VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has dropped one of the Pope’s traditional titles, possibly with a view to improving ecumenical relations. But the decision has left some ecclesiastical experts — and Orthodox leaders — puzzling over the meaning of the move.

The title “Patriarch of the West” was left out of a list of titles belonging to the Pope in the Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican yearbook whose new 2006 edition was presented to Benedict Feb.18. The Vatican Press Office has informally confirmed the omission, but no formal announcement or explanation for the decision has been made through established Vatican channels.

It has also not been disclosed how direct a role Benedict played in the decision to drop the title.

The deletion leaves the Pope with eight titles.

Speaking to the Italian news agency ANSA, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, retired prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, said he believed the omission was intended to remove unhelpful comparisons between the universal jurisdiction of the “Patriarchate of the West” and the regionally restricted Orthodox patriarchates.

“The Catholic Church does not consider itself the Church of the West,” Cardinal Silvestrini said, adding that the dropping of the “Patriarch” title was meant to “stimulate the ecumenical journey.”

Others think it could have the opposite effect. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, told the Register March 7 that the move would “certainly not ameliorate relations between our two Churches.”

The Orthodox Churches can’t accept the Catholic doctrine of papal primacy over the universal Church and omitting the title of “Patriarch of the West” only confirmed the Pope’s claim to “universal Church jurisdiction,” the bishop said. “If the Orthodox reaction to the gesture will not be positive, it should not be a surprise.”      

Evolving Titles

The Pope’s titles have evolved over the centuries, reflecting changing perceptions of papal power and apostolic authority. The most ancient, the “Bishop of Rome,” describes his primary function, while “Vicar of Christ” came into use in the fifth century along with “Supreme” or “Sovereign Pontiff.” The phrase “of the Universal Church” is a more recent addition, while “Servant of the Servants of God” dates back to the time of Pope Gregory the Great but was re-emphasized after the Second Vatican Council.

After the Great Schism of 1054, when the Orthodox and Catholic Churches split, the designation “Patriarch of the West” came into greater use (notably during the Protestant Reformation when some Anglicans wanted to claim England was not part of the Patriarchate).

Generally, though, popes have rarely made use of it. As one Vatican observer put it: “One generally uses one’s strongest guns in battle and this, for the popes, was always their universal role.”

For the Christians of the East, however, the title has always had more significance because that was and is how they view the Church of Rome: As one of the five ancient patriarchates (the others being Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem): a “first among equals” with a universal nature, but not privileged with primacy over the universal Church.

Some theologians, notably the late Cardinal Yves Congar, believed the designation was without any clear theological basis and “not a proper title.”

But Cardinal Congar also held that it was actually quite useful, both for theology and ecumenism, because it distinguished the pope’s role as universal pastor and his more intensive role within the Western Church.

If Benedict did personally decide to omit the title, it is possible that he was influenced by Franciscan Father Adriano Garuti, a former Vatican official who worked with him at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Father Garuti, who has written extensively on the subject, argued that to consider the pope a patriarch in the same sense as the eastern patriarchs threatened a proper acknowledgement of the pope’s primacy in the universal Church.

Father Garuti’s argument is contested, however. Unaware that the title would be dropped, Msgr. Michael Magee, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, presented a doctoral thesis on “The Patriarchal Institution in the Catholic Church” on Feb. 20. In it, he explained that if the Latin Church is a particular Church, then her head must be distinguished from his other roles as bishop, and that the nomenclature of patriarch means precisely this.

“To fail to recognize the real distinction between these roles would be detrimental to a proper appreciation of the distinctive identity of every particular Church, including the Latin Church herself,” he said. On the other hand, he said, keeping such a “meaningful and crucial” distinction would help the Latin Church to preserve its heritage. It would also help the Latin Church to be open towards those churches not yet in communion.

Primacy Question

Bishop Alfeyev said that for the Orthodox, one of the most acceptable of the pope’s titles is “Patriarch of the West,” partly because it could easily be accommodated should there be reunification.

If the Pope really wanted to facilitate ecumenical progress, the bishop said, then he should drop the titles “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” and the “Vicar of Christ.” Those designations, he said, are “unacceptable and even scandalous from the Orthodox point of view.”

Bishop Alfeyev noted that the main obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox unity remains the question of primacy of the Bishop of Rome, a subject that will figure prominently in a resumption of Catholic-Orthodox theological discussions this fall after a six-year hiatus. The Orthodox bishop acknowledged that it is unlikely “Patriarch of the West” will now be brought back, but requested the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity offer an explanation for the omission.

So far, the council has been assembling inquiries on the matter but has declined comment.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.

Papal Titles

Even with the removal of ‘Patriarch of the West,’ Pope Benedict is still known as:

Bishop of Rome

Vicar of Jesus Christ

Successor of the Prince of the Apostles

Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church

Primate of Italy

Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province

Sovereign of the

Vatican City State

Servant of the Servants of God