Reforming the Papacy – Further Considerations

Posted on June 4, 2013


In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

Pope Francis kissing the feet of a child

Having discussed briefly some of the spiritual concerns that seem to be important when considering the reform of the papacy (the salvific efficacy of obedience and humility) and taking note of the wickedness among us not only in common world views (secular democracy and nationalism) but also within ourselves (the sin which so easily entangles[1]) we may, with God’s help, be able to explore further the foundations and implications of reform. Since the greater spiritual things—humility, faithfulness, righteousness—affect one’s ability to discern the lesser intellectual realities in ecclesiology and theology, I advise the reader to pray to God so that we may have repentant contrition and divine wisdom as we explore these difficult subjects.[2] With the divine mercy, we must believe that we can do all things through Christ gives us strength.[3] Let us proceed then, with faith, hope and love.

We might begin with a reminder of the basis for these reflections on reform. They are solicited directly from the Holy Father himself. His famous encyclical Ut Unum Sint of 1995, called upon all Christians to consider reform:

For a great variety of reasons, and against the will of all concerned, what should have been a service sometimes manifested itself in a very different light. But … it is out of a desire to obey the will of Christ truly that I recognize that as Bishop of Rome I am called to exercise that ministry … I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.”[4]

The Papacy itself has been the cause of division, and therefore its reform can be the cause of unity. And this is not simply because of the personal sins of the popes, but it may even entail its structural apparatus.

Even after the many sins which have contributed to our historical divisions, Christian unity is possible, provided that we are humbly conscious of having sinned against unity and are convinced of our need for conversion. Not only personal sins must be forgiven and left behind, but also social sins, which is to say the sinful “structures” themselves which have contributed and can still contribute to division and to the reinforcing of division.[5]

But at the same time as the Blessed Pope opens himself and his church to critical assessment, his mind does not waver from belief in the Papacy’s divine institution:

[It is] the Catholic Church’s conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the visible sign and guarantor of unity.[6]

Thus we see the Catholic Church’s teaching that the Papacy, “while preserving its substance as a divine institution, can find expression in various ways according to the different circumstances of time and place, as history has shown.”[7] This conviction in Ut Unum Sint is expressed exquisitely in the profound humility of the Holy Father taking responsibility for the Papacy’s faults and gifts, and offering himself and the Papacy to the Church—as a “service to unity.”

We must take our lead, then, from the Holy Father himself. First, we must follow his example in repentance, and consider our own disobedience and arrogance whereby we have attacked this institution (notwithstanding whatever doubts we may have concerning its divine origin—the pope is still a Christian brother), and what sinful structures—equally destructive—have made war with Christendom in the name of some impious ideal or—worse yet—a petty kingdom. If we demand that the Papacy come to terms with its self-aggrandizement, intransigence, and crushing uniformity, we must also come to terms with the opposite reaction of its opponents with nationalism, indifferent divisiveness, and revolutions of fratricidal blood.

Passing over these things, however, as we have made mention of them in our first paper, we will begin to engage in this fraternal dialogue and put forth a few further considerations for the reader and the good of the Church, God helping us.

7. There are saints on both sides of this controversy

Just as in the great possessor controversy of 16th Russia, or in the theodicean question of war and pacifism—holy men and women have attained to the glories of Heaven holding both view points on Rome. This is admitted by the Orthodox scholar Laurent Cleenewerck:

Pope St. Boniface’s (+422) letter to the bishops of Thessaly is very typical and anticipates the Formula Hormisdae or indeed Vatican I: ‘The universal ordering of the Church at its birth took its origin from the office of blessed Peter, in which is found both directing power and its supreme authority’…Many of these popes are considered saints by the Catholic and Orthodox alike, so that their perspective is also part of the common—or sometimes contradictory—witness of the Fathers…Rome’s vision of primacy rests on credible biblical and patristic evidence that cannot be dismissed without due consideration.[8]

This is crucial to seize because this is ultimately our last end, our telos, our final cause for being Christians. The purpose of all this, let us not forget, is to attain to the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, if our fathers and mothers were saved, holding fast to opposite view points, we must not take pride in one man over another,[9] saying foolishly, “I am of Leo the Great!” and “I am of St. Basil!” Sometimes God does not make perfectly lucid certain difficult doctrines but inspires saints on both sides of the question. Does this not point to the presence of a greater mystery rather than the simple and absolute exclusivism that the partisans of both sides strive to maintain? Does this exclusivism, moreover, stem from the acceptance of certain spiritual and societal evils, mentioned above?

We will not pass judgment upon writers’ motivations, but we will critique some ideas. We may recall, instead, the story of the Three Holy Hierarchs. When their devoted followers in 11th century Constantinople were making factions out of their filial piety—the “Gregorians, Ioannites, and Basilians”—all three of them appeared to St. John of Euchaita in 1084 and commanded him to institute a festival in which they would all be celebrated with equal honor. I argue here that we should do the same with the great Latin and Greek fathers—that St. Augustine and St. Leo be given the same honor as St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian. This approach becomes all the more pertinent when it is realized that in effect Orthodoxy’s dissent from the Papacy is an attempt to safeguard the equality of all bishops—shall we not also strive for the equality of all saints? We will return to this in a moment.

8. The Need to give deference to Official Dialogues – The Balance of Primacy and Conciliarity

But if we give due authority to the saints on both sides of this issue, we must then give deference to the work of our bishops in the statements which are given by our official dialogues. The two most prominent are the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (founded in 1979 by John Paul II and Demetrios I), and the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (founded in 1965).

