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From the October, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Primacy & Conciliarity by Addison H. Hart

Primacy & Conciliarity

Addison H. Hart on Orientale Lumen V

“Who do you think that the ancient lady was from whom you received the little book?” . . . “Who is she, then?” I said. “The Church,” he said. . . . “She was created the first of all things. For this reason is she old; and for her sake was the world established.”

[The ancient lady] said to me: “Behold, do you not see before you a great tower being built on the water with shining square stones? . . . The tower which you see being built is myself, the Church . . . [T]he building of the tower shall be completed, and all shall rejoice together around the tower, and shall glorify God because the building of the tower has been completed.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. II,iv,1; Vis. III,ii,4; Vis. III,iii,3; Vis. III,iv,2; written circa A.D. 150

It was this twofold vision of the Church, venerable for its being only barely sub-apostolic, to which Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia pointed those present for the first evening’s gathering at the fifth Orientale Lumen Conference in Washington, D.C. The annual conference met once again at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in June, to reflect on the theme of “Primacy and Conciliarity: Finding a Common Vision.” The theme had been proposed by Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos, presiding hierarch of the Western Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, and one of the main speakers at the event. Jointly co-sponsored by the Society of St. John Chrysostom, Eastern Christian Publications, and CUA’s School of Religious Studies, the Orientale Lumen Conferences, named for Pope John Paul’s 1995 Apostolic Letter, have engaged stimulating topics at the previous four gatherings, but none so important and challenging as this year’s theme.

It was to an auditorium filled with Orthodox, Eastern Catholics, Roman Catholics, and a sprinkling of Anglicans and others, then, that Bishop Kallistos held up the two visions of the Church found in The Shepherd of Hermas, suggesting that (in the words of the late Georges Florovsky) “the doctrine of the Church is still in process of development.” The Church imaged as an ancient woman (who, incidentally, grows younger in The Shepherd) is the “first of all things,” for whom “the world was established.” The Church pictured as an uncompleted tower implies that it is something ever new and not capable of being comprehended by time-bound human thought. Together these images indicate that the Church as we find it existentially combines Tradition and living experience, the past and the present, but that her self-understanding is as yet an uncompleted task. Bishop Kallistos interprets Pope John Paul II as saying something very similar in Ut Unum Sint.

This admirable approach to such a potentially touchy theme set the proper spiritual tone for the remainder of the conference. Given the nature of the topic—the seemingly impregnable barrier between Catholicism and Orthodoxy—and considering that such a conference is not intended to entertain or merely to stimulate the intellect, I believe that a number of significant contributions were made towards reintegrating unnecessarily separated Orthodox and Catholic ecclesiologies. I would like cursorily to offer only a handful of these, regretting that I must thereby do a disservice both to the more profound aspects of these insights and to those many others not mentioned here at all.

I will cluster insights from the various speakers under two headings: (1) The Nature of Primacy in the Context of Conciliarity, and (2) The Identity and Role of the Byzantine Catholic Churches.

The Nature of Primacy

This, of course, was the main theme of the conference, the real bone of contention between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Or, to put the matter differently: What about the papacy? Taking Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger at their word, that the dialogue on the role of the bishop of Rome needs to be opened and the issue discussed, what indeed would a universal papal primacy look like in a reunited Church, and how would it exercise its authority within an authentic collegial context?

The retired Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, picking up on themes addressed in his book, The Reform of the Papacy, noted the grave and intractable obstacle for the Orthodox of Vatican I’s seemingly maximalist definition of papal primacy as one of universal jurisdiction and infallibility. Archbishop Quinn, though, does not regard this as an insuperable difficulty, and he pointed out that a close reading of the Acts of Vatican I does not in fact support a maximalist doctrine of papal primacy, but one clearly set within the context of episcopal collegiality. “Primacy” can be exercised in a variety of ways, not simply or necessarily “jurisdictionally,” and it could be exercised by the Petrine Office in Rome in a way that would not undercut the synodal process—a mode of exercising primacy similar to that which we see operative in the first millennium of the church’s history. The real problem lies with how papal primacy has been exercised in the last thousand years, and it is in the exercising of that, and not in the concept of primacy itself, that one can appreciate the well-grounded fear of the Orthodox where any discussion of rapprochement with Rome is concerned. The history of the Eastern Catholic Churches (e.g., the Latinizing of faith and practice, the suppression of such ancient traditions as the married priesthood in some locales through Latin Church interference, and so on) provides cause for concern to the Orthodox that reunion would entail absorption by Rome and a disregard for the great Eastern Tradition, rather than a restoration of true conciliarity and primacy. The Orthodox would insist on their own traditional autonomy and reject a juridical authority over the whole Church by Rome.

