Where the Eucharist is, there is the Catholic Church
«Catholics must take seriously the notion of the full Catholicity of the local Church promoted by Vatican Council II, and must apply it to their ecclesiology». Ioannis Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamum, takes stock of the debate between Catholics and Orthodox regarding the primacy. Interview
by Gianni Valente
Above, Benedict XVI with Ioannis Zizioulas, head of the delegation of the Ecumenic Patriarchate of Constantinople, come to Rome on the feastday of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June 2005; down, Bartholomew I in prayer before the Confession of Saint Peter in the Vatican Grottos, 29 June 2004
Eminence, the question of primacy undoubtedly lies at the very heart of Roman Catholic-Orthodox relations. Orthodox theology, with regard to this issue, is not monolithic. Could you describe for us some of the basic criteria of distinctions between Orthodox theologians?
JOANNIS ZIZIOULAS. There are some Orthodox theologians, - in the past they were the majority - who attach primacy, every level of primacy, to the organization of Church, and say that what the Pope has asked regarding his primacy does not have a dogmatic content, so therefore it can be relativized. For them primacy is a canonical question not involving the faith. They don’t see any link between primacy and the nature of the Church. For them the office of primate is a matter of the bene esse and not of the esse of the Church.
And the other group?
ZIZIOULAS: Some other Orthodox theologians regard primacy in the Church as belonging to the Church’s esse, and not simply a matter of canonical order. They realise we cannot renounce the primacy without losing something essential to our faith. This shows that the subject of primacy is a question not only concerning the claims of the bishop of Rome, but also within the Orthodox Church itself.
Could you give an example of the arguments of the first group?
ZIZIOULAS: One of the leading Orthodox theologians, the late Professor Ioannis Karmiris, wrote: «Because of the political importance of Rome and the apostolicity of this Church, as well as the martyrdom in it of the Apostles Peter and Paul and its distinction in works of love, service and mission, the bishop of Rome received from the Councils, the Fathers and the pious emperors – therefore by human and not divine order – a simple primacy of honor and order, as first among the equal presidents of the particular Churches». According to this view, the actual structure of primacies, the primacy of the Roman See included, is due simply to human and transitory factors. This means that the Church could exist without primacy, although she could not exist without bishops or synods, the latter being a reality of iure divino and part of the Church’s esse.
Orthodox theologians very often use the formula «primacy of honor and order». What does it mean?
ZIZIOULAS: When someone speaks of “primacy of honor” he wants to exclude the right of the primate to exercise jurisdiction over the rest of the bishops. But it seems to be a rather ambiguous formula. There seems, in fact, not to exist, even in the Orthodox Church, “a simple primacy of honor”…
ZIZIOULAS: In the Orthodox Church, for example, in the absence of the Patriarch or during the vacancy of his throne there can be no episcopal elections or the performance of any “canonical acts”. Can you then describe the primacy of the patriarch as “a simple honorr”?
Has this formula other contents?
ZIZIOULAS: The expression “simple primacy of honour” is used to stress the fact that all bishops, from the Pope and the patriarchs down to the least of bishops are equal from the point of view of priesthood (hieratikós).
But this is a traditional principle for both Orthodox and Roman Catholics too…
ZIZIOULAS: With a fundamental difference between them however, namely that the Roman Catholics would apply this equality only to the level of sacramental grace which does not involve automatically the exercise of jurisdiction (the missio canonica), while the Orthodox would make no such distinction.
Do you judge these ideas to be correct?
ZIZIOULAS: These positions seem to overlook certain facts present in the Orthodox tradition and faith too: the simple and obvious fact that synodality cannot exist without primacy. In Orthodox tradition there has never been and there can never be a synod or a council without a protos, or primus. If, therefore, synodality exists jure divino, primacy also must exist by the same right.
