The way forward after the Catholic-Orthodox agreement on primacy and synodality

How are we to reconcile the dogmatic fact of Vatican I’s universalizing claims with the now publicly admitted historical fact of regional limitations to the authority of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium?

Since publishing Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy in 2011, I have continued to follow closely discussions of Orthodox-Catholic relations. Now, in 2016, I rejoice that the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has just come to an agreed statement on how to move forward in treating the twin questions of primacy and synodality. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church issued, in late September, a text titled “Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church” (Sept. 21, 2016). While this “Chieti statement”—the dialogue was held at the Villa Maria, Francavilla al Mare, about 120 miles northeast of Rome—is by no means as detailed as my own proposals, nor the definitive solution to current divisions, I think it is nonetheless a significant step along the path to full communion, and for that we must give thanks to the Lord by studying it carefully.  

Like all statements of this sort, it begins with the usual pious utterances about the desire for full communion and words of thanks at how far we have come in the past half-century especially. It then spends a good bit of time on early Church history, and how arrangements were set up and maintained for local churches to be in communion with one another. It briefly and rather generally defines both “synodality” and “primacy” in the life of the early Church, noting that both then and today both synods and primates remain necessary, each in necessary and healthful tension with the other. 

After offering a brief reflection on the relationship between theology and history, it then flatly asserts “the history of the Church in the first millennium is decisive” because it was then that despite certain temporary ruptures, Christians from East and West lived in communion during that time, and, within that context, the essential structures of the Church were constituted. The relationship between synodality and primacy took various forms, which can give vital guidance to Orthodox and Catholics in their efforts to restore full communion today. (no.7)

This is an unsurprising turn to anyone who has been paying attention for more than twenty years. Since at least Ut Unum Sint of 1995, the urge among hierarchs and scholars has been to look to the first millennium for models that may be of use to us today. Thus the Chieti statement ends laconically by asserting that our “common heritage of theological principles, canonical provisions and liturgical practices from the first millennium constitute a necessary reference point and a powerful source of inspiration for both Catholics and Orthodox…. On the basis of this common heritage, both must consider how primacy, synodality, and the interrelatedness between them can be conceived and exercised today and in the future.” 

The document’s appeals to history are, as I said, well known and commonplace today. But they raise far more questions than they answer, and nowhere is this more cogently grasped than in considering the final clause of the antepenultimate paragraph, whose brevity belies what is arguably the most potentially revolutionary claim in the entire text: “the bishop of Rome did not exercise canonical authority over the churches of the East” (no. 19; my emphasis).  

This is a demonstrably verifiable fact of history and so in one light completely unobjectionable. But at the same time, it raises the question of how to reconcile this historical statement about the first millennium with the dogmatic claims from the second millennium, that is Vatican I’s dogmatic claims that the “holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy” (Pastor Aeternus s.1); that the “Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church…throughout the world” (s.2); and that such primacy is always over the “whole church” (a phrase repeated more than a dozen times in Pastor Aeternus).

How are we to reconcile the dogmatic fact of Vatican I’s universalizing claims with the now publicly admitted historical fact of regional limitations to the authority of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium? 

At once we can see what we cannot do: we cannot pretend that the historical evidence does not exist. And we cannot pretend that Vatican I is of no account and can be ignored or repealed. Are we at an impasse then?

Pastor Aeternus, to my mind, does not present an insurmountable obstacle because it is so sparing and apophatic in nature. This is seen most clearly when Vatican I says “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might…make known some new doctrine” (my emphasis). Vatican I, moreover, never tells us what, exactly, constitutes “world-wide primacy,” or “pre-eminence of ordinary power.” So we cannot look either to the council’s theology (for there is none) or to the first millennium for guidance, for Chieti has already admitted there was no such world-wide exercise of papal authority over the East then. Where ought we to look?

Here we need to turn to actual papal practices and canons from 1917 onwards. Here we can offer a friendly rejoinder to the great Byzantine Jesuit historian Fr. Robert Taft that canon law is not, as he once facetiously said, the “bad side of the good news.” Canon law can in fact offer us some good news by showing us several ways forward.   

Canons sometimes purport to translate into practice (however inadequately) the theology of councils. So the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1917 after Vatican I, and the 1983 and 1990 codes after Vatican II. That is why it is only after 1917 that the bishop of Rome begins, for the first time in history, to claim for himself the right of appointing all the bishops in the world. Vatican I nowhere talks about this, but the 1917 code of canon law interpreted Vatican I along these lines, inserting a canon claiming just such authority (a staggering innovation, as historian Eamon Duffy and others have recognized). This canon is just an interpretation of a council, not a binding dogmatic decree itself. So it can be changed, as canons often are changed for good reason. 

But note that the canons in the 1990 code (the CCEO) governing the Eastern Catholic Churches do not make this claim. Already, then, we have evidence that canons purporting to implement the vision of a council can and do differ. Patriarchs and bishops in the Eastern Catholic Churches are—most of the time—elected by their brothers in synod (CCEO 63, 110), not appointed by the pope of Rome. Thus we find evidence of a different practice of governance, a practice of synodality common to the East throughout her history and still exercised today in some fashion in the Catholic Eastern Churches. These examples, while not perfect, nonetheless give us hope for the project of synthesizing the results of history, so recently commended to us by Chieti, with the claims of Vatican I. 

It is important, moreover, to consider the apostolic constitution (Sacri Canones) by which the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was promulgated, where it is expressly noted that all these canons “be in force until abrogated or changed…for a just cause, of which causes full communion of all of the Eastern Churches with the Catholic Church is indeed the most serious.”

In that pursuit of full communion with the Orthodox East, and in recognition of what Chieti has now admitted, it is clear that canons will have to be changed, just as Pope John Paul II, author of the above constitution, rightly envisaged. For today, the pope does exercise “canonical authority” over the Catholic East in ways that are problematic but changeable. For example, as just noted, the Eastern Catholic Churches often elect their own patriarch and bishops, but canon 149 of the CCEO claims that “outside the territorial boundaries of the patriarchal Church” the synod’s (reduced) role is to come up with the names of three men suitable for episcopal ministry and “propose them to the Roman Pontiff for appointment.” Thus the synod moves from being an electoral body to an advisory body for no good or compelling theological reason. This is an absurd double-standard whereby all churches have territorial limits to their patriarchal-synodal authority, but the Roman Church has no such limits. No Orthodox Church on the planet would be prepared to put up with this, and rightly so. 

Happily, however, such claims to this kind of micromanaging authority are merely canonical, and the result of late-second-millennium interpretations by fallible churchmen claiming to interpret Vatican I. Their canonical interpretations and implementations are in no way infallibile. As the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue moves forward from the first millennium into the second, such canons can and should be adjusted to conform to the normative historical reality Chieti has happily acknowledged.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 60 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).