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from issue no. 05 - 2003

The symposium organized by the Council for Christian Unity

The role of the Pope? Let’s talk about it with the Orthodox Churches

by Gianni Valente

The Symposium on the Petrine ministry held behind closed doors in Rome from 21 to 24 May on the initiative of the Papal Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, proposed to deal calmly and without embarrassment with the quaestiones disputatae that have for centuries been cause of division between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches in regard to the function of the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter. The conference project was set out by Cardinal Walter Kasper in November 2001 at the plenary assembly of the Vatican department for Ecumenical Relations that he heads.
In the encyclical Ut unum sint of 1995, the Pope himself asked for the collaboration of pastors and theologians in «finding a form of exercise of the Primacy that, while not renouncing in any way the essential of its mission, opens it up to a new situation». In December 1996 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had already held a symposium which aimed at detailing the elements of Catholic doctrine on the primacy of the successor of Peter that were considered unrenounceable. But only Catholics gave papers at the study session arranged by the former Holy Office. The opening stretch of the symposium in Rome at the end of May was made up of papers given by Orthodox scholars and churchmen, people able to document the point of view of the Eastern Churches on the question which in fact represents the main stumbling-block to recognition of the full unity of faith among sister Churches.
The program centered on the initial phases in the constitution of the Primacy as ministry of the unity of the Church: its “deed of foundation” delineated in the New Testament; the view of it taken by the Greek and Latin Fathers; its definition in the first seven Ecumenical Councils held by the undivided Church. In the final session the symposium examined the direct jurisdiction of the Pontiff over the whole Church as set out by Vatican Council I. Two parallel but contrasting papers, one given by the Orthodox and one by the Catholic side, were planned on each of these thematic nubs.
Among the Catholic speakers were Monsignor Joachim Gnilka, Professor Vittorio Peri, Augustinian Canon Vittorino Grossi and Monsignor Hermann Josef Pottmeyer, member of the International Theological Commission. On the Orthodox side the papers were given by Professor Theodoros Stylianopoulos, Greek Orthodox Vlassios Pheidàs, Romanian Nicolae Dura and Johannes Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamum, one of the most authoritative theologians in the entire Orthodox Church. Given the “Vatican” inspiration of the symposium and the presence at the conference of representatives sent by various Orthodox Churches, it is not hard to see that the initiative went beyond the bounds of mere academic debate and was meant to try out the terrain for possible future official dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the decisive issue of the function of the Bishop of Rome.

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