These dialogues and their statements have received episcopal blessing. This does not mean they are infallible nor official teachings of any church. Nevertheless they contain a greater authority than a single theologian’s opinions. We as Orthodox must not fall into the trap of those “young monks who have barely even finished seminary [and] see themselves as St Mark of Ephesus and Athanasius the Great, and they yell hysterically and deride the bishops [who promote Ecumenism].”[10] Surely we do not prefer a Protestant ecclesiology over an episcopal one! God has instituted the episcopal structure to teach us humility and obedience. We must first give deference to them, then we will consider their merit.

We will begin with the International Commission, as it possess a greater weight of authority in terms of its scope and that of its founders and promoters. The most recent document was issued at Ravenna in 2007 and is entitled Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority. It took for its foundational basis the oft-quoted Apostolic Canon 34 to discuss the various levels of primacy within the Church:

The bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is First (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories; but the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. For in this way concord (homonoia) will prevail, and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.[11]

The document then uses the principle of interdependence outlined in this canon to note the structures of conciliarity and primacy on the diocesan, regional, and universal level of the Church. It concludes by saying:

Primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent. That is why primacy at the different levels of the life of the Church, local, regional and universal, must always be considered in the context of conciliarity, and conciliarity likewise in the context of primacy.[12]

Further, this distinction “does not diminish the sacramental equality of every bishop or the catholicity of each local Church.”[13] Therefore we must strive for a reform of the Papacy which seeks to balance all of these things together—primacy and conciliarity, the protos bishop with the local bishop, as well as the equality of the episcopate.

The response of the North American dialogue called Ravenna an “encouraging sign” which “awakens hope” for the fruitfulness of dialogue.[14] It affirms many of its strengths in its balanced approach, and further presses the point of balance towards the regional and diocesan levels. What is interesting about the North American response is that they “take exception” to Ravenna’s footnote, which affirms the exclusivist viewpoints of both Churches—i.e. that they each identify themselves with the unam sanctam of the creed. The North American dialogue responds:

We find this footnote inaccurate. First, we think that its two assertions do not adequately represent the ecclesiology of either the Orthodox or the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church’s self-understanding as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not understood by all Orthodox in exclusivist terms. Throughout the centuries, significant currents within Orthodox ecclesiology have recognized the presence of the Church’s reality outside the canonical, visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Also, to assert that “from the Catholic point of view the same self- awareness applies” misrepresents Catholic ecclesiology at and since the Second Vatican Council, in spite of the Ravenna document’s reference to Lumen Gentium 8. Because of apostolic succession and the Eucharist, Vatican II did not hesitate to recognize that the Orthodox constitute “Churches,” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14) that they are “sister Churches,” and to assert that in their celebration of the Eucharist, the Church of God is being built up and growing.[15]

By emphasizing this point, the North American dialogue is able to be more open to rapprochement than the International Commission (perhaps because it is largely untouched by the virulent political tensions of the latter which had halted the Commission after the fall of Communism). But if “the presence of the Church’s reality” exists outside canonical bounds, and saints have supported either side of this question, could it be that the one Church possesses primacy or conciliarity on either respective side of this divide? Could it be that this schism is actually within the one Church and that reunion is a matter of sharing one’s gifts for the sake of the whole? It would seem that this is the growing conviction discovered by the Ecumenical Struggle.

For example, Orthodox scholars are beginning to affirm the interdependence of primacy and conciliarity. Greek Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas writes that both conciliarity and primacy (including universal) are the sine qua non constitutional elements of the Church.[16] Or as the Russian Nicolas Lossky writes:

In a conciliarity of communion, the primacy and conciliarity necessarily imply one another. The primate’s duty, or special charism, is to serve the search for consensus, for unanimity that is unity in the Spirit, and thereby a constant reconstruction of true conciliarity, true communion. Conciliarity without primacy tends towards either a form of fusion or a form of democracy which amounts to individualism, not personhood. Primacy without conciliarity tends towards a kind of concentration of episcopacy in one super-bishop above the community, a form of domination tantamount to dictatorship which is a negation of communion.[17]

We must proceed, then, drawing upon our dialogues and scholars, with this conviction: that primacy and conciliarity are both foundational elements of the Church. Perhaps this ecclesiological truth helps us better understand the remarkable unity we already share. But before we can proceed to attempt to contemplate achieving this balance, we must pause for an examination of ecclesiastical conscience, taking stock of our own church’s ability to move towards reconciliation.

9. Overcoming the Orthodox prejudice against Universal Primacy

Among Orthodox scholars, it is no secret that much of Orthodoxy suffers from a certain obstinacy. Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart laments:

because each of these various distinctions [between our churches] have been drawn only rarely in a spirit of critical detachment, uncontaminated by some element of squalid recrimination, it has usually proved difficult to separate matters of real significance from those raised for purposes either purely polemical or ultimately frivolous. Every serious ecumenical engagement between the Orthodox and Catholic communions reveals depth upon depth of substantial agreement, and yet always fades upon the midnight knell, as each side ruefully acknowledges the perplexing refractoriness and stubborn persistence of differences that lie (apparently) deeper still. Always an abiding sense of some ever more determinative—and yet, curiously, ever more indeterminate—essential difference overshadows every conversation (however charitable) that attempts to span the divide. And this sense serves constantly to temper our elation over whatever meager accords we strike, to imbue our continued division with an almost mystical aura of inevitability, and to resign us fatalistically to our failures and to the failure of our love.[18]

These words are also affirmed by Nicolas Lossky who states that Orthodox themselves have often had the habit of making a “distortion” of the history by an excessive anti-romanism.” [19] Or as Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:

An age-long anti-Roman prejudice has led some Orthodox canonists simply to deny the existence of such [universal] primacy in the past or the need for it in the present. But an objective study of the canonical tradition cannot fail to establish beyond any doubt that, along with local ‘centers of agreement’ or primacies, the Church has also known a universal primacy…it is only for the sake of biased polemics that one can ignore these testimonies, their consensus and significance.[20]

It is this primacy, after all, that most threatens Orthodox attachments to divisive attitudes. As Orthodox priest Laurent Cleenewerck writes:

The Orthodox are extremely distrustful of Roman Catholics and would almost like to forget that their calendar and theology is replete with ‘Popes of Rome’ whose teachings about their own authority is better left unmentioned. They also know that accepting a universal ministry of unity and arbitration—something called for by authentic catholic orthodoxy—would jeopardize their nationalistic and ethno-centric kingdoms. Sadly, everyone is trying to look busy doing nothing about it.[21]

Against this indifference, some Orthodox scholars argue that universal primacy is a ecclesiological necessity, as we began to say above. His Eminence Ioannis Zizioulas denies as false the claim of some Orthodox that episcopacy and conciliarity are constituted in the Church iure divino but universal primacy is not. This is a false ecclesiology stemming from a false Christology.