Archdeacon Lawrence Cross of Melbourne, Australia, a Russian Catholic, noted that, without the balancing presence of the East, the West had come to understand universality as uniformity. On the other hand, without the balancing presence of the West, the East regarded its local churches as separate from each other, on their own, even when obvious needs should have led them to mutual assistance and regard. Primacy, Cross said, is a charism, not human government, not universal jurisdiction, and not a juridical power over the Churches of Christ (this latter, he added, being a concept impossible to “baptize” even after two millennia). Citing the nuanced understanding of papal primacy of the late Demetrios I, patriarch of Constantinople, Cross described it as a “service, an office of charity, resting on God’s grace.” Demetrios had stressed the authentic conciliar context of primacy with his memorable comment, made in 1983, that “bishop explains pope, and pope expresses bishop with greater force.”

Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos emphasized (as did, also, Bishop Kallistos) that essentially no bishop is different in his apostolic authority from another. The primate, therefore, cannot wield a power independent of the episcopal college, nor is he a “father” of other bishops, but a brother. Still, there is need for a universal primacy (as Orthodox jurisdictional chaos and even scandals make evident), and Rome is the obvious and traditional place to turn. Or it would be if Rome had not exaggerated its authority to the practical exclusion of genuine conciliarity. Whereas the Orthodox have allowed for the undermining of their episcopal authority through the acceptance of the questionable notion of sobornost, as defined by Khomiakoff and Bulgakov, Rome has allowed for a “primacy run riot,” claiming an impossible all-powerful episcopal jurisdiction over the whole world. Neither situation is in accord with the ancient councils or the Tradition of the first thousand years of the Church.

Fr. Raymond Collins of CUA, during the panel discussion on the last day of the conference, made the helpful distinction between primacy and papacy. The latter honorary title refers to the Roman see’s patriarchal (“fatherly”) role in the West. He also noted that Latin Christianity’s presence all over the world, with its understanding of direct universal papal jurisdiction, was largely due to the historical fact of European colonialism. Bishop Kallistos remarked that in a reunited Christendom, the Roman pope would certainly have universal primacy, but no direct jurisdiction in the East. Rather, he would be accorded, as in the first thousand years, an appellate jurisdiction.

The Byzantine Catholic Churches

This secondary theme of the conference emerged especially in the talk presented by Hegumen Nicholas (Zachariadis) of Holy Resurrection Monastery (Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic) in Newberry Springs, California. The question had to do with whether or not the Eastern Catholic Churches are still—as they once indeed were—Orthodox churches in communion with Rome, and (if so) what they can contribute to Catholic-Orthodox relations now. Hegumen Nicholas’s main thesis was that, for Byzantine Catholics to make any contribution, there must be in the ordering of their own ecclesial life an interiorizing of both primacy and conciliarity. In other words (as I understood him to mean), Byzantine Catholics are in a unique position to live now, with a God-given mission perhaps, as a church that both is conciliar in its governing practice and honors the Petrine primacy. To do this, they must become more truly themselves, removing every (Latinizing) obstacle between themselves and Orthodoxy, and thus in fact serve Rome’s expressed desire for reunion.

I’m not alone, I know, in thinking this a tall order; but Eastern Catholics are precisely in a position—albeit an uncomfortable one at times—of proving themselves in due time to be a light and an example both to those relatively few Orthodox who are learned enough and unbiased enough to be open to their witness, and to those Western Catholics who need to recover their own spiritual roots in the Tradition of the undivided Church. Hegumen Nicholas was disarmingly honest about the internal and external difficulties faced by Byzantine Catholics. Bishop Kallistos was equally honest during the panel discussion regarding the sadly typical Orthodox animosity towards the “Uniates.” Writing as a Roman Catholic, I’m grateful for these frequently calumniated and generally misunderstood Eastern Catholic Christians, and I believe that, in the providence of God, they will teach us both, Romans and Orthodox, a few important lessons. This will only happen, though, if the Vatican stays true to its own directives to the Eastern Churches and does not hinder them in the full recovery of their identity.

A final observation on the content of the conference: while the role of papal primacy is the bone of contention between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, it is nevertheless a fact that it is this pope’s initiative, particularly through Orientale Lumen and Ut Unum Sint, which has led to such discussions at all. In a sense, his primacy is subtly being exercised through all this, and perhaps this is in itself something like the beginnings of a mere glimmer of the origin of an answer. It is another piece in the tower’s construction.   

Those interested in the Society of St. John Chrysostom or Eastern Churches Journal can contact: The Society of St. John Chrysostom, PO Box 146, Fairfax, VA 22030; phone: 703-691-8862.

Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.

“Primacy & Conciliarity” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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