ZIZIOULAS: Alivisatos, for example, maintains that it is not necessary to have a permanent protos; primacy can be exercised by rotation. I think this position is very weak: primacy in the Church has never been exercised by rotation. It is attached to a particular office or ministry and to a particular person. Moreover, if we logically extend the application of rotation also within each autocephalous Church, this would mean the abolishment of the offices of patriarchs and metropolitans as permanent personal ministries…
Other Orthodox theologians appeal to democracy in their theological objections to the primacy…
ZIZIOULAS. Karmiris, for example, appeals to democracy as a characteristic of the Orthodox Church. But he explicitly identifies the Orthodox position with that of western Konziliarismus in his opposition to the primacy of the Pope: there can be no primacy in the Church because the highest authority, the real primus in the Church is the Council.
In order to find an exit from the current impasse, you said that new perspectives came during the period before and after Vatican Council II. Why?
ZIZIOULAS: The question that already dominated the discussions during the long period before the Council, when the leading figures of Congar, Rahner, Ratzinger, de Lubac and others paved the way to the theology of Vatican II, was whether the fullness of the Church, her catholicity, coincided with her universal structure or not.
And on this issue, they looked to Orthodoxy….
ZIZIOULAS: Mainly to the so-called “eucharistic ecclesiology” of the Russian theologian Nicolai Afanassieff, who formulated the axiom “wherever the Eucharist is, there is the Church”. This meant that each local Church in which the Eucharist is celebrated should be regarded as the full and Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic theologians were influenced by this approach and, as a result, a theology of the local Church entered the documents of the Council.
Reverberating also on the debate regarding primacy …
ZIZIOULAS: The debate was led from the Orthodox side mainly by theologians of Russian origin who lived originally in Paris and some of whom later moved to America. Four of them - Afanassieff, Meyendorff, Schmemann and Koulomzine - produced a collective volume with the title The Primacy of Peter in the Orthodox Church (English edition, 1973). They started with the question: if each local Church is a “catholic” Church, what need is there to speak of a universal primacy or even of a “universal Church”?
Did they give the same answer to this question?
ZIZIOULAS: No. Afanassieff, for example, insists that universal ecclesiology is unknown in the ancient Church until Saint Cyprian. Following him, some Orthodox theologians argue that the universal Church is only an occasional phenomenon, happening when bishops and heads of local Churches meet together in councils. If there were no councils there would be no universal Church. There would only be communion in faith and sacramental communion, without any effect on structure.
And the others?
ZIZIOULAS: Schmemann, for example, takes a different view. For him, the Church had also known a universal primacy of a jure divino character. «Primacy» he wrote, «is the necessary expression of the unity in faith and life of all local Churches».
And Meyendorff ?
ZIZIOULAS: For him Primacy was an inevitable requirement of the very existence of the Church in the world. «There has never been a time», he wrote, «when the Church did not recognise a certain order first of all among the apostles, then the bishops, and that in this order one apostle, Saint Peter, and later one bishop, heading a particular Church occupied the place of primate». He ventured to affirm that «the function of that one Bishop is to serve that unity on the world scale, just as the function of a regional primate is to be the agent of unity on a regional scale».
And what is your own view on the subject?
ZIZIOULAS: The Orthodox rejected universal primacy in the Church for non-theological as well as for theological reasons. After the great Schism, the Orthodox interpreted papal primacy as ecclesiastical imperialism. In modern times, Orthodox theologians oppose primacy in general as incompatible with the democratic ideas of modern society, thus allowing for non-theological arguments to decide a theological issue. But now, we have to ask if this is a correct opinion, from the point of view of Orthodox ecclesiology.
And for the future?
ZIZIOULAS: First of all, we must look to our tradition. As I said before, synods without primates have never existed in the Orthodox Church, and this indicates clearly that if synodality is a dogmatic necessity, so must primacy be also. This is precisely what the well-known 34th Canon of the Apostles explicitly states…
What is that?
ZIZIOULAS. This canon of the IV century can be the golden rule of the theology of primacy. It requires that the protos is a conditio sine qua non for the synodal institution, and that the synod is in its turn equally a prerequisite for the exercise of primacy.
The fact that all synods have a primate means that ecumenical synods should also have a primus. This automatically implies universal primacy. On this basis, Orthodox theology could be ready to accept primacy at all levels of Church structure, including the universal one. The problem that remains for discussion in the context of theological dialogue between Roman Catholic and Orthodox is what kind of primacy we have in mind.
Which kind of primacy must be excluded, to promote reconciliation on this crucial issue?