In ecclesiology, just as in Christology, there is an antidosis idiomatum between divine and human, and as there is nothing in Christ’s divine nature which does not affect decisively and permanently his humanity, so also in ecclesiology we cannot say that something is of the canonical order, and therefore inevitably de jure humano…there has never been and there can never be a synod or a council without a protos. If, therefore, synodality exists [in the Orthodox Church] jure divino…primacy also must exist by the same right.[22]

Thus according to Zizioulas, if we confess the Orthodox faith, we must also confess universal primacy as a crucial part of our Orthodox Christology. This point is vital to grasp. Zizioulas argues that on the question of the Papacy, we should not focus on fruitless historical debates.[23] Pointing to theology, rather, he provides this telling statement.

Besides this importance for ecclesiology, other Orthodox authors write about the importance of universal primacy from a practical standpoint. The preeminent Fr. John Meyendorff puts it this way:

Personally, I see no way in which the Orthodox Church can fulfill its mission in the world today without the ministry of a “first bishop,” defined not any more in terms which were applicable under the Byzantine Empire or in terms of universal jurisdiction according the Roman model but still based upon that “privilege of honor” of which the Second Ecumenical Council spoke. We should all think and search how to redefine that privilege in a way which would be practical and efficient today.[24]

Thus we have Fr. Meyendorff searching for a via media in the necessary ministry of the universal primacy, which rejects the exclusivism of both churches while at the same time advocating renewal ad fontes.

Other Orthodox writers echo Meyendorff’s call for universal ministry. Robert Stephanapoulos writes this:

The elder brother among his fellow bishops and by mutual consent, as primus inter pares, exercises the Petrine ministry in the universal church. This solicitude is understood in terms of grace and spiritual freedom, of loving ministry and humble service. There is ample historical precedent for this. In the present moment, there is even a special need for it…The Petrine ministry is integral to the mission and unity of Christians ad churches.[25]

Thus this universal primacy is not only “necessary” but “integral” to the very purpose of the Church. Likewise other Orthodox writers, just as Vsevolod Majdansky, write that “the Roman Primacy…at its a blessing for the Church,” especially as regards the awful divisions of Orthodox jurisdictions.[26]  Antonios Kireopoulos writes frankly that even as Orthodox emphasize the local church “we still ascribe to a ministry of primacy. Though our problems may be of a different nature, we certainly haven’t worked out a solution.”[27] To those who criticize Orthodoxy’s instance that universal primacy, when admitted, is only that of honor, not real power, Kireopoulos states that “despite our objections to universal ecclesiology, the reasons are obvious why Orthodox should take note of this criticism.”[28] Professor emeritus of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary, Theodore Stylianopoulos, states it this way:

The practical challenge of unity, as well as the theological urgency behind it, favor the value of a visible universal leader, just as they favor a visible local leader in the person of the bishop.[29]

Even the Armenian Orthodox Vigen Guroian affirms a certain universal role for the successor of St. Peter:

There is no objection, indeed, there would seem to be a strong consensual affirmation within the Armenian tradition, that the Roman See ascended to the universal primacy of honor at a relatively early date and that this primus inter pares was widely recognized and may still be not only desirable for the good of all but “necessary” to the success of the mission of the in our time.[30]

The many quotations I have provided are attempt to show the reader that the assertion of some that “Orthodoxy works by conciliarity, not primacy” is but one voice among others. There is ample room for the Orthodox to accept universal primacy as a legitimate mark of Orthodox ecclesiology. What this implies, however, is that our ecclesiology has been wounded in some way by the tensions between our churches. As Ware wrote, “for both parties the great schism has proved a great tragedy.”[31] Or as Cleenewerck points out, New Rome’s synodal tomos of 1663 contained a “frank admission” that the Church itself had been “torn apart.”[32] It is vital to seize upon the mutual nature of this loss. Orthodoxy must indeed reform itself, and to a certain extent this includes the acceptance of a reformed papacy. Let us, then, examine some of Orthodoxy’s concerns about the universal primacy.

10. Concerns about the Universal Primacy – Foundational Considerations for Reform

Juridical vs. Pastoral

In Adam A.J. DeVille’s crucial work, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (which we will discuss further below), numerous Orthodox concerns about the Papacy are discussed. Once the universal primacy of Rome is conceded by the Orthodox, an oft-contended element of this primacy is that of a juridical conception of primacy. This is criticized by Meyendorff, Afanasiev, Schmemann, Ware, Hark, Evdokimov, Popescu, Erikson, Hopko, Stylianopoulos and others. A typical example of this is Kallistos Ware’s conclusion in The Orthodox Church that

We would wish to see his ministry spelt out in pastoral rather than juridical terms. He would encourage rather than compel, consult rather than coerce.[33]

