WASHINGTON — “Many Orthodox view all bishops as successors to Peter,” Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate said recently, “but most would concede that the bishop of Rome is a successor of Peter in a special way.”

What exactly is that special way? Like others at the Orientale Lumen conference in Washington at which he spoke, Metropolitan Kallistos acknowledged that the papacy is entitled to primacy in some form, but he stopped far short in his willingness to grant it the kind of jurisdictional role the papacy enjoys in the Catholic Church.

Of course, that’s nothing new. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches split in 1054, and attempts to heal the fracture have so far fallen short of the goal. The papacy is central to ongoing dialogue.

Although the Orientale Lumen gathering has no official status in dialogue between Eastern and Western Christianity, it is considered a good gauge of opinion among Eastern Christians in the United States.

“Started in 1997 in Washington, D.C., these ecumenical conferences are a ‘grassroots’ movement among laypersons and clergy to provide a forum for Christians to learn about the ‘light from the East,’” the conference website says. “They allow Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholics and Roman Catholics to meet and pray together, learn from each other’s traditions, and become friends together searching for a common goal: ‘that they all may be one’ in the one Church of Christ.”

This year’s gathering drew laity and clergy to a retreat house near The Catholic University of America and featured talks and various Eastern liturgies. The theme was “Communion of Churches: Bishop, Patriarch or Pope.”

The main stumbling block to unity, most speakers agreed, is the papacy: How far must Eastern Catholics go? Metropolitan Kallistos cited what is called the “Ratzinger Formula,” developed by Pope Benedict XVI while he was still a cardinal, as the key document in reflecting on the papacy.

The Ratzinger Formula states that the Catholic Church “must not require from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy” acceptance of anything that they did not accept in the first millennium, before the Church split in 1054. It also requires Eastern Christians to cease to regard as heretical later developments in Catholicism.

Although Metropolitan Kallistos, who taught Orthodox studies at Oxford, hailed the papacy as a “primacy of humility, service and love,” he maintained that the Eastern Churches had not recognized an immediate jurisdictional authority of Rome during the first millennium. Catholic historians would challenge him on this point. 

According to Kallistos, Church officials in the East appealed to Rome to settle disputes during the first millennium. But he argued that they did not necessarily feel bound by Rome’s decisions and that this must be a precedent for limited papal authority if the Churches heal the split. “Is this sufficient [for reunification]?” he asked. 

A Change for Rome?

A former professor of Eastern liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, Father Robert Taft — who is both a Jesuit and an archimandrite (the superior of a monastery or of several monasteries, though in Father Taft’s case, it is an honorary title) in the Greek Catholic Church — said after Kallistos finished speaking that the Metropolitan’s concession is not sufficient. Father Taft indicated that Roman and Eastern Christians still have much work remaining before reunification becomes feasible. 

“It’s too early to decide what a united Church would look like,” said Father Taft. In a suggestion that might have provoked controversy in a more heavily Roman Catholic gathering, Father Taft called upon the Catholic Church to “modify its overly centralized government.”

“The possibility of a legitimate Petrine authority — which I as a Catholic in no way challenge — in no way justified every exercise of that authority,” he said.

Father Taft offered suggestions many other theologians or scholars might consider premature, including immediate permission to receive the sacraments from each other and acceptance of each other’s saints. He also said that “not all Orthodox Churches are mature and responsible enough to be dialogue partners.”

While the stated emphasis of the conference was on papal authority in relation to the Eastern Churches, Msgr. Michael Magee, professor of systematic theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, gave a talk on how the Eastern patriarchates developed.

“Because patriarchates developed everywhere and gradually and without orchestration, it’s really something that happened because of theological principles in the Church’s nature,” said Msgr. Magee, whose doctoral dissertation at the Gregorian University in Rome addressed the place of the patriarchates.

Patriarch of the West

One of the controversial topics that came up at the conference was Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 decision quietly to drop the papacy’s traditional title “Patriarch of the West.” While some speculated at the time that this was a conciliatory gesture aimed at accommodating Orthodox sensibilities, the move was nevertheless greeted with suspicion by some Orthodox Christians.

“For the Orthodox,” Kallistos explained, “the Church is three tiers — the position of the bishop in his diocese, regional patriarchs, and the universal primacy. Dropping the title ‘Patriarch of the West’ suggested to the Orthodox that regional primacy was no longer important [to Rome].”

One of the novel suggestions put forth at the conference came from Adam DeVille, a Greek Catholic, editor of Logos magazine and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. DeVille called for the Catholic Church to change her structure, dividing into six continental patriarchies under a “papal presidency.” DeVille, a professor in the philosophy and theology department at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., said that this would show that the Catholic Church is willing to develop a more dispersed form of authority and could set the stage for reunion.

Msgr. Magee was skeptical.

“More important than the Latin Church’s changing her structure,” he said, “is to realize that the Latin Church is a particular Church in the universal Church.” Msgr. Magee suggested that the Pope would govern the Latin Church in “a more centralized way than he would in relation to the Eastern Churches.”

Although this was addressed on a highly theological level, some participants saw the issue in purely practical terms. Subdeacon Robert Cripps, a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic from Ohio, whose Church is in full communion with Rome, said he “loves being in communion with the Holy Father.” But he recalled that, in the 1920s, the Holy See issued a decree calling for celibacy among Byzantine clergy. The so-called “celibacy wars” ended with the Byzantine retaining the right to a married clergy, said Cripps, who is married, but the controversy shows why some Orthodox insist that Roman authority be limited if they are to rejoin the Catholic Church.

“We accept the papacy. We love it, but we all need clarification,” Cripps said.

One inescapable conclusion of the conference: Much more clarity is going to be needed if Eastern and Western Christians are to resolve the division that began so long ago.

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.