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The Papacy and Ecumenism | Rev. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M. | From Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Dialogue

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Editor's Note: This text is from the first chapter, "The Primacy As An Ecumenical Problem," of Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Dialogue. The extensive footnotes, many of them in languages other than English, have not been included here.

It was Paul VI who, with great incisiveness, highlighted the problems posed by his own ministry along the path of ecumenism. However, he was also the true initiator of the "dialogue of charity" and of the "dialogue of truth". In fact, in his address to the members of the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians (April 28, 1967) he openly stated, "The Pope, as we well know, is undoubtedly the greatest obstacle on the path of ecumenism."'

These words generated a great deal of comment in special issues of journals and reviews, and above all in interconfessional inquiries and symposia. These produced an "awareness of the difficulty arising from the existence of the papacy, and it was repeatedly affirmed that the role of the papacy in the Catholic Church constituted the greatest obstacle on the path toward the unity of Christians". In fact, it is often repeated, as a refrain, that the primacy is regarded by all confessions as constituting the main doctrinal difficulty for the union of Churches, a sort of boulder that blocks its path, insofar as it has sometimes "played a decisive role, fraught with responsibility, in the rise of the fatal divisions which are found within the bosom of Christianity". It is "a particularly controversial issue, and consequently as long as this divergence of opinion is not dealt with and clarified, all dialogues about the differences between the Churches will have something of a fictitious nature, but especially because the differing notions about this issue impede the common testimony of the Churches".

The obstacle constituted by the primacy has been emphasized also in various monographs by individual authors who have pointed out the various aspects of its seriousness and have indicated the crux of the problem by identifying its basis They have also underscored the unanimous and categorical concurrence of non-Catholics in their rejection of the idea that the exceptional privileges of the primacy can be reserved for one single person The conclusions that emerge from this are not very promising: "[As a result], the ecciesiology which we [have] presented can-at least in its essentials-be accepted by these Churches [of the East]. But from the time that the chapter on Roman Primacy is opened up, everything is spoiled. It is evident that the problem is complicated because of the groups which were born of the Reformation and its [s]pirit."

At the same time, however, historical and theological studies have helped to create a new atmosphere, one that is less aggressive and polemical, in dealing with the obstacle. This has produced results, both within the Catholic Church and outside, at least with regard to the necessity and the existence of the primacy, if only for historical reasons and sociological needs. A distinction is thus made between the reality and its practice: "What is under discussion is not the Papacy in itself but the way in which it is exercised. In other words, the prejudice is no longer against the Papacy, but efforts are now directed towards a new and different kind of Papacy, towards its 'refounding', with emphases that betray, in more than one case, disaffection or opposition to the institution, or which reveal, on the contrary, real scruples about its unthinkableness, or else a more balanced view." Suspicions and hostilities, in any case, still persist, to the point of considering its abolition to be the most effective way to achieve the reunion of Churches.

This conclusion, which has been reached by the various proposals for a renewal of the primacy, insists today on the necessity of freeing it from any confessional connotation, in the sense that it is characteristic of only one ecciesial tradition, and rendering it "universal" in the light of the "double conciliar principle that guides the ecumenical efforts of Catholics and which the Pope himself takes up in Ut unum sint: that of the hierarchy of truths (no. 37) and that of the distinction between the deposit offaith and the formulation in which it is expressed (no. 81, see nos. 18, 19, 36, 38, 78, 81)", so as to arrive at a truly ecumenical way of exercising the primacy.

This recognition is, in any case, linked with precise conditions and concrete proposals for renewal, in "an authentic dialogue within the Catholic Church and between her and the other Churches". Indeed, a rereading of the First Vatican Council--which represents a stumbling block in its formulations--is proposed, and a new view of the primacy is suggested: a transition from the primacy as it has developed historically to one which is understood as a ministry of communion in the context of collegiality and conciliarity; the papacy as a historical phenomenon--which could even disappear--is supposed to make way for a "renewed" papacy, namely, a Petrine ministry of service to all the Churches. As L. Sartori writes, "there is no longer a prejudice against the papacy; there is, however, a refusal to accept the way in which the papacy was understood and exercised for centuries in the Catholic tradition; efforts are now being directed towards a new and different form of papacy."

