National Catholic Register


Reflecting on the Rock: Vatican Book Highlights Dialogue Over Papal Primacy

BY Edward Pentin

November 7-13, 2004 Issue | Posted 11/7/04 at 12:00 PM


VATICAN CITY — Despite recent disputes at a practical level between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, significant theological advances have been made on what is regarded as the most contentious issue between the two Churches: the question of primacy.

Discussions between 26 experts that took place at a Rome symposium in May 2003 have been recorded in a new book entitled The Petrine Ministry — Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue (Città Nuova, 2004).

Speaking to the Register at an Oct. 14 press conference to launch the book, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the book's general editor, said it represented a major advance because, for the first time since the Great Schism of 1054, questions concerning the Petrine ministry have been discussed at a “semi-official” level.

“This problem of primacy is behind many other concrete problems and therefore we are stumbling on this problem — we cannot avoid it,” explained the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “We could not solve all the problems — no one could have expected that. But we did take some first steps.”

Cardinal Kasper stressed that the discussions were carried out in “a very positive atmosphere.”

Equally encouraging was the response of a leading Orthodox contributor to the symposium, Metropolitan Joannis Zizioulas of Pergamon. “This is an extremely important book,” he told reporters, stressing that “we're entering a new era historically,” thanks to Pope John Paul II's “very deep ecumenical spirit.”

The initiative to hold the symposium was in direct response to the Holy Father's 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One), which, in the interests of Christian unity, called on other denominations to suggest possible reform of the papacy.

Cardinal Kasper emphasized that the discussions “were not challenging papal authority but looking at forms in which it could be altered.” The dogma of papal infallibility, he added, was not questioned.

Metropolitan Zizioulas said he welcomed the peaceful spirit that accompanied the discussions, in contrast to the “polemics” and “fanaticism” of the past. “We are not covering (the subject) up to betray our own faith, but trying to see if there is any ground on which we can meet on this matter,” he said.

The Orthodox Church, he added, realizes that a universal primate is necessary but that it is currently “difficult for them to accept.” However, he believes this concept “will emerge as a logical, if not theological, consequence of the nature of the Church.”

Metropolitan Zizioulas explained that the issue of primacy was a matter of faith, not of dogma and canon law. He said the Orthodox believe a universal primate “can only function successfully and openly in the context of communion which respects otherness and difference.” That means, in part, coming to a clearer and more unified idea of the definition of local church and the exercise of authority.

Orthodox and Catholics have historically viewed local churches differently, with the Orthodox placing more emphasis on the local church than the universal, while the Catholic Church has historically viewed local churches as daughters to the Church of Rome.

But according to theologian Father Hermann Joseph Pott-meyer of Germany's University of the Ruhr, rather than relegating the local churches of the East to being mere daughters of Rome, one proposal is that Orthodox and Catholic churches be seen as “a communion of local churches.” Father Pottmeyer advocates that an ecclesiological practice be established “which corresponds to this new recognition.”

Cardinal Kasper also stressed the importance of appreciating “otherness.”

“We must distinguish between contradictions which cannot exist, and tensions and complementari-ties that do. In this last sense we have to recognize the otherness of others — their traditions, their witnesses, their spiritual and theological differences…We must come back to this unity within diversity, and diversity within unity,” he said.

But both dialoguing partners agree that progress cannot be achieved without putting old fears and suspicions aside and replacing them with confidence and trust. Metropolitan Zizioulas said the churches “must work together to overcome this fear,” adding that “we have to be careful not to encourage those who remind us of the wrong things of the past.”

Russian Complaints

Yet the absence of other senior officials in the theological discussions meant that the practical nature of a major ongoing dispute between the churches was not discussed — the accusation by the Russian Orthodox that the Catholic Church has been taking advantage of the fall of communism by proselytizing in the Ukraine.

Cardinal Kasper said he has created a commission at the local level to tackle the dispute. If proven cases of proselytism are discovered that call on Rome to intervene, “we will do it,” he promised, but he warned against the Orthodox making false accusations. Metropolitan Zizioulas, meanwhile, predicted the dispute would be resolved if the key theological “stumbling block” of primacy is successfully addressed.

Speaking to the Register, the Greek Orthodox bishop summed up the symposium as laying down the basis for further discussion.

“No one really knows how long it will take,” he said. “Very soon we will have another meeting, and we're going to work on that very quickly and persistently. So I hope that more documents will be produced and some advance will be made in the near future.”

Cardinal Kasper noted that much progress has already been achieved since the Second Vatican Council, and pointed to other opportunities for dialogue that exist beyond theological discussions in Rome.

Said Cardinal Kasper, “There's a lot going on (in the local church), and so I'm hopeful we can, with patience but also with courage, go on, step by step.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.