I mentioned in a previous blog post that a document prepared by a joint Catholic-Orthodox committee in 2008 was leaked to the public recently. The document dealt with the role of the bishop of Rome during the first millennium; I have now read it more carefully and I’d like to give an analysis of it here. I found it fascinating and insightful, and it even contained two surprises: one that might upset Orthodox polemicists and one that could potentially disturb their Catholic counterparts.
But before I dig in, I’d like to make clear the status of this document. It was prepared by the Joint Coordinating Committee for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in preparation for the official meeting between Catholic and Orthodox leaders in Cyprus in late 2009. It has no official standing and might even have been scrapped completely by the hierarchs at the Cyprus meeting, but I do think it is instructive as to the common view of important Catholic and Orthodox figures. Now on to the document itself.
The purpose of the document is to study the role of the bishop of Rome during the first millennium. The reason for this in the context of ecumenical relations is clear: the role of the papacy is the key stumbling block to reunion: since the first millennium Church was a united Church, it is important to see how the papacy was practiced and understood in that time frame as a possible indication of how it can be practiced and understood in a future, united Church. Obviously, reunion would not magically occur even if Catholics and Orthodox were in complete agreement as to the role of the papacy for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, but such an agreement would go a long way towards reunion.
The document breaks down its study into four categories:
- The Church of Rome, prima sedes (“first see”)
- The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter
- The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion
- The influence of non-theological factors
Each of these points are important, as they all were factors in how both the East and the West came to understand the role of the bishop of Rome in the life of the Church. Let’s take a look at each one individually:
The Church of Rome, prima sedes
One of the first things the document notes is something that might surprise your average Catholic: for the early Church, the primacy of Rome came not from Peter being its first bishop, but from the dual martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome. By shedding their blood in Rome, they became the true “founders” of the Church in Rome, even though Christians lived in the Imperial Capital before either of the two apostles got there. This does not mean that Peter was not the first bishop of Rome, but it shows two vital points sometimes forgotten by Catholic apologists: the importance of martyrdom in Roman claims and the role of Paul in the primacy of Rome. As we will see below, it was a later development that resulted in all papal claims being tied to Peter’s role as the first bishop of Rome.
Another important point from this section is the priority of the local church over the bishop. It is the church of Rome that has primacy, and the pope derives his authority from his position as the bishop of that local church. As the document states, “Both East and West have continued to maintain that the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishop and is the source of the latter” (paragraph 9). This just makes sense, as, for instance, Cardinal Ratzinger had no special authority until he was made bishop of Rome. It is the office which has primacy, not the person.
This section also contains the first “surprise,” and it is one that I don’t think will please hard-line Orthodox polemicists. In a discussion of the authority of the Ecumenical Councils, the document notes, “Although in the first millennium Ecumenical Councils were called by the emperor, no council could be recognised as ecumenical without it having the consent of the pope, given either beforehand or afterwards” (paragraph 12, emphasis added). I think that this is a significant statement, having encountered many Orthodox apologists who would like to remove the necessity of papal approval completely from a council’s requirements for consideration as “ecumenical”. Later (in paragraph 27) the document does list a number of other factors needed in order to make a council truly “ecumenical,” but I thought the explicit recognition of the need for papal consent was quite a concession on the Orthodox side.
The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter
In this section, the document relates the history of divergent East-West views of the Pope as the successor of Peter. Standard Catholic theology today states unequivocally that the reason the Pope has the authority he does is because he is the successor of St. Peter. However, as the document notes, this understanding took time to develop, and it was never really accepted in the East. In fact, I would say that this divergent development was the first real beginning of the separation between East and West. Beginning in the third century, while Eastern Christians viewed the importance of the bishop of Rome as deriving from Rome’s political importance, Western Christians tended to base that authority on apostolic – and specifically Petrine – grounds.
In this context the document reviews Pope Leo’s role at the Council of Chalcedon. At that council, Leo’s “Tome” was read in defense of the orthodox Faith, and afterwards the bishops cried out, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” In most apologetical contexts, Catholics have used this statement to prove that the Pope is the successor to the person of Peter and therefore has his authority, whereas Orthodox Christians have either downplayed the statement or noted that it was simply a recognition that Leo had given voice to the faith of Peter. It is here that I think the document has the second surprise, this time one that might not be acceptable to many hard-line Catholic polemicists. It comes down conclusively on the Orthodox interpretation of these events: “In the early Church, both East and West, it was the succession of Peter’s faith that was of paramount importance” (paragraph 18). I know many Catholics who would challenge that claim.
But importantly, this section concludes with what I would say is the main theme of the document: that unity was preserved in the first millennium in spite of different understandings of the role of the Pope. “It is notable that these rather different understandings of the position of the bishop of Rome and the relationship of the major sees in West and East, respectively, based on quite different biblical, theological and canonical interpretations, co-existed for several centuries until the end of the first millennium, without causing a break of communion” (paragraph 22).
The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion
There is little that is controversial in this third section. Mostly it notes that many appeals were made to Rome during the various crises of the first millennium. There is general agreement between both Western Christians and Eastern Christians that the Pope has a role as a court of appeal when a controversy extends outside the border of a diocese or patriarchy, but less agreement as to the exact nature of his authority in those situations. After recounting examples of these appeals, the document simply concludes this section, “It can be affirmed that in the first millennium the bishop of Rome, as first (protos) among the patriarchs, exercised a role of coordination and stability in questions relating to faith and communion, in fidelity to the tradition and with respect for conciliarity” (paragraph 28).
The influence of non–theological factors
The final section has a “tacked-on” feeling, as it simply lists, without comment, a number of non-theological factors in the divergent views of the role of the papacy. These factors are very important, but I imagine that the Committee felt that it would take them too far afield to explore them in any depth.
The document concludes by emphasizing its overall theme: unity existed even during times of widely divergent views on the papacy. As the document states, “Distinct divergences of understanding and interpretation did not prevent East and West from remaining in communion” (paragraph 32). It implies, “we didn’t really agree back then and we were still in communion, so what is stopping us now?”
Although the findings of the Committee are unofficial and hold no authoritative ecclesial weight, I do think this is an important document. I hope that it can set the tone in every level of discussions between Catholics and Orthodox. For too long apologists have mined the first millennium looking for “proofs” of their position, often at the expense of the subtleties of what really happened. The fact is that Eastern and Western Christians have never fully agreed on the role of the Pope within the Church, so to think we will come to complete agreement in the future is unrealistic. What we can hope for, however, is a level of agreement that, while appreciating legitimate differences, is compatible with full communion between the two great Churches.
Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us!