Vatican presents proposals for a new understanding of the primacy

The papal office is to be transformed from a stumbling block to the cornerstone of ecumenism

Vatican City - The Pope is a servant of Christian unity – according to his theological self-understanding. However, his office also includes his primacy, which has become ever stronger over the centuries: an obstacle to ecumenism. Has the Dicastery for Unity now found a way out? An analysis.

Published  on 13.06.2024 at 13:00  – by Felix Neumann

The fragmentation of Christianity into a multitude of churches and communities is a permanent sting. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and even more so since the encyclical "Ut unum sint" (1995) by Pope John Paul II. ecumenical dialogue with the aim of uniting all Christians has been a priority for the Catholic Church. With his encyclical, John Paul II began a dialogue on the exercise of his Petrine ministry. Since then, there have been numerous dialogue commissions between the Catholic Church and other churches. The unity of the Church has not yet been achieved as a result.

Next year, "Ut unum sint" will be 30 years old, and at the same time the churches will be celebrating the 1,700 years of the Council of Nicaea - These are occasions to further intensify ecumenical endeavours. The Dicastery for Christian Unity has now presented a new proposal for a differentiated communion: In just under 500 pages under the Italian title "Il vescovo di Roma" ("The Bishop of Rome"), the Pope's "ecumenical authority" summarises the progress of the dialogues.

Cardinal Kurt Koch in front of a wall of books
Bild: ©KNA/Francesco Pistilli

Cardinal Kurt Koch is Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. He is responsible for the study document, which was published with the approval of Pope Francis.

It is not yet a doctrinal document, it is still a study document. However, the 150 pages also include a proposal paper from the dicastery based on the results of the dialogue to date, which should lead to concrete steps. For as atmospherically good and in some cases productive as the dialogues to date have been, there is also dissatisfaction that visible steps towards unity are rare and largely absent at a structural level. Most recently, the Coptic Church suspended the dialogue. This was triggered by the disagreement over the blessing document "Fiducia supplicans", but escalated against the backdrop of a more fundamental dissatisfaction with the results of the dialogue. more fundamental dissatisfaction with the results of the dialogue.

The Pope's dogmas divide the churches

Despite all the theological agreement, the major obstacle to a visible and structural unity of Christians is the papal office in its Catholic form. The new study document is therefore dedicated to this point of controversy in order to turn the stumbling block of ecumenism into its cornerstone.

The papal dogmas - infallibility and the primacy of jurisdiction - are what sharply divide the churches today: Anyone who wants to belong to the communion of the Catholic Church must recognise it; Catholic is synonymous with communion with the Pope. Anyone wishing to convert from the Catholic Church to an Orthodox Church must, among other things, expressly renounce the dogmas of the Pope. While the Catholic and most other churches agree that a bishop is at the head of a local church, the question of the supreme representative and his powers is controversial. Here the pope, who is hierarchically superior to the bishops, there the various autocephalous, i.e. fundamentally independent churches, which stand side by side on an equal footing and in which there is at best a primus inter pares in Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who only has a primacy of honour among the patriarchs and heads of the other Orthodox autocephalous churches; in the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has primacy of honour among the primates of the Anglican provinces; in the Old Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Utrecht as primus inter pares of the Old Catholic bishops.

Resolving dogmatic controversies through conceptual work

Ecumenical dialogue must deal with this mixed ecclesiological situation. A typical strategy for reaching ecumenical consensus is to shift from dogmatic divergences to conceptual misunderstandings. Even dogmatic differences that have been recognised for centuries - such as the doctrine of justification in dialogue with the Lutherans - or even millennia - such as the doctrine of doctrine of two natures in the dialogue with the Copts - can be brought together in a synthesis using this method: with the result that one truth is merely viewed from two different perspectives and the respective confessional formulation is not actually church-dividing.

Bild: ©KNA

A milestone in ecumenism: On 31 October 1999, the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Christian Krause, and the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, sign the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification".

When it comes to the question of papal primacy, this task is much more difficult. The papal office has evolved over the centuries since the Great Schism of 1054in which the Latin Church separated from today's Orthodoxy. Disagreements about the papal primacy were already central to the schism. With a distance of almost 1,000 years, these disagreements could certainly have been settled by mediation in a similar way to the dispute over the natures in Christ and justification. But the story went on. The ever stronger position of the papal office culminated in the papal dogmas of the First Vatican Council in 1870 - This is the most recent past by the standards of the Church, and with a dogmatisation so formally clear that it is particularly difficult to reconcile it conceptually with the polycentric organisational form of Orthodoxy.

