Universal Primate and European Patriarch?

Answering the unheeded call of Ut Unum Sint

One of Blessed John Paul II’s most desired goals was the reunification of the Orthodox Churches of the East with the Catholic Church centered around Peter. Even after one of the longest papacies in history the accomplishment of this goal seemed as far in the future as the mutual excommunications of pope and Ecumenical Patriarch were in the past. That latter item, for those counting, was in 1054 AD, and the final break in communion is usually dated to the more recent 1453. As George Weigel observed in his 1999 biography of the late pontiff, this failure might be “the single greatest disappointment of John Paul’s pontificate.”

Weigel attributed this failure mostly to the politics of Eastern Europe: “Ancient Orthodox animosities over the ‘Uniates,’ Orthodox suspicion of change, Orthodoxy’s historic entanglements with state power, and Orthodoxy’s difficulties in coming to grips with its performance under communism have combined to make the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue far more complex.” That John Paul was a Slav was perhaps not as helpful as some might have hoped; a Pole leading the efforts was perhaps more of a hindrance, given Weigel’s litany of political and ecclesiological reasons. Others have noted that though John Paul said many great things about the importance of the liturgy, and actually implemented some significant reforms for the Latin Church, those reforms were slow in being enacted, and John Paul’s own papal liturgies were often marked by things worrisome to the Orthodox, whose guardianship of the sacred liturgy is characterized by extreme caution.

But the reason almost universally acknowledged as central for the perceived failure to make progress on this ecumenical front was in fact the papacy itself. Pope Paul VI acknowledged in 1967 that the papacy is “undoubtedly the gravest obstacle to the path of ecumenism.” John Paul himself understood this fact, and in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint he may, as Weigel says, “have laid the foundation for a reconciliation he would not live to see.”

In that first papal encyclical ever dedicated to a positive assessment of ecumenism John Paul affirmed that the movement for Christian unity “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity,” but is rather “an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does.” In the pursuit of that goal, John Paul not only offered a synopsis of the major areas of agreement between the Catholic Church and other Christians, but also detailed areas where further agreement was needed, including the papacy. Echoing earlier statements of Paul VI, he asked non-Catholic Christians for forgiveness for occasions when the exercise of the papacy had left “certain painful recollections.” Most revolutionary, however, and the occasion of the book under review, was his request made to all Christian leaders and theologians, Catholic and non-Catholic, to “engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue” in order 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.” The Pope was asking for suggestions on how best to pope.

Given the massive area of shared doctrine between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, one might have expected a new springtime of dialogue. Especially given the insistence of the Orthodox, expressed most succinctly by theologian John Meyendorff in 1963, that “[t]he issue of ecclesiology, and not minor liturgical and administrative adjustments or even ecumenical statements, will finally solve the problem of Christian unity.” Responses from the Orthodox, however, as Weigel delicately puts it, “have not been overwhelming.” Very few theologians, and no Orthodox Churches, have responded in any formal fashion. 

In Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, Adam DeVille, a Ukrainian Catholic theologian teaching at the University of St. Francis in Indiana, has summarized Orthodox theological views on the papacy since the Second Vatican Council and developed a set of concrete suggestions for how the Catholic Church could be structurally reformed in a way that would be “recognizable to, and reconcilable with, Catholic and Orthodox tradition.”

While some have suggested that union with the Orthodox could be accomplished by only asking for agreement with what was the common teaching of the first millennium, DeVille wisely acknowledges the fact that “one must deal with the office as it has developed and is today received and understood by the Catholic Church and, only after having done so, propose reforms to it.” In other words, there is no abandonment of Vatican I, Trent, and all of the Councils of the Second Millennium.