What is interesting here is the lack of clarity as to what exactly juridical terms are as opposed to pastoral terms. Juridical comes from Jus meaning “law; legal system; code; right; duty; justice; court; binding decision; oath.” Pastor, however, means simply “shepherd.” A shepherd, presumably, though he deals with irrational underlings, is more gentle than the harsh rigor of “legal codes” connoted in the word juridical. At the same time, one draws up legal cods among equals—all endowed with reason—for the peace and order of society. Moreover, shall we presume, somehow, that the shepherd does not have some rules to enforce order with his sheep, to graze at a certain pasture or avoid a certain hedge? The distinction, it seems, is less meaningful in practice. Which pastor in the Church of God is not bound to some canon law to fix his power and the power over him? Or shall we say that a pastor should be lawless? Surely not. The Greek verb for “shepherd, tend, cherish,” ποιμαίνω, is translated variously into the Latin as regο, “rule, direct, guide, control,” (as in Psalm 23:1, the LORD shepherdeth/ruleth me) or as pasco, “feed” (as in Psalm 78:72, and David did shepherd/feed them in the innocence of his heart).[34]

This contention about words rather underscores, I believe, the woundedness of Orthodox Christians. Besides the unforgiving spirit which pervades so much of many Phyletist Christians in the east, there is a sense that the Papacy in its current form is more interested in enforcing law than being a father. This is of course a perception—a false perception—but nevertheless it reveals the sensitivities of the Latin’s eastern brethren: they need the gentleness of a pastor; they need the reassurance that the authority over them will not insist loudly that they kiss his feet. We must on the one hand realize this is a legitimate pastoral concern which must be taken into account—and since John XXIII, the gentle, mitred Papacy has borne more fruit with the Orthodox than Pius IX and Leo XIII’s glinting tiara. (Perhaps it is the mitre that represents the pastoral Papacy and the tiara which forms the juridical?)

At the same time it should be realized that if the Papacy is to have universal primacy and this primacy is to be qualified or limited in some way—by what means do you propose to articulate this except through juridical terms? The juridical terms should not be the issue, the ideal of a loving pastor should always be the ideal. Whether the office is exercised well or not, the office still stands. As His Eminence Zizioulas has written, “Jurisdiction signifies the power needed by someone in the Church in order to exercise their ministry.”[35] If the Orthodox want a ministry instead of power, this cannot be. If they desire a pastor, he must be a pastor with the power to pastor.

Local Elections of Bishops

A more legitimate concern of the Orthodox, I think, is the appointment of local bishops. In our time, the Holy Father regularly appoints bishops all of the world. This state of affairs is recognized even by Catholics to be highly irregular and unnecessary. As Robert Taft, S.J. said in an interview:

What we’ve made out of the papacy is simply ridiculous. There’s no possible justification in the New Testament or any place else for what we’ve made out of the papacy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in a Petrine ministry. I believe that Rome has inherited that Petrine ministry. But there’s no reason on God’s earth why the pope should be appointing the bishop of Peoria. None whatsoever. So we really need a devolution, a decentralization.[36]

This is a concern that is raised by all the Orthodox mentioned above and others. Orthodox, at the same time, should have the integrity to admit that the same hyper-centralized appointments were conducted by the Turkified Ecumenical Patriarch after the fall of Constantinople. Indeed, one could argue quite convincingly that the current state of autocephalist divisions is a direct result of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s self-aggrandizement—with the help of Muslim Turks. The primacy of the see of New Rome continues to be contentious among Orthodox themselves.

Once this is conceded, however, we can both admit the necessity of local bishops being elected according to the established custom. This does not mean necessarily that better bishops will be elected. It does mean, though, that the principle of subsidiarity will be followed, and that a greater integrity of the local catholic church will be respected. It will establish a norm according to ancient practice. Local churches will take greater ownership in their local church and have greater control, allowing them more freedom to develop unique culture.

We might say this, however, with the proviso that this situation of centralization resulted—at least insofar as it there were righteous men and women directing it—in order to control unwarranted and nefarious rebellion of local churches against the worldwide oikoumene and faith. That is why the right of appeal and the universal pastoral care of the Papacy is so important, which the Orthodox claim. We should not have any illusions that the voice of “the people” is authoritative per se (as secular democracy holds), but we must recognize that important reforms of the Church (such as the Cluniacs) were able to thrive because they were able to elect their own leaders. We should also point out, however, how the college of cardinals was set up specifically to avoid the election by the local people, because it was dominated by wicked factions of greedy and iniquitous people.

This recalls the wisdom of St. Benedict’s rule:

In the appointment of the abbot let this rule always be observed, that he be made abbot who is chosen unanimously in the fear of God by the whole community, or even by a minority, however small, if its counsel be more wholesome. Let him who is to be appointed be chosen for the merit of his life and his enlightened wisdom, even though he be the last in order of the community. But if (which God forbid) the whole community should agree to choose a person who acquiesces in its vices, and if these somehow come to the knowledge of the local bishop and neighboring abbots or Christians, let them foil this conspiracy of the wicked and set a worthy steward over God’s house. Let them be sure that they will receive a good reward if they do this with a pure intention and out of zeal for God, just as on the contrary, they will incur sin, if they neglect to intervene.[37]

The crucial point here is the normalcy of local election. This is not to be preferred per se, but rather what is “more wholesome” in all cases. Further, if the situation demands it, the local bishop (or anyone!) should become involved to foil this evil plan—lest they “incur sin” by neglecting this duty. Thus we see that the principle of subsidiarity is followed—a higher authority intervenes only in cases where needed. This protects the local integrity of the church, but at the same time keeps it from the extreme of an autocephalist or (God forbid) a schismatic structure. So too, then, should Orthodox and Catholics rightly support local elections but allow the Holy Father to retain his right of intervention if the salvation of souls is at stake.


On this score the North American dialogue puts it well. It speaks about the need of the western Church to answer the claim of the Protestant divisions and Enlightenment thinkers who posited different modes of knowledge—private judgment or bare reason—to the divine authority of the Church.

