of Rome intervened in a very decisive manner, for example with the so-called Tomus Leonis of Pope Leo I to the patriarch of Constantinople in 449 (which opened the way for the Christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon in 451). It’s true that the bishops of East and West do not agree on the meaning to be attributed to such interventions. And that is already apparent in the Council of Chalcedon: the pope did not approve canon 28 of the Council – the one which defines the jurisdiction of Constantinople as the New Rome – accepted immediately by the Greeks. Yet the differences did not go so far as to break communion. The first thing we must do is verify whether that perspective – that of a diversity that does not go so far as to break sacramental communion – can be taken as a model for recovering full unity today.
“Where the Eucharist is there is the Church”, the Russian theologian Nicolas Afanasieff used to say. The Orthodox argue that to properly address the dispute over the primacy it must be first recognized that each particular Church that gathers around its own bishop to celebrate the Eucharist validly is Church in the fullest sense. But is there perhaps a rejection of this criteria on the Catholic part?
MOREROD: Certainly, where the Eucharist is there the Church is. But from a Catholic perspective there is something missing in communion when there is not full communion with the bishop of Rome. The Second Vatican Council says: “One is constituted a member of the episcopal body by virtue of sacramental consecration and through hierarchical communion with the head of the College and its members” (Constitution Lumen Gentium, § 22). One becomes bishop by episcopal ordination, not by papal appointment: the sacramental dimension is the most fundamental and the only indispensable one. But without communion with the bishop of Rome, the insertion of the bishop in the Episcopal College – and thus his role in the universal Church – is incomplete.
The document notes that the increasing insistence of the Roman See to define its primacy by virtue of its link with St Peter, who lived, died and was buried in Rome, was never shared, but neither initially rejected, or even explicitly rebutted by the Churches of the East. It reiterates that there the idea prevailed that all bishops are successors of Peter, and participate in his primacy insofar as they exercise their ministry in the common faith of the apostles. But is it correct to say that this concept is foreign to Catholic doctrine?
MOREROD: The Orthodox recognize that the pope is the bishop of a Church founded by Peter, and this is important for them. They also recognize that the bishop of the Petrine Church of Rome is superior in its role to the patriarch of Antioch, although that Church was founded by Peter before the Church of Rome. But they see the role of the Church of Rome rather in the light of the political role of the city in the Roman Empire: for the same reason they justify the role of Constantinople, while adding reference to the figure of St Andrew (hence they keep together the city’s importance and the role of an apostle). For Catholics, the link between the two aspects is articulated in another way. The bishop of Rome has a primacy because he is in a unique way the successor of the prince of apostles, whose figure is unique among the apostles in the New Testament. The political importance of Rome in the first century is probably the reason why Peter and Paul came there, but it is not the reason for the actual role of the bishop of Rome among all the bishops.
<I>The Last Supper</I>, twelfth century fresco, Karanlik Kilise, Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

The Last Supper, twelfth century fresco, Karanlik Kilise, Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

