A signal in favour of ecumenism – and possibly against Moscow

The Pope once again bears the title "Patriarch of the West"

Bonn/Rome - The Pope is once again calling himself the "Patriarch of the West". This is bizarre information that needs to be categorised – because Francis is reversing a decision first made by his predecessor Benedict XVI.

Published  on 10.04.2024 at 14:41  – by Alexander Brüggemann (KNA)

The church scene is astonished. For those interested in ecumenism, it is a historical tidbit - or even more. Pope Francis now once again bears the historic title of "Patriarch of the West" - which his predecessor Benedict XVI only relinquished in 2006. An affront? A reform of a reform, to be interpreted according to the pattern of conservative versus progressive? Certainly not. There is much to suggest that both popes wanted one thing above all: to serve ecumenism.

The title "Patriarch of the West" is more of a secondary title for the Pope, who is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome. This puts him on the same level in ecumenical dialogue as the Patriarch of Constantinople and other patriarchs of those churches in the East that do not recognise the Pope as the universal head of the Church, but as their equal. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, whom Francis has already addressed as "brother" on several occasions, was informed of the move early on, according to reports in Rome.

Bartholomew, now 84 and in office for almost 33 years, is a driving force behind East-West ecumenism - together with Francis, but also and above all with Benedict XVI, who took office in 2005 as a Pope of ecumenism. In his first year in office, Benedict had the "Patriarch of the West" removed from the list of papal titles - and thus unintentionally caused irritation among the Eastern churches.

Benedict XVI actually wanted to open up new ways of thinking

The ecumenical and well-meaning Benedict XVI actually wanted to open up new ways of thinking about the exercise of papal primacy as a kind of global spokesperson for Christianity by renouncing his title. However, it is apparently easier for most Eastern churches to deal with the Pope as "Patriarch of the West" than with the other historically developed titles of the pontiff, including "Vicar of Christ" or "Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church".

One step back: since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the early Church had recognised a hierarchy of the five most important patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Byzantine monk and church teacher Theodor Studites (759-826) spoke of the "five-headed power of the church" (Greek "pentarchy"). What was meant by this was the governing power of the five patriarchs - with joint responsibility.

These five patriarchs were the successors of the apostles in the same way - and they were understood to be the most important centres of unity of the one church. All other particular churches, according to the ideal, had to be united in faith with these five. Each patriarchate of the pentarchy had to lead its own territory with the metropolitans, bishops and faithful subordinate to it. It was forbidden for one patriarch to encroach on the jurisdiction of his colleague. When questions had to be decided, the bishops met at the Ecumenical Council convened by the Byzantine emperor.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople
Bild: ©KNA

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

Rome, with the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, was given the honour of "primus inter pares" (first among equals). The Patriarch of Constantinople, successor to the Apostle Andrew, took second place, as the city, as the seat of government of the Eastern Roman Emperor, was the "Second Rome". To this day, he is the head of honour of world orthodoxy.

The third place in the pentarchy went to Alexandria, whose patriarchs refer to the martyrdom of St Mark the Evangelist. However, today there are successors of various Christian denominations in the ancient residence city of St Mark. Tawadros II is the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and the whole of Africa. Strictly speaking, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodoros II since 2004, stands in the tradition of the old pentarchy.

Antioch and Jerusalem rank fourth and fifth; the former as the city of the apostles and disciples of the apostles and the seat of an important theological school. Today, the Greek Orthodox and Melkite patriarchs of Antioch reside in Damascus, Syria. Finally, Jerusalem is the city of Christ's resurrection and the "throne of James", as James "the brother of the Lord" is regarded as the first head of the Jerusalem congregation.

Moscow's position is weakened theologically

By the second millennium at the latest, the church image of the pentarchy became obsolete in the Latin West. Here, a primarily legal image of the church developed from Rome - with the Roman papacy at the head of a hierarchy. In the Eastern churches, however, the desire for a return to the "five-headed power of the Church" has remained - at least in theory.

After the definitive withdrawal of Rome from the pentarchy and the fall of the Byzantine Empire (1453), Moscow was elevated to the status of patriarchate in 1589 and re-ranked fifth by the synod of the four remaining pentarchs in Istanbul in 1593. Moscow, of course, sees itself as the "Third Rome"; it also has by far the most church members in the Orthodox world. It therefore views both the role of the primacy of honour of Constantinople and any ecumenical rapprochement between Rome and Constantinople with great suspicion.

It is a matter of speculation, but it is not unlikely that Francis is also seeking to strengthen Bartholomew I's position vis-à-vis the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril I with this new historical-formal gesture. By restoring the pentagon of the Old Patriarchs, Rome is theologically weakening Moscow's position - at least according to the Orthodox view of the Church. And so the seemingly antiquated list "Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Pontifex Maximus of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God" in the Papal Yearbook 2024 could become a piece of the puzzle of papal diplomacy in war - with the help of ecumenical theology.

by Alexander Brüggemann (KNA)