The challenges of the Western Enlightenment to religious faith, and the threats of the new secular, absolutist forms of civil government that developed in nineteenth-century Europe, challenged the competence and even the right of Catholic institutions to teach and care for their own people. In this context, the emphasis of the First Vatican Council’s document Pastor Aeternus (1870) on the Catholic Church’s ability to speak the truth about God’s self-revelation in a free and unapologetic way, and to find the criteria for judging and formulating that truth within its own tradition, can be understood as a reaffirmation of the apostolic vision of a Church called by Christ to teach and judge through its own structures (see, e.g., Matt 16:18; 18.15-20; Lk 10.16). Yet Vatican I’s way of formulating the authority of Catholic Church officials …shocked critics of the Catholic Church, and has remained since then a focus of debate and further interpretation within the Catholic world.[38]

It goes on to state that despite Vatican II’s greater effort to “contextualize” the papacy, it still faces “few wider institutional checks” and has thus been a “principle cause of division” among Christians. Thus we must understand the infallibility doctrine as an attempt—admitted as “unsuccessful” even by the likes of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger[39]—to defend the authority of the Church against secularism. This is—along with Muhammadism—the most grave enemy of the Church and its continued threat is what urges us to greater unity.

It should be noted, moreover, that the Vatican I council was officially closed at Vatican II. The first Vatican council was unable to finish because the Italian nationalist army broke in and stopped the proceedings. The higher conciliarity of Lumen Gentium should be seen as Pastor Aeternus’ completion—or at least its continued development. And even with this proviso, we must also realize that the heretical ultramontanism which was being pushed at Vatican I was actually rejected. Hermann J. Pottmeyer presented an excellent paper on this in 2001. He said that

To declare the pope absolute and sovereign monarch of the Church would have meant a break with the divine constitution and the tradition of the Church. That is the background to the fears held by the theologically better-educated of the bishops among the [Vatican I] council fathers, who formed the minority and rejected the extreme conceptions of the primacy and infallibility of the pope.[40]

His essay concludes by pointing out the reality that Pastor Aeternus was not directed towards an ecclesiology of the episcopate, but was primarily directed at vanquishing Gallicanism, which stated that the political power had certain governance over the Church of God. In the official interpretation of the council, Vatican I affirms the ecclesiology of communion, rejecting the extremes of monarchical ultramontanism.

Thus we may find that many of our perceptions about this doctrine are false. Nevertheless, our dissent to this doctrine is legitimate because it presents a number of problems which demand clarification. These are outlined by Cleenewerck in his excellent work His Broken Body. There does exist certain difficulties with this doctrine, as it remains unclear which statements have proceeded ex cathedra and which have not. Under the given definition, Cleenewerck argues, even Leo X’s Exurge Domine must carry infallibility, even though it condemned those who, for example, detracted from the practice of burning heretics (a practice now condemned by both Orthodox and Catholic alike). It would seem, therefore, that a certain reception of infallible statements must be made, or at least a clarification.

At the same time, the power of infallibility is something that both churches claim to possess, albeit through different modes. Attempting to build bridges, David Bentley Hart writes,

Taking the doctrine again in its most minimal form, the claim of infallibility is inoffensive: if indeed the Holy Spirit speaks to the mind of the church, and the church promulgates infallible doctrine, and the successor of Peter enjoys the privilege of enunciating doctrine, then whenever he speaks ex cathedra of course he speaks infallibly; this is almost a tautology.[41]

Hart continues by saying that “obviously Rome denies that the pontiff could generate doctrine out of personal whim.” (And yet, this seems to be what Orthodox think Vatican I says.) In addition, Hart points out that

Clearly it is true that no doctrine could possibly follow from the consensus of the church, if for no other reason than that the church is not a democracy, and truth is not something upon which we vote.

He concludes by saying that he believes that Vatican I does not “destine us to perpetual division,” but can be integrated into conciliarity in order to make universal primacy “unique, but not isolated” from episcopal collegiality.

Further, DeVille points out that Pastor Aeternus itself affirms a certain conciliarity tied to the exercise of ex cathedra pronouncements. In the words of the document quoted by DeVille:

The Roman pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by summoning ecumenical councils or consulting the opinion of the Churches scattered throughout the world, sometimes by special synods, sometimes by taking advantage of other useful means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God’s help, they knew to be in keeping with Sacred Scripture and the apostolic traditions.[42]

Thus the formulation that the Holy Father pronounces doctrine infallibly ex sese non ex consensu ecclesiae (“from himself and not from the consensus of the church”) does not mean “against” or even “without” the consensus of the Church. Its authority, rather, does not take its origin from the consensus and does not depend on it. How many times, moreover, have authoritative statements been made on doctrine even contrary to all consensi but nevertheless proved true (cf. Maximus the Confessor)? This is because it was according to a deeper consensus, not the present one, that which is “in keeping with Sacred Scripture and the apostolic traditions.”

In any event, the only two agreed infallible statements—Pius IX’s 1854 Ineffabilis Deus on the Immaculate Conception and Pius XII’s 1950 Munificentissimus Deus on the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption—were promulgated in response to direct petition to Rome to promulgate such things. In other words, the initiative came from the people, certainly not the “whim” of the pontiff. Greater clarity, however, is needed, for the sake of the unity of the Church.