With this caution DeVille begins his summary of the main currents of Orthodox thought on the papacy. While some popular Orthodox apologists sometimes give the impression that Orthodoxy’s teaching on the papacy is simply Protestant no-popery spoken through longer beards and a cloud of incense, what may be surprising to all readers—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—is how much agreement there is on the need for and place of the papacy. First, most Orthodox theologians acknowledge the Roman primacy as a fact of history and would be willing to grant the Roman pontiff “at least” as much authority in reunification as was exercised in the first millennium. Second, a smaller, but still significant number of Orthodox theologians recognize the existence of a functioning papacy as “a present necessity” for “canonical good order” among the particular Orthodox Churches themselves. Third, Orthodox theologians generally embrace a concept of primacy that is not merely “honorific” and “toothless” but one that has actual duties: “summoning all the Churches together, cautioning the wayward, building up the bonds of brotherly unity, ensuring proper canonical procedures, witnessing to a unity of doctrine and morals even when unpopular, and promulgating the decisions of the synod of bishops of which he would be collegial (and not monarchical) head according to the model of a patriarch in his synod.” 

So far so positive, but DeVille’s consensus also includes a number of views that are not easily reconcilable with “the office…as it is received and understood by the Catholic Church.” The Orthodox reject a doctrine of universal jurisdiction (as enunciated by Vatican I), as well as a doctrine of papal primacy outside the framework of a synod of bishops. Third, Orthodox theologians reject the “current responsibilities and powers” of the office of the pope, which clearly outstrip anything seen among the Orthodox patriarchs. The pope’s current jurisdiction over the massive Latin Church re-emphasizes their fear of an autocratic tyranny. 

DeVille’s proposal for reforming the papacy to prepare the way for full unity, then, is essentially this: the roles and responsibilities of the pope as patriarch should be clearly separated from his role as universal primate, and a permanent standing Ecumenical Synod should be established such that immediate decisions concerning the whole Church could be made in a way that is more collegial. This standing synod would take over many of the functions that are currently within the purview of the College of Cardinals and the Roman curia.

To answer the Orthodox concern about the scope of authority and responsibility of the pope in the Latin Church, DeVille also proposes the division of the Latin Church into six continental patriarchates, which would each have their own permanent standing synod, comprised of the metropolitan archbishops, and a full synod of bishops that meets less often. DeVille also makes an argument for the election of bishops in the Latin Church just as they are in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. He backs up all of his proposals with literature from influential Catholic theologians and canonists of the last 40 years, as well as an examination of the history of the diocese of Rome, which had synods up until the end of the first millennium and also had elections of its own bishop with input and votes from diocesan clergy and laity until at least 1059, maybe later.      

What would be the results of such a massive reorganization of the Latin Church? Especially given that the bishop of Rome’s direct jurisdictional authority would be limited to a continent where Catholicism is on the ropes? DeVille makes two points. First, he argues that the pope could be just as powerful within his own patriarchate as he is now in the Latin Church. Surveying various Orthodox (including Oriental Orthodox) patriarchates, DeVille busts more Orthodox ecclesiology myths by showing myriad patriarchal governing systems—some, like Moscow’s, are highly centralized. Second, he argues the pope’s less direct oversight over the whole Latin Church would alleviate Orthodox concerns about jurisdictional tyranny. 

Difficulties present themselves. Electing bishops in and lessening papal control over the Latin Church, in the views even of many Orthodox, might result in a return to the moral-doctrinal chaos of the post-conciliar period, dooming hope for reconciliation. DeVille demurs, claiming one can’t get much worse bishops than those, appointed by popes, who presided over the priest scandals, and that the pope at the head of a Synod of Patriarchs would gain moral authority to steer the Latin Church to doctrinal green pastures. However one judges these questions, it is not clear the doctrinal questions have been or can be fully answered, to Orthodox approval, particularly concerning actual limits to papal jurisdiction and doctrinal authority.

Despite difficulties, DeVille has produced a first-rate example of creative theological scholarship, extensively researched and engagingly written. The sympathetic and accurate attention to Orthodox viewpoints, as well as attention to the nooks and crannies of Catholic history, make certain that Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy will be a touchstone for future ecumenical dialogue.


Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity

By Adam A.J. DeVille

Notre Dame, 2011

268 pages, $38


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About David Paul Deavel 36 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.