The Russian bishop Hilarion, in a speech in 2004, quotes Simeon of Thessalonika: “Let the pope show only that he is faithful to the faith of Peter, and Peter’s successors; in which case, let him also have all the prerogatives of Peter, let him be the first, the head and the pontiff of all”. But perhaps this does not hold also from a Catholic perspective?
MOREROD: It is valid for all Christians, and in some way we all agree on this. The starting point of the faith of every Christian is not the fact of being with the pope. The starting point is the encounter with Jesus, as Benedict XVI writes at the beginning of the encyclical Spe salvi. And every Christian, if he is really such, does no other than remain in the same faith of Peter and the apostles. But as Catholics a question can be added: how to know if one shares the same faith of the Apostles? There are ‘experimental’ criteria, such as that of checking the correlation between what someone says today and what is written in the New Testament, or what the first Councils, the Fathers of the Church said, and so on. But sometimes such correlation is the object of discussion. Precisely in these cases, Catholics believe that to be with the pope is “a great good fortune and comfort”, as Paul VI said.
When did he say it?
MOREROD: On 22 January 1964, precisely during the week of prayer for Christian unity: “If you know of this great problem of recomposing Christians in the unity willed by Christ, if you have the perception of its importance and its historical development, you will feel rising from the depth of your soul a wonderful and precise testimony of that Catholic assurance, that tells you inwardly: I am already in the unity willed by Christ, I am already within its fold, because I am Catholic, because I am with Peter. It is a great good fortune, it is a great comfort; Catholics, know how to enjoy it! Faithful, be aware of this privileged position, due certainly not to the merits of anyone, but to the goodness of God, who has called us to such a happy fate”.
Hilarion, in the same speech, pointed out that the substantial unity of faith itself preserved by the Orthodox Churches in the absence of a legal pyramid-like structure makes it more evident that such unity is a miracle of the Lord.
MOREROD: It’s nice to see the lastingness of the faith as it happens in the Orthodox Church. But you cannot say that those Orthodox Churches are Churches without structure. The Pentecostalists might perhaps say so, not the Orthodox, who have a very robust structure, that they have maintained as such for centuries. On the other hand, neither does the Catholic Church justify its lastingness by the strength of its structure. No one can believe that the source of unity is the ‘central power’ of the pope. In fact we Catholics can also say what the Orthodox can say about the structure and the miraculous aspect of the transmission of faith within the Church through the centuries. It doesn’t help to dialectically confront the structures and the miracles worked by the Holy Spirit. Whereas it is essential to recognize that no authority in the Church posits itself. The same Church does not posit itself. Nor did the apostles posit it in history, on the strength of their witness. It begins with the apostles only because they saw Christ, met Him and lived with Him risen.
Hilarion again (and with him the Orthodox) says that infallibility as formulated by Vatican Council I sets the pope above the Church. With infallibility the papal acts posit themselves as unchangeable acts “because of their own authority and independently of ecclesial approval”. Are things really like that?
MOREROD: I understand why he expresses himself like this: it refers to Vatican Council I, according to which a definition by the pope – when he speaks infallibly – is valid because of its own authority and not because of the consent of the Church. But when this happens, the pope limits himself to expressing in this way the faith of the Church. And this faith is never the result of an opinion poll to let the majority prevail. The Orthodox also, when they hold their pan-Orthodox Council, do not profess to make the faith coincide with the majority opinion. Very clear and understandable expressions on this point were set out in the document on the gift of authority, drafted by the Commission for Dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans in 1998.
Really!
MOREROD: That document says that “any solemn definition pronounced from the Chair of Peter in the Church of Peter and Paul can express only the faith of the Church”. It recognizes that “the bishop of Rome in determined circumstances has the duty of discerning and making explicit the belief of all the baptized in communion, and only that”, and that this specific ministry of his as universal primate is a “gift” that should be “accepted by all the Churches”.
Different sectors of Orthodoxy still present the historical exercise of the primacy of the bishop of Rome as a form of domination. But could a primacy exercised as domination be justifiable in Catholic doctrine and criterion?
MOREROD: The primacy, like every authority in the Church in fact, cannot be interpreted and exercised except according to the criterion of the caritas that is also expressed in legal form. For St Thomas Aquinas the virtues are summarized as it were in charity, the only virtue which remains in heaven. And the primacy by its intrinsic nature must be exercised according to caritas. The title of Servus servorum Dei assumed by Pope Gregory the Great expresses this. This is not a ritual definition, one of circumstance, or of ecumenical courtesy. The pope serves because he loves. This one sees increasingly in the current historical circumstances. If in the past, the papacy had an evident prestige and social power, today it is above all exposed to criticism.
Benedict XVI in prayer with the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, before the tomb of the apostle Peter in the Vatican cellars, the morning of 29 June 2008 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Benedict XVI in prayer with the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, before the tomb of the apostle Peter in the Vatican cellars, the morning of 29 June 2008
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

In thinking on ecumenism the so called ‘Ratzinger formula’ is often cited: for what concerns the primacy of the pope, Rome must demand nothing more of the Orthodox Churches than what was established and lived in the first millennium. And what happens to the dogmatic definitions that emerged in the second millennium?
MOREROD: We recognize the dogmas defined in the Catholic Church during the second millennium as part of faith. And one can’t imagine a community in full communion in which some people believe that the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception are part of faith, and others do not. Obviously the problem lies mainly with the definition on the infallibility of the successor of Peter. But if the theological dialogue continues, that will be discussed as well.
Which is the best way to take on this controversial point, so as not to remain stranded?
MOREROD: The document of the Catholic-Anglican dialogue that I mentioned acknowledges that the bishop of Rome, in particular circumstances, can also express by himself the faith of the whole Church and recognizes this possibility as a gift that all the Churches should accept. To the Orthodox, as a starting point, it would help to show that the First Vatican Council itself was an important step towards a correct understanding of infallibility, limiting even drastically its range of application. Before some thought that the pope was infallible in many of his pronouncements.
And as regards the other dogmatic definitions?
MOREROD: Again, the comparison with the situation of the first millennium may help in this, when there were also differences and tensions between the Western and the Eastern Church, which did not however lead to division. It should be recognized that there are different ways of expressing the same apostolic faith. Take the example of the Filioque: the pope has also sometimes said the Credo without the Filioque, as the Latin Rite Catholics in Greece have done for decades and Greek Rite Catholics of southern Italy, according to a practice recognized by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742. This means that the same Trinitarian faith can be confessed with or without the Filioque. And that therefore the addition of the Filioque does not involve a breach of communion in that faith confessed together.
With regard to Benedict XVI, some people tend to emphasize a particular sympathy and respect of the Orthodox toward Pope Benedict XVI. Can you confirm this?
MOREROD: I’ve noticed it myself, meeting with representatives of different Orthodox Churches. They have great respect for him, perhaps because they see in him a monastic-like figure, and all Orthodox bishops are monks. In addition, among other Christians there’s a widespread mistaken idea that for Catholics the pope is everything. If the pope does not put himself forward, if he repeats only what he has received, if he remains a little hidden behind his ministry, that in itself helps ecumenism. A pope who, in exercising his proper ministry, puts as ‘little as possible’ of his own into it and concentrates on the essential is destined to please the Orthodox more.


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