The conditions for the renewal of the primacy have been formulated in a more detailed manner by J.J. von Allmen. Having specified that the Pope cannot disown the responsibility which belongs to him, he enunciates the following four principles, which ought to inform the exercise of the papal ministry: the Pope should exercise his ministry as the bishop of the Church of Peter and Paul; he should earnestly respect collegiality which binds him to other bishops"; he should, above all, be the Bishop of the local Church of Rome; and he should continue energetically to resist the temptation to "secularize" his ministry.

Furthermore, a return to the pentarchy has been suggested as a model for the government of the Church. This would mean that, in the first place, a distinction is made, in the person of the Roman Pontiff, between his role as Patriarch of the West and his role as Primate of the universal Church, in order to regulate relations with the other patriarchal Churches of the East. Consideration will also have to be made for a new form of the papacy within the "crown of patriarchs", where the primacy of the prima sedes would no longer be absolute and would cease to be exercised in an abnormal manner. But within the Western patriarchate too, the Pope would have to renounce "the rights of jurisdiction over the protestant Churches" and would have to move in the direction of an autocephality modeled on that of the Orthodox Churches; in exchange, "the protestant Churches and communities would agree on the existence of seven sacraments and on the constitution of rites." One could add that they would also come to an understanding "of the role of the bishop of Rome as the primate of the universal communion of churches", a role which would not, however, be linked with "the power of jurisdiction, which concerns the Patriarchate alone".

Within this context of pentarchy it would be possible today to acknowledge that the Bishop of Rome has a primacy of honor, even though the most productive way for an eventual reconciliation would be the application of collegiality within the institutional structures of the Catholic Church, which would bring out the true nature of the primacy: a ministerial power at the service of the universal communion of local Churches, necessary for the maintenance and growth of the communion itself.

Finally, it was Paul VI, the very same person who had so clearly under- lined the obstacles placed by the primacy, who was responsible for the "rediscovery" of the category of "sister Churches". This is generally understood as the way to the reestablishment of full communion; it has assumed, however, a specific meaning in relation to the solution of the problem of the primacy.

The category arose as a context within which the Christians of the East acknowledged that Rome has a primacy of honor among equal Churches, "united among themselves by bonds of communion and not of dependence", and as a model for describing the relations among the Churches, within which it was recognized that the "sister" Church of Rome possesses a certain "presidency in love". The category was taken up again "to designate the relations between the Greek Church and the Latin Church" even though "in this context of ecclesial 'fraternitas' there can be no room for papal primacy." It implies taking a new look at the problem of the role of the Church of Rome and her Bishop and renouncing the forms in which the primacy has been exercised since the rupture of canonical communion; or rather, a common rethinking of the nature of the particular authority that the East recognizes in the See of Peter. On the basis of this reality, the sister Churches of the East and the West will have to clarify that which was left unsaid by the First and the Second Vatican Councils about the role and functioning of the central authority. The Church of Rome in particular should understand the true rela- tionship between the primacy and the local episcopate and the fundamental constitutive function of the latter, a function that should not lose its essential prerogatives, even if relations with the See of Rome are necessary in order to attain full communion in a single profession of Christ and in a single Eucharist.

In any case, the primacy would be considered under the aspect not of a person, but of a sister Church endowed with a particular dignity, with out any mother-to-sister relationship and without any hierarchical type of dependence.

The problematic character of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome has been emphasized by the study document The Church: Local and Universal (1990) of the joint Working Group of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches as follows: "The office of the papacy remains a controversial issue in ecumenism, but there are signs of better reciprocal understanding. On the Orthodox side the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I, following a deliberation and resolution of his Synod, and convinced that it expressed the mind of the early Church, declared that the Bishop of Rome is marked out as the one who has the presidency of charity and is the first bishop in rank and honor in the whole Body of the Lord. The Pope can be called primus inter pares (first among equals), because this apostolic see has exercised a primacy of love from earliest time. In bilateral dialogues, the Lutherans speak of the value of the 'Petrine function [ministry]', and Anglicans have agreed that 'a universal pri- macy will be needed in a reunited church and it should appropriately be the primacy of the Bishop of Rome'. The Joint Roman Catholic/World Methodist Council Commission noted: 'Discernment of the various factors in Scripture and history might contribute to an agreed perception of which functions the see of Rome might properly exercise in a ministry of universal unity, by what authority, and on what conditions'. Despite these positive statements, the problems of ius divinum (divine right), primacy of jurisdiction, infallibility and the papal teaching authority remain subjects of intense ecumenical dialogue."

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Fr. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M. served with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1975-2003 and teaches ecclesiology and ecumenism at the Antonianum in Rome.

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