Clément’s Reply to Rome
You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise
of Papal Primacy
reviewed by Anthony Dragani
One of the thorniest issues in ecumenical relations is the Catholic belief in the pope’s primacy. While Catholics believe that the papacy is a necessary and divinely mandated institution, Protestant and Orthodox Christians usually find it to be an ongoing source of division. There is a note of tragic irony in this, for Catholicism teaches that the purpose of the papacy is to safeguard and preserve the unity of Christ’s Church.
In the spring of 1995 something unexpected happened. In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II asked other Christian leaders to engage with him in a frank dialogue on what the role of the pope should be. He expressed his own willingness “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” You Are Peter is Olivier Clément’s response.
Clément, who teaches in France, is one of the leading Orthodox theologians in the world today. His bestselling The Roots of Christian Mysticism is widely acknowledged as a contemporary masterpiece. This latest work is an authentically eastern and highly readable attempt to move the discussion on this issue past its current impasse.
The book’s title is an allusion to Matthew 16:18, in which Jesus tells Simon that “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Catholic teaching has traditionally cited this verse as proof that Christ divinely instituted the papacy. The title brings us to the heart of the controversy: Either the papacy is of supernatural origin or it is a human invention with no divine authority.
Clément tackles this question from a historical angle, by carefully examining “the history and experience of the undivided Church.” He recounts the controversies and councils, trying to determine what the historical role of the papacy actually was. It is in this analysis that he truly sets himself apart. Most Catholic and Orthodox writers tend to repeat the same polemical historical arguments for or against the papacy. Rarely does anyone say something truly original.
More than a few Catholic writers have a tendency to project the contemporary understanding of papal primacy, with its many developments, onto the undivided Church of the first millennium. Some Orthodox writers argue that the pope’s primacy, which was enshrined in the canons of the ancient councils, was simply a “primacy of honor,” with no real authority.
Clément rejects both of these readings of history. He argues that the papacy played a vital role throughout the first millennium, and that “the role of Rome, its Petrine charism, is therefore to keep watch over the communion of the local churches, to prevent them from breaking away, to intervene at the request of any one of them,” and “to serve as a point of reference to anyone seeking insertion in one of the most prestigious of the apostolic traditions.” He believes that the papacy has the potential to play such a key role in a reunited Christian Church.
Yet for this to become a reality, it is necessary for the papacy to significantly alter the way in which it currently functions, and in the later chapters Clément suggests what needs to change. He decries specific developments in the Catholic understanding of the papacy, and especially in the way that papal primacy has come to be exercised. In particular, he is disturbed by what he perceives as an unhealthy tendency to centralize all authority in Rome.
Rather than supporting the authority of the local churches, Rome has, he fears, usurped much of that authority for herself. Since the beginning of the second millennium, “while safeguarding the traditional ecclesial principle of her primacy, [Rome] has increasingly interpreted this primacy as absolute power over the Church.”
For Christian unity to become a reality, Clément believes the pope must give back to the local churches some of the power that he has amassed. Nonetheless, he finds considerable hope in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, which in his estimation restored a more historically balanced and patristic understanding of authority in the Church.
Having leveled his criticisms against Rome, Clément then offers an equally daunting challenge to his Orthodox coreligionists. He believes that the Orthodox Church has gone too far in some of its reactions against papal primacy. In the course of responding to certain developments and abuses, many Orthodox Christians have come to see the papacy as an enemy to be feared. He challenges the Orthodox Church “to overcome its fear, mistrust, and isolation,” and to set aside anti-papal polemics. He urges his fellow Orthodox Christians to look at the historical record and to “recall the ‘mystery’ of the presence of Peter (and Paul) in Rome, and the ‘presidency of love’ vested in consequence in the church of that city.”
The book concludes with a particularly insightful overview of the philosophical and spiritual movements Christianity must meet head on. This serves to emphasize his overarching point: A united Christianity is more necessary than ever before. He believes that “ways can be found of bridging the schism between Orthodox East and Catholic and Protestant West: not through compromise, but through a clearer discovery in the Holy Spirit of the original core of the message.”
While many Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants will undoubtedly disagree with some of Clément’s conclusions, it will be interesting to see what impact this book will have on ecumenical relations, especially between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Clément is asking a lot from both of them, perhaps more than they are willing or able to give. Moreover, one wonders if Pope John Paul II himself has read this response to the request that he made in Ut Unum Sint. As Avery Cardinal Dulles says in the Foreword, this “is almost exactly the kind of response for which Pope John Paul II was hoping.”
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