In fact, the proposals of the Unity Dicastery also address the central problem. They mention the proposals for a relecture or an official commentary on the First Vatican Council. Its decisions should be read in the light of the Second Vatican Council: The First Vatican Council had to be hastily cancelled. While the question of the pope was decided, the question of the collegiality of the bishops was not decided until the Second Vatican Council. The dicastery speaks of categorising the results of the First Vatican Council in the hierarchy of truths and re-reading them in the light of the entire tradition - with reference to the dogmatic constitution "Pastor Aeternus" itself, with which the Council had decided on the primacy of jurisdiction. In the introduction to the constitution, the Council Fathers emphasised that their teaching was not new, but had been "contained in the faith of the universal Church unchanged from time immemorial". The dicastery builds on this and proposes conceptual work - in other words, the classic tools of ecumenical dialogue: formulations such as ordinary, immediate and universal jurisdiction, infallibility, governmental authority, supreme authority and power are recognised as ambiguous and are to be clarified.

Authority in the service of the community

The proposals do not yet anticipate the results of this clarification of terms. However, they do make an important distinction: between the universal church (Ecclesia universalis) and the whole church (Ecclesia universa). This is important so that the papal primacy is not understood in secular terms as simply worldwide. The Roman papal primacy is to be understood less as a universal power in a universal church, "but as an authority in the service of communion between the churches (communio Ecclesiarum). (communio Ecclesiarum)that is, the whole Church (Ecclesia universa)". The comprehensive claim of the papal dogmas and the doctrine of the Church flowing from them is thus already somewhat reduced.

The next proposal is a clear distinction between the various tasks of the pope in his office as head of the Catholic Church and his office as guarantor of the unity of all Christians. In terms of church constitutional law, a distinction is made between his patriarchal office for the Latin Church and the office of primacy in the communion of churches. The removal of the title "Patriarch of the West" in 2006 and its reinstatement in the most recent Pontifical Yearbook is probably also related to this context. After all, Pope Benedict XVI had caused concern in the ecumenical world by dropping the title. The Munich canon lawyer Martin Rehak had expressed hope after the reintroduction in April expressed the hopethat the move would help to bring Christian unity closer.

First Bishop of Rome

One of Pope Francis' remarkable gestures at the beginning of his pontificate was that he explicitly introduced himself first and foremost as Bishop of Rome. This also places the Dicastery for Unity in the context of the unity of the churches: By emphasising his episcopal office at a local level, as a bishop among bishops, the aspect of collegiality is strengthened. A further sign of this is a greater significance for the cathedral of the diocese of Rome: many papal documents now have the Lateran Basilica as the place of issue, not the Vatican.

The cathedra of the Pope as Bishop of Rome in the Lateran Basilica.
Bild: ©

The Bishop of Rome has his cathedra in the Lateran Basilica. Francis has upgraded his episcopal church and probably wants to demonstrate that he is above all a bishop in the College of Bishops.

Pope Francis' particular focus on the issue of synodality within the Catholic Church should also be read in an ecumenical direction, argues the ecumenical dicastery: the Catholic Church must show its dialogue partners a convincing model of cooperation internally so that it is credible externally for synodal cooperation between the churches.

Despite the World Synod on Synodality, the reflection of existing church bodies on synodality has recently stalled somewhat; a strengthening of the Bishops' Conferences, as promised at the beginning of the pontificate, has not yet been realised. promised at the beginning of the pontificateand the efforts of the German Synodal Way, which were perceived as a solo effort, were suspiciously thwarted by Rome instead of being used as an ecclesiological laboratory for experimentation. The proposals of the Unity Dicastery, on the other hand, bring many aspects of the synodalisation of existing bodies and levels back to the fore. This includes learning from the Eastern Catholic churches, whose canon law recognises much stronger levels of co-determination through episcopal synods, which are legislative bodies. In addition, there are structures with lay participation such as the patriarchal and eparchial convention, which is similar in principle to the one that is little used in practice - in Germany most recently from 2013 to 2016 in Trier - Latin diocesan synod, which is little used in practice. The topic of the bishops' conferences is the Church Constitution "Lumen Gentium" of the Second Vatican Council, which draws a parallel between bishops' conferences and ancient patriarchates that has not been developed theologically or in terms of canon law since then. The same applies to elements that are standardised in canon law but are not used in practice, such as the collegial exercise of the office of leadership by the Pope and bishops. The Synod of Bishops and the Council of Cardinals are cited as further examples of steps towards a synodal governance structure of the Catholic Church.