Eucharistic Ecclesiology

The most important ecclesiastical reform to many Orthodox is Eucharistic ecclesiology. This seems to bring together the juridical, election and infallibility question. It is within this ecclesiology that the Orthodox wish to safeguard the local Church and the faithful. The Eucharist, after all, should be our focus and our last end: union with Christ and His saints. As our agreed statement at Valamo put it, “it is at the Eucharist that the Church manifests its fullness.”[43] Cleenewerck provides a good reference to this in his reformulation of Dominus Iesus (a document which he calls a “good first step” in its affirmation that the Orthodox churches are “true particular churches”):

The church of Christ is first and foremost an eternal, divine and human organism—the Body of Christ, a unity of many that transcends space and time. The Church of Christ, like the Eucharist (which is also the Body of Christ), is manifested by the Holy Spirit in space and time. It intersects with our reality and is revealed in the catholic Church. The catholic Church, the “whole Church,” is the local Eucharist assembly, preside over by its bishop who is the icon of the Father, steward of Christ, and as St. Peter, primate of the assembly and symbol of unity. This simultaneous manifestation of the catholic Church in many places at the same time calls for a manifestation of identity and communion between al the catholic Churches. This so-called ‘universal Church’ (or ‘Catholic Church’ or ‘common union’), inasmuch as the political realities of our world permit its manifestation, should express the unity of the common union of Churches. This unity is made possible by the existence of a worldwide primate as visible symbol of unity, not unlike to bishop of the (local) catholic Church, but functionally, not ontologically.[44]

This functional/ontological distinction, which lacks clarification in the text, might be subject to the Christological criticism of Zizioulas supra, or may simply reflect the need for the Eucharist to be the epicenter of the Church, and the universal communion only a mean to that telos.

In any case, Cleenewerck and others point out that it is only with the adoption of universal ecclesiology as the primary ecclesiology over and against Eucharistic that both Catholic and Orthodox have been estranged from one another, failing to see their inner, Eucharistic unity—by which Bulgakov claims we are “technically in communion”[45]—and lead rather to such statements like Unam Sanctam of 1302:

If the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must not being the sheep of Christ.[46]

The truth is that the primacy of St. Peter is manifest at every level that there is primacy—diocesan, regional, and universal—but primarily in the Eucharistic assembly. Just as the first reference in Patristics to the word “catholic” is found in Ignatius: “Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[47]

Cleenewerck, moreover, suggests that the re-integration of Eucharistic ecclesiology within our universal ecclesiologies is congruous with the Ecumenical Struggle’s deepest convictions and the recent official statements of Rome. And it is good news:

If the local Church…is ‘the catholic Church,’ it contains in itself the fullness of means of grace, sanctification and salvation whether or not ‘united’ into a particular geopolitical superstructure…[it] means that the saints (or East and West for instance St. Francis of Assisi and St. Sergius) do not drop in and out of the catholic Church because their patriarchs are quarreling over who knows what. Likewise, the idea that salvation is tied to a particular worldwide organism becomes obsolete.

Cleenewerck goes on to say that since canonized saints on both sides held contrary opinions on Rome’s primacy, this new emphasis on the Eucharistic ecclesiology allows us to be open to a both/and option rather than an either/or. Cleenewerck believes that Eucharistic ecclesiology will soon be fully accepted by East and West, and “the need for worldwide coordination will result in an acceptable form of universal primacy.”[48]

11. Rectifying Legitimate Concerns – Reforming the Papacy

Many Orthodox have presented various ways that they feel Rome could rectify these issues. The list of requirements for reunion, however, is very diverse. For instance, Fr. Thomas Hopko presents a rather stark list including the revocation of infallibility, universal jurisdiction, episcopal appointments, the college of cardinals, curial congregations, and Vatican City, among many other things.[49] Hopko’s long list, however, ends with an incredible call to Orthodox repentance:

The Orthodox churches would surely have to undergo many humbling changes in attitude, structure and behavior to be in sacramental communion with the Roman church and to recognize its presidency among the churches in the person of its pope. The Orthodox would certainly have to overcome their own inner struggles over ecclesiastical power and privilege. They would have to candidly admit their sinful contributions to Christian division and disunity, and to repent of them sincerely. They would also have to forego all desires or demands for other churches to repent publicly of their past errors and sins, being willing to allow God to consign everything of the past to oblivion for the sake of bringing about the reconciliation and reunion of Christians at the present time.

In a word, the Orthodox would have to sacrifice everything, excepting only the faith itself, for the sake of building a common future together with Christians who are willing and able to do so with them. Like Roman Catholics and Protestants, they would have to be willing to die with Christ to themselves and their personal, cultural and ecclesiastical interests for the sake of being in full unity with all who desire to be saved by the crucified Lord in the one holy church “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.23), that is “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1Tim 315)[50]

Thus according to Hopko, the reform of the Papacy also includes an internal reform from the Orthodox. We might say that the head cannot reform without the body and vice versa. Clément, too, provides a similar—though less extensive—list in his very Ecumenical book You are Peter, written in direct response to Ut Unum Sint. Kallistos Ware also states opere citato:

Surely we Orthodox should be willing to assign to the Pope, in a reunited Chistendom, not just an honorary seniority but an all-embracing apostolic care. We should be willing to assign to him the right, not only to accept appeals from the whole Christian world but even to take the initiative in seeking ways of healing when crises and conflict arise anywhere among Christians. We envisage that on such occasions the Pope would act, not in isolation, but always in close co-operation with his brother bishops. We would wish to see his ministry spelt out in pastoral rather than juridical terms. He would encourage rather than compel, consult rather than coerce.[51]

Or as he said in a lecture in 2011, “the concern for all the churches (sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum) I willingly grant to Rome.”[52] This however, he also stated, must not exceed the provisions of Serdica.