ZIZIOULAS: The Orthodox cannot accept a pyramidal ecclesiology, where the titular of the universal primacy, instead of serving, subdues the local Church. Universal primacy can only function in relation to those who comprise the synod, and never in isolation, that is outside a reality of communion.
Why is it so important that all primacies (universal primacy included) should be exercised by the primate as Head of a local Church?
ZIZIOULAS: Primacy is not a legalistic notion implying the investment of a certain individual with power, but a form of diakonia. It implies also that this ministry reaches the entire community though the communion of the local Churches manifested through the bishops that constitute the council or synod. It is for this reason that the primate himself should be the head of a local Church, that is a bishop. As head of a local Church and not as an individual, this will serve the unity of the Church as a koinonia of full Churches and not as a “collage” of incomplete parts of a universal Church. Primacy in this way will not undermine the integrity of any local Church.
Why don’t you consider the role of exegetical arguments related to the debate on primacy?
ZIZIOULAS: Biblical exegesis and history are an unsafe ground of rapprochement. Although Peter’s leading position among the Twelve is recognised more and more also by the Orthodox, the particular importance attached to him by the Roman Catholics is strongly disputed by them. The late Cardinal Yves Congar saw this very well. He wrote: «In the East, the authority of the See of Rome was never that of a monarchical prince […]. The Body of Christ has no Head other than Christ himself […]. Byzantine theologians very rarely relate the primacy of the See of Rome to the Apostle Peter, although authors of prestige like Maximus the Confessor or Theodor the Studite do, at times, say something to this effect...».
So, in that direction, the way is closed…
ZIZIOULAS: If we wait until Biblical scholars come to an agreement on the relationship between the role of Peter in the New Testament and the primacy exercised by the See of Rome, we may have to postpone the unity of the Church for another millennium, if not infinitely…
How do you judge the proposal of coming back to the model of relationships followed during the first millennium?
ZIZIOULAS: This way seems to me unrealistic, mainly because the Roman Catholic Church would not be prepared to eliminate her second millennium from history in order to unite with the Orthodox.
So, in your opinion what is a realistic common ground for common answers to such open questions?
ZIZIOULAS: For the future development of dialogue on this issue, it is of crucial importance that the Orthodox accept that primacy is part of the essence of the Church and not a matter of organization. They must also accept that there must be a Primacy on a universal level. This is difficult at the moment, but it would become easier if we thought more deeply about the nature of the Church. The Church cannot be local without being universal and cannot be universal if is not local.
Mosaics of the first half of the XI century from the monastery of Hosios Loukas, Daphni, Greece; above, The washing of the feet
ZIZIOULAS: Catholics must take seriously the notion of full catholicity of the local Church promoted at Vatican Council II, and must apply it to their ecclesiology. This means that every form of primacy at the universal level must reflect the local Church and must not intervene in the local Church without her consent. Every local Church, must have the possibility to affirm its own catholicity, in relation to the primacy. For this reason, I repeat, the golden rule for a correct exercise of primacy is the 34th Apostolic Canon.
But how is it possible that a real rapprochement can happen on the basis of a new theological thesis?
ZIZIOULAS: Acceptance of the Roman primacy would depend on whether we agree that the Church consists of full local Churches united into one Church without losing their ecclesial fullness. But this is not a theological “innovation”. Father Congar believed that the papal primacy, in spite of monarchical tendencies prevailing at that time, was exercised within an ecclesiology of communion also in the West until about the sixteenth century, when the papacy succeeded in imposing monarchical primacy on the whole of the West. If that is the case, the return to such an ecclesiology of communion may not be such an unrealistic proposition.
One last question. You knew Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. What do you think the approach and contribution of the new Pope to these issues could be?
ZIZIOULAS: I had the honor and privilege of meeting the then Cardinal Ratzinger in the early eighties when we were members of the International Commission on the official Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. He is a great theologian and an expert in ecclesiology, both Western and Eastern. In his new capacity as Pope he can certainly contribute decisively to the convergence between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox understanding of primacy. In the past he made some important suggestions for the solution of this problem. It may prove to be providential that he is Pope at this crucial moment of the discussion of this matter.