Graduated model of church unity

The actual thrust of the proposals is, due to their origin in the Unity Dicastery, an outward-looking one: they are concerned with developing a possible model of church communion. This requires graduated models that take the respective ecclesiologies seriously: While there is great agreement between the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, there is a far greater difference in the churches of the Reformation.

With regard to Orthodoxy, the dictum of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is emphasised, who stated in 1997 - then as Prefect of the Faith - that Rome should not demand more from the Orthodox churches than what had been formulated and lived in the first millennium. In other words, what was valid in a polycentric church constitution in which the Bishop of Rome was one of the five patriarchs with equal rights, with primacy of honour but without primacy of jurisdiction over the other patriarchs. Two responsibilities of the Pope in ecumenism are derived from this: a prominent role in ecumenical councils, which he is supposed to convene and preside over, and a mediating role in conflicts of a disciplinary and doctrinal nature.

Pope Francis and representatives of the Anglican Church
Bild: ©picture alliance / ipa-agency | VATICAN MEDIA

Pope Francis meets representatives of the Anglican Church in Rome - the relationship is complicated: According to Anglican understanding, the understanding of ministry is shared with the Catholic Church; according to Catholic understanding, the ordinations of Anglicans are not recognised as valid.

It is more difficult to find the right role with regard to the churches of the Reformation. The controversial points of ecclesiology and above all the question of ministry are much more difficult to resolve here. The unifying factor here should be the Reformation emphasis on the Gospel. In addition, there would be a special appreciation of the regional level and subsidiarity, which characterises the Protestant church constitutional tradition. However, no specific models are named.

One controversial point does not appear: The ecumenical concept of union, i.e. the affiliation of entire churches or parts of churches to the Catholic Church. This was once the favoured concept and origin of the Eastern Catholic churches, also known as "united". For Orthodoxy, however, this concept is a red rag, as in addition to the unity of the "united" part of the Church, it causes a split in the original Church: only one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, the Maronite Church, joined the Catholic Church as a whole. The path of "uniatism" was abandoned in 1993 in the Balamand Document, a document of dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Instead, other paths to unity should be sought - as the proposals now indicate. In view of the establishment of the Anglican ordinariates by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 there were fears in the Orthodox Church that the Catholic Church had not really left uniatism behind.

Understanding primacy in a serving way

In view of the many violations in the course of church history - the unions are just one of them - and the numerical proportions - over 1.4 billion Catholic Christians compared to around 300 million Byzantine Orthodox believers - the aspect of service is emphasised. "Peter's role in strengthening the brothers (Luke 22:32) is a servant leadership based on the awareness of his own weakness and sinfulness," the proposals state. Primacy should therefore essentially not be thought of in terms of power.

All of this is still at the proposal stage. Naturally, reactions from the sister churches addressed are still pending. However, the thrust of the document published with the approval of Pope Francis shows how the churches could make progress on questions of primacy. The great challenge is to achieve the "definition" and thus, in effect, the historicisation of the First Vatican Council. The challenge is all the greater because Pope Francis, for all his talk of synodality, also acts very self-confidently with the fullness of his power. And that is only the Catholic side: the large church communities that have fundamentally retained or newly adopted the polycentric understanding of the church of the first millennium, the Byzantine Orthodox churches and the Anglican Communion, demonstrate the problems that can go hand in hand with decentralised ecclesiology through their disunity. In the case of the Orthodox, it is the dispute between Moscow and Constantinople between Moscow and Constantinople over Russia and Ukraine, for the Anglicans the regionally highly divergent dealing with homosexualitywhich is pushing both church communities towards a schism. These are issues in which the Pope would be needed as an accepted mediator, as proposed by the dicastery - but at the same time the obstacles that clearly stand in the way of the growth of such a role.

by Felix Neumann

In full text: "The Bishop of Rome"

The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity has published the document "The Bishop of Rome. Primacy and Synodality in Ecumenical Dialogues and Responses to the Encyclical Ut unum sint" in English, Italian and French.