Metropolitan Jonah, the then head of the Orthodox Church in America, spoke at the same conference that

The leadership of the Roman pope, his universal primatial role and authority within the whole Church could be accepted by the Orthodox within a context of synodal conciliarity. He is final court of appeal, the one with the responsibility to convene councils and the one whose ministry of unity is universally accepted to maintain the unity of unity of consensus of the full diversity of the Church. The final point of accountability for the life of the Church…what matters most for the Orthodox is the principle of episcopal integrity, local authority and relative autonomy in synergy with the other churches. There are others issues, but this is the crux of the matter.[53]

Finally, Fr. Lev Gillet is quoted as saying

This primacy of humility service and love…not simply a primacy of honor or a nebulous sort of leadership, but a unique pastoral mission…Orthodox could not consider complete any ecclesiology where freedom in the holy spirit, the Catholic and Apostolic Tradition and the Charisma of Peter were not in harmony.[54]

Thus the desire of the Orthodox is clear: to safeguard the integrity of the local church and its freedom to decide its own leadership while taking advantage of the unifying force of universal primacy in service to unity. But though the desires are clear, the logistics are not. How will these structures come about? What will they look like in practice.

In 2010, the North American dialogue released a bold document entitled Steps Towards A Reunited Church: A Sketch Of An Orthodox-Catholic Vision For The Future (citato supra in regards to Vatican I). This incredibly lucid and concise document outlines the great depth of our existing unity, provides a very balanced approach to our history, and outlines some practical steps towards reunion. In the structuring of authority of the Church, the document emphasizes subsidiarity, and proposes that conciliarity be realized on all levels of primacy—local, regional and universal.[55] Concerning the Papacy, the document says that his role should be

[defined] both in continuity with the ancient structural principles of Christianity and in response to the need for a unified Christian message in the world of today…His “primacy of honor” would mean, as it meant in the early Church, not simply honorific precedence but the authority to make real decisions, appropriate to the contexts in which he is acting.[56]

However, his role regarding the Latin churches would be “substantially different” than his relationship to the easterners, and “The leadership of the pope would always be realized by way of a serious and practical commitment to synodality and collegiality.”[57]

This means that

In accord with the teaching of both Vatican councils, the bishop of Rome would be understood by all as having authority only within a synodal/collegial context: as member as well as head of the college of bishops, as senior patriarch among the primates of the Churches, and as servant of universal communion…[58]

His task would be to strengthen the local church, “promote communion,” “call to unity,” “witness to faith,” and convoke councils, though his power at these would be more decentralized. Not only this, but his right of appeal would be not only for discipline but also for doctrine (the document references Theodore of Cyrus’ doctrinal appeal to Leo I for this). Finally, the document asks certain remaining questions:

What limits, accountability should be given to pope? What is his power in an ecumenical council?

The document ends with a sincere call to unity upon the already substantial agreement we hold on so much of the Apostolic faith. This document is remarkable in its clarity, objectivity, and brevity, and should serve as a foundational document for all Orthodox and Catholics moving forward.

Finally, the Eastern Catholic DeVille provides the most complete treatment of a reform papacy in his brilliant text already mentioned, Orthodox and the Roman Papacy. In it, he brings forward three specific ways in which the Latin Church structure should change, and four in which the Papacy itself should. He proposes and discusses in detail (1) the establishment of six continental patriarchates which would assist with internal governance and begin to integrate the Orthodox patriarchal models into Catholic ecclesiastics, acting as an ecumenical bridge. Each of these would then be equipped with a (2) permanent synod consisting of the heads of episcopal conferences on the continent and (3) a full synod consisting of all of the bishops of the continent. Together with the patriarch of the continent, these synods would take over the various curial responsibilities currently shouldered by the Vatican—doctrinal and educational vigilance, canonization of saints, etc.—as well as taking care of local election of bishops. This would relieve a great amount of the burden off of Rome and allow the Latin Church to function better as a whole. This would then obviously allow the Orthodox churches to be much more easily integrated into the whole.

Then, using the specific papal responsibilities outlined in Ut Unum Sint, DeVille proposes that the Papacy (1) clearly distinguish between his universal role and his patriarchal role, integrating himself into the system outlined above. He would thus also obtain (2) a permanent patriarchal synod for himself (and DeVille argues that the college of Cardinals is de facto such a synod). The Holy Father would remain head of Vtican City—for the benefits of its libertas ecclesiae—and continue to be the world spokesman of world Christianity. Then, (3) his election would be give a new mode by a new assembly which would reflect his role as bishop, patriarch, and pope. Finally, and most significantly, DeVille articulates the need for (4) a permanent Ecumenical synod of the 6 continental patriarchs, “as the means through which all the patriarchs together, under the presidency of the pope, could take responsibility for the unity of the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic and Orthodox Church of Christ.”[59]

To date, DeVille’s work, released in 2011, is the most substantial treatment of papal reform, and thus the most promising. What we need is continued reflections and more scholarship to patiently consider DeVille’s framework and others’, so that we can slowly work out the best way the ministry of universal fatherhood can truly be a service to unity.


What we have outlined here is mainly an attempt to summarize the trends that have been making headway in the Ecumenical Struggle for the fraternal reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. If we dare to make conclusions, we may draw these few: that the Orthodox Church is prepared to accept universal primacy, provided that it is balanced by conciliarity. We should recognize that this reality at many times in the past centuries would have been unthinkable to extremes on either side. But the best of both sides is open to a middle ground. We may also conclude by saying that we have indeed gained ground through the struggle of scholarship and prayer in this effort. If the Catholics are open to new universal structures, and the Orthodox are open to a universal structure, then progress has been made. We should look upon Ut Unum Sint of 1995 as a milestone in our relations and juncture from which we do not intend to turn. Through the innumerable responses and fruitful conversations this encyclical has generated, we may say that even in our division, the Holy Father is leading us to reunion.

