Papal Primacy

How can the Orthodox deny the clear scriptural evidence for Papal primacy?

Concerning the Orthodox view of the Papacy, it is far more complicated than it appears. Concerning the scriptural passages that you mentioned, the Orthodox actually believe in Papal primacy. They believe that Christ called Peter to be the first among the Apostles, and that his successor in Rome was gifted with a special charism of leadership. The Eastern Orthodox believe, however, that the Papacy began to misuse this power in the eleventh century. By claiming universal jurisdiction, they believe that the Papacy overstepped the primacy given to it by Christ. Of course, I think that this is really a smokescreen for even deeper issues.

German Roman Catholics were having numerous squabbles with the Eastern Churches during this period in history. Because the Germans had much easier access to the Pope’s ear due to geography, it appeared that the Popes favored the Germans over the Easterners. The situation reached an apex when Cardinal Humbert, a papl nuncio who was defending German interests, excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople without the knowledge of the Pope. In fact, the Papal throne was vacant when this happened. Nonetheless, the Eastern Orthodox felt betrayed by Rome, and became very suspicious of Papal authority. This was a very tragic event in Church history, and it is my hope that this terrible rift will soon be healed.

Would the Catholic Church agree that a key to ending the schism with the Orthodox is making clear that the Pope’s role as Vicar of Christ, as head of the Universal or Catholic Church, is different and completely separate from his role as patriarch of the Latin Church?

While not explicitly stating the seperation of roles, this seems to be the direction that the Catholic Church is moving in. This is clear from the fact that the Catholic Church has been vigorously reaffirming the traditional rights and privileges of the Eastern Patriarchs. In the past fifty years we have been blessed to see the role of the Patriarch appreciated in the Catholic Church once again.

First, Vatican II proclaimed that that the Churches of the East “have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful and better adapted to foster the good of souls” (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 16; cf. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, n. 9). The Council went on to solemnly decree the following:

“By the most ancient tradition of the Church the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are to be accorded special honor, seeing that each is set over his patriarchate as father and head. This Sacred Council, therefore, determines that their rights and privileges should be re-established in accordance with the ancient tradition of each of the Churches and the decrees of the ecumenical councils.” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum no. 9)

It seems that the Catholic Church is now exalting the role of the Patriarchs as heads of self-governing Churches, and is emphasizing the role of the Pope as one of assistance to the Patriarchs in preserving the unity of the Church. Only recently Pope John Paul II said the following to the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs:

“In their own territories and in the diaspora, the Eastern Catholic Churches offer their particular liturgical, spiritual, theological and canonical riches. You, who are their heads, have received from the Holy Spirit the vocation and mission to preserve and enhance this specific patrimony, so that the Gospel may be given in ever greater abundance to the Church and to the world. And it is the duty of the Successor of Peter to assist and help you in this mission.” (We Extend Our Arms in Brotherhood, no. 2)

The role of the Pope, as head of the universal Church, is first and foremost to assure the unity of the Churches. Pope John Paul explains that “With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity,” (Ut Unum Sint, no. 94). The Pope has authority from Christ. However, this authority is not so that he can reign as a dictator or monarch, as non-Catholics sometimes think. Instead, this authority is given so that he can assure unity. As the Holy Father explains, it would be impossible to assure the unity of the Churches without possessing the necessary authority.

This new ecclesiology really isn’t new at all. In fact, this is the ecclesiology of the early Church. I believe that a strong emphasis on the rights of the Patriarchs, coupled with a proper understanding of the Papal ministry, will eventually end the schism. All in all, things are moving in a very good direction. I am especially grateful to Pope John Paul II, who has gone out of his way to make this happen. The man is truly a living saint.

How do you reconcile Papal Infallibility with Byzantine theology?

Regarding the Papacy, it is a profound blessing from God. Unfortunately, WE Catholics sometimes present it in the worst light possible. Allow me to give you an example:

A year or so ago I was eating dinner with a fellow Catholic. We were discussing matters of religion, and an Asian gentleman heard the conversation. He politely introduced himself, and wanted to learn what Catholicism was. He was a recent immigrant from Asia, and was nominally Buddhist. He asked us what Catholics believe. Before I had a chance, my friend answered:

“We believe in the Pope! Everyone must obey him in order to be saved.”

This line of conversation went on for several minutes, with my friend emphasizing the necessity of “submission to Rome.” There was no mention of Jesus or the Gospel message. This Asian man was noticably disturbed, and quickly excused himself before I could get more than a word in. That was a lost opportunity.

In stark contrast, Pope John Paul has been striving to present the Papacy in a positive light. He has been working hard to explain the Papacy in the context of the Gospel message. Frankly, the Papacy only makes sense when understood in this context. Of all the exalted Papal titles, Pope John Paul prefers to be called “The Servant of the Servants of God.”

This issue is at the very heart of the Orthodox / Catholic split. Eastern Orthodox Christians erroneously think of the Papacy in terms of “submission” to an earthly power. It doesn’t help when some of us call them heretics and demand that they “grovel before the mighty throne of Peter.” Orthodox Christians find this approach to be very distasteful, and it keeps them very wary of reunion with Rome.

The fact of the matter is that the Papacy is a magnificient gift for the benefit of the Church. The Papacy does not exist for its own benefit, but for the health and well-being of the entire Catholic Church. Pope John Paul has been stressing this in all of his contacts with the Orthodox world. When understood in this light, the Papacy actually becomes appealing to Eastern Orthodox Christians. In fact, I personally know of at least one former Orthodox priest who joined the Byzantine Catholic Church because of this positive understanding of the Papacy.

Likewise, the great authority of the Pope only makes sense when understood in light of the Pope’s role as servant. This authority was not bestowed for the Pope’s own glory. Rather, this authority was given by Christ as a tool to be used for the benefit of the Church.

In my work in this forum, I am striving to follow the example of Pope John Paul II and present an attractive and accurate understanding of the Papal ministry. I know as a fact that many Eastern Orthodox Christians are reading this forum, and I want them to understand that the Papacy is a blessing, not a curse. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul we have been blessed to witness the Papacy at its very best. His papacy clearly demonstrates that the Papal ministry is one of service.

For a better understanding of the Papacy, and it’s past and present relationship with the Eastern Patriarchs, I would highly recommend reading “Rome and the Eastern Churches” by Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP. Father Nichols is a Roman Catholic priest, and a theologian highly respected in both the East and the West. Unfortunately this book is now out of print, but you can order it from interlibrary loan.

Why are the Orthodox unwilling to accept papal authority?

In theory most Orthodox theologians accept the notion of papal primacy, but there is much debate over how it should be exercised. Pope John Paul II explicitly mentioned this in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” and stated that he is open to a “new situation” with regards to how the papacy would function in a reunited Church.

I tend to think that many Orthodox Christians are wary of what papal primacy would mean to them. Because of historical injustices, some Orthodox Christians are suspicious that papal primacy would be used as a tool to eliminate their traditions and impose latin theology, spirituality, and discipline on them. The (sometimes troubled) history of certain Eastern Catholic Churches only confirms this suspicion. It is necessary for the Catholic Church to demonstrate a real and tangible respect for Eastern Christianity, which has been happening more and more during the past century. When the Orthodox are truly convinced that the Catholic Church values and respects them and their traditions, many of the obstacles to reunion will melt away.