The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, attended Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass March 19, marking the first time the patriarch has attended such an event since the Great Schism in 1054. Many see this gesture as an important sign for Christian unity.
Some attribute the patriarch’s attendance to Pope Francis’ emphasis on being the “bishop of Rome,” noting that only once has he used the word “pope” since the beginning of his pontificate, while reading a prepared text at the meeting with cardinals on March 15.
But, in fact, a new season of ecumenical relationships could have begun with Benedict XVI’s resignation. The patriarchate of Constantinople has made the first move, but observers now are wondering if the Church of Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church will make steps forward in their relations, too.
With his resignation, Benedict XVI proved the Roman Pontiff to be truly a primus inter pares (first among equals), and this action should assist in resolving the papal primacy issue, which is one of the most important controversies between Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Benedict’s resignation can be seen as his last act on the path toward Christian unity that he began right after his election to the papacy.
In his very first message as pope, Benedict XVI spoke these programmatic words: “To work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers.”
The most beautiful of Benedict XVI’s lessons on ecumenism was probably the homily the pope emeritus delivered during the Mass that concluded the last Schuelerkreis meeting — the annual gathering of his former students that has met since the 1970s.
Benedict invited his pupils not to limit themselves to listening to the word of God; they must practice it.
“This is a warning about the intellectualization of the faith and of theology. It is one of my fears at this time, when I read so many intellectual things: They become an intellectual game in which ‘we pass each other the ball,’ in which everything is an intellectual sphere that does not penetrate and form our lives, and, thus, does not lead us to the truth.”
Can a theological debate lose sight of the truth of faith?
Between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, it was so. Papal primacy and papal infallibility have been the most dividing topics of discussion between the Eastern and Western Churches — otherwise so close, indeed, that they can reciprocate sacraments.
Dominican Bishop Charles Morerod of Switzerland championed ecumenical dialogue for years.
In an interview with30 Giorni magazine in 2010, Bishop Morerod explained that the problem of papal infallibility for the Orthodox Church comes from its insistence on the fact that “faith is never the result of a poll with a prevailing majority,” and he noted that, from the Catholic side, “fair and understandable statements on this issue have been written in the document for the gift of the authority, drafted from the Commission for the Dialogue Among Catholics and Anglicans” in 1998.
That document states that “any solemn sentence pronounced from the chair of Peter in the Church of Peter and Paul can only express faith in the Church.” The document also acknowledges that the “bishop of Rome, in peculiar circumstances, has the duty to discern and make explicit the faith of the baptized in commnion, and only this,” and that the specific Petrine ministry of the universal primate is a “gift” that all Christian churches should accept.
Framing the Discussion
Theologically speaking, the dialogue on papal primacy began in 2007, when the Catholic-Orthodox theological commission signed a joint document to serve as the basis for discussion on the universal role of the bishop of Rome.
The document affirms that “primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent.” Agreements and disagreements were highlighted in Paragraph 41 of the document.
“Both sides agree,” according to the document, “that Rome, as the Church that ‘presides in love,’ according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis (Churches’ order) and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos (first) among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.”
This acknowledgement of differences in understanding the meaning of primacy, well in advance of the Great Schism of 1054 that separated the Christian East from the Christian West, was a great step toward reconciliation, since the Catholic Church’s “pyramidal structure,” with the pope exercising universal authority even over what the Orthodox would consider local matters, without being required to listen to the local Churches, makes the Orthodox wary.
This issue is also a primary reason why no ecumenical meeting took place between Benedict XVI and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Within the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest by far of the Orthodox Churches, there is an anti-Kirill branch that opposes Kirill’s ecumenical efforts, and this is the major reason why an ecumenical meeting with Rome has not yet been organized. Before becoming patriarch in 2009, Kirill met Benedict XVI three times in the Vatican from 2005 to 2007, when he was president of the Department for External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Kirill’s predecessor, Alexy II, also had to face an anti-ecumenical branch in Russia. In 1994, Alexy II was even requested by some conservative members of the Moscow Patriarchate to retire from all ecumenical organizations.
Effect of the Resignation
The papal resignation last month, however, shuffles the cards of the Russian Orthodox opposition to the ecumenical movement. There has always been the possibility of a papal resignation. But it is also true that it had not happened for nearly 600 years. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.
Most Orthodox criticisms of papal primacy were based on this: While in the first millennium the primacy of the bishop of Rome was exercised in a way that might be a model to now unify the separated Church, there has been a second millennium in which the primacy of the pope was interpreted and lived, in the West, in increasingly accentuated forms, far from the ones that the Churches of the East are willing to accept today.
With his resignation, Benedict XVI in fact made this contrast less accentuated, by making the bishop of Rome a primus inter pares, able to resign like other bishops. This is more acceptable for Eastern Churches. And with his own accentuation of his role as bishop of Rome following his election, Pope Francis also has indicated his aim to reach a fully ecumenical unity.