But over and above these things, we must realize that in the difficult scholarly questions of ecclesiastics, the most important thing to remember is this: hoc est enim corpus meumthis is my body. The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the source of summit of our Christian life, which nurtures us to holiness, our last end. In this we are far from separated, but deeply united. We should take heart in these words, and ask Christ our Lord for a deeper repentance. Or as David Bentley Hart states,

It is still not the case, even in the modern period, that an absolute division [in Eucharistic communion] between the two [churches] has ever existed…there has never been a time when a perfect and impermeable wall has stood between the sacramental orders of East and West…the real question may be…not how we can possible discover the doctrinal and theological resources that would enable or justify reunion, but how we can possible discover the doctrinal and theological resources that could justify or indeed make certain our division. This is not a moral question—how do we dare to remain disunited?—but a purely canonical one: are we sure that we are? For, if not, then our division is simply sin, a habit of desire and thought that feeds upon nothing buts its own perverse passions and immanent logic, a fiction of the will, and obedience to a lie.[60]

Dear brothers and sisters, it is not in endless debates and doctrinal research, but in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist that our hope for unity lies. We must penetrate the scholarship and dialogues with love and repentance. If we partake of His Cross—His Body and Blood—and we sacrifice our body and our blood, then there can be nothing that follows except resurrection.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.

[1] Heb. 12:1

[2] Mt. 23:23

[3] Pp. 4:13

[4] Ut Unum Sint, 95

[5] Ibid., 34

[6] Ibid., 88

[7] Communionis Notio, 18; Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith 1992

[8] Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, 309, 256

[9] 1 Cor. 4:6

[10] Fr Vassily Kobahidze Interview, Bulletin of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Moscow Patriarchate, 1 August 1997 accessed at

[11] “The Ravenna Document,” 24; accessible at < chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20071013_documento-ravenna_en.html>

[12] Ibid., 43

[13] Ibid., 44

[14] “A Common Response to the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church Regarding the Ravenna Document,” the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, 2009 <;

[15] Ibid.

[16] See two recent essays of His Eminence: “The Future Exercise of Papal Ministry in the Light of Ecclesiology: An Orthodox Approach,” in James F. Puglisi, SA, ed., How Can the Petrine Ministry be a service to the Unity of the Universal Church?, 169-179; “Recent Discussions on Primacy in Orthodox Theology” in Cardinal Walter Kasper, ed., The Petrine Ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue, 231-248;

[17] Nicolas Lossky, “Conciliarity-Primacy in a Russian Orthodox Perspective,” in James F. Puglisi, SA, ed., Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church, 134

[18] David Bentley Hart, “The Myth of Schism,” in Murphy and Asprey, eds., Ecumenism Today, 95

[19] Lossky, 129

[20] Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology,” in Meyendorff, ed., The Primacy of Peter, 164-165

[21] Cleenewerck, 34

[22] Zizioulas, “Recent Discussions,” 237

[23] Zizioulas, “Primacy,” 117

[24] John Meyendorff, Catholicity and The Church, 142; in Cleenewerck, 419

[25] Robert Stephanopoulos, “Christian Unity and Petrine Ministry: Remarks of an Orthodox Christian,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11 (1974): 314; in DeVille, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, 25

[26] Vsevolod Majdansky, “Response to Bishop Bail (Losten): ‘Patriarch and Pope: Different Levels of Roman Authority,’” Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 35 (1994): 255 in DeVille, 27

[27] Antonios Kireopoulos, “Papal Primacy and the Ministry of Primacy,” in Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 42 (1997): 45-62; in DeVille, p. 176

[28] Ibid., 59; in DeVille, 177 n30

[29] Theodore Stylianopoulos, “Concerning the Biblical Foundation of Primacy,” Kasper, ed., The Petrine Ministry, 63; in DeVille, 42

[30] Vigen Guroian, “A Communion of Lofe and the Primacy of Peter: Reflections from the Armenian Church,” in ed. Francesca Murphy et al., Ecumenism Today, 20; in DeVille, 38

[31] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 61; Ware may say, however, that this was not on the level of ecclesiology, since he states that it is only “on the human level” that each side can say it has been “grievously impoverished.”

[32] In Cleenewerck, 134

[33] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 316

[34] This recalls perhaps the verbs besought from God concerning His angel invoked in the Asperges collect: the priest prays that the angel may custodiat (“guard”), foveat (“cherish”), protegat (“protect”), visitet (“visit”), and defendat (“defend”).

[35] Quoted in Kallistos Ware’s lecture at the Orientale Lumen Conference XV in 2011; <;

[36] Interview with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute (Feb 2004), National Catholic Reporter; <;

[37] Regula S. Benedicti, ch. 64; in Abbot Justin McCann, trans., 146ff.

[38] The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, “Steps Towards A Reunited Church: A Sketch Of An Orthodox-Catholic Vision For The Future,” 3; <;

[39] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Principles of Catholic Theology, 234; in Cleenewerck, 30

[40] Hermann J. Pottmeyer, “Recent Discussions on Primacy in Relation to Vatican I,” in Kasper, ed., The Petrine Ministry, 219

[41] Hart, 104

[42] Pastor Aeternus 4.5 in DeVille, 154

[43] Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, “The Sacrament of Order
 in the Sacramental Structure of the Church with particular reference
 to the Importance of Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God,” (1988), 34; < rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19880626_finland_en.html>

[44] Cleenewerck, 135

[45] Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, “By Jacob’s Well,” Journal of the Fellowship of Ss. Sergius and Alban (1933)

[46] Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam (1302); in Cleenewerck, 135

[47] Ad Smyrneans, 8

[48] Cleenewerck, 101ff.

[49] See Fr. Hopko’s paper “Roman Presidency and Christian Unity in our Time,” <;.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 316

[52] Quoting Pope. St. Siricius, Lecture at Orientale Lumen XV

[53] Lecture at Orientale Lumen XV (2011); < lumen_xv_conference>

[54] Ware in his lecture at Orientale Lumen XV

[55] North American, “Steps,” 6g, 6e

[56] Ibid., 7a

[57] Ibid., 7a

[58] Ibid., 7h

[59] DeVille, 160

[60] Hart, 106