The Eastern Churches, the Pope of Rome, & the Problem of Unity

I have recently read a very interesting new work on the prospects of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation.  It is entitled Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, and it is by Adam A.J. DeVille, a Urkanian rite Catholic (a deacon, according to his website) who is a professor of theology at St. Francis University in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He is also the editor of the journal Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, according to his website.  The book takes a look at Ut Unum Sint, the late Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, and specifically his call for other Christians to suggest ways that the papacy might execercise its authority in order to further Christian unity.  DeVille also surveys the response to Ut Unum Sint, as well as Orthodox positions on the papacy in the post Vatican II era.  Having done this, he then proceeds to look at the possibility of a revival of the Roman “Patriarchate” as a way of separating the roles of the bishop of Rome from those of the Successor to Peter, as a way of distinguishing those qualities that are truly necessary for the papacy from those powers that should be exercised only over the Latin Church.   He then surveys the various models of patriarchates from the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions (ten in all), before finally in the last two chapter detailing concrete proposals for a revived Roman Patriarchate and for a revamped papacy, which he would have preside over a standing ecumenical synod of bishops from East and West.   DeVille makes the claim that his book is virtually unique among Eastern Christians in attempting put forth concrete proposals for the reform of the papacy in response to John Paul II’s invitation, and his book certainly seems to be that as far as I am aware.  I offer my thoughts on his in a spirit of charity, as someone who is a not a theologian and who respects the work that Mr. DeVille has done, and whose thoughts are just that—my thoughts alone.

Eastern Views of Papal Primacy

DeVille spends a whole chapter running down the list of theologians who have opined on the nature of the Roman papacy since the 1960’s, and in that chapter he lists the opinions of no less than twenty-four Orthodox theologians on the role that a papacy might acceptably play in a re-united Church.  While he acknowledges up front that there is no one single interpretation from the Orthodox that holds across the Eastern Churches not in communion with Rome (17-18), nonetheless he argues that a certain number of common features emerge amongst those theologians who have addressed the question of the papal office itself (as distinct from the role of Peter in the bible or the historical role of the papacy in the early Church).

DeVille identifies six areas of agreement among these theologians, three positive assessments and three negative assessments of the papacy.  1) Most of these theologians grant that the Pope of Rome had a primacy of some sort during the first millennium, and they are willing to grant that today.  2) Most all recognize a need for the pope in order to re-establish “the good of canonical order in the Church.” (44) 3) Lastly, these theologians recognize the need for a “centre of appeal” and for the pastoral solicitude “for all the Churches.”  DeVille says that these theologians are willing to grant the pope more than a mere primacy of honor but not “the plenitudo postestas that the Pope of Rome currently possesses.” (45)

On the negative side of the ledger, the theologians he reviews uniformly reject any kind of “universal jurisdiction” or as he puts it “juridical power or domination by one bishop over another,” as according to these theologians it has no basis in the history of the early church.  (This is a point I will return to later, as it is something that DeVille emphasizes in his own proposals.)  In particular, he says they reject it on theological grounds as not being reflective of the “Orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in light of which Orthodox ecclesiology is to be understood.” (45)  The second point of rejection is that papal power cannot “be excercised in an extra-sacramental way without a corresponding relationship to a synod of brother bishops whose unity is manifested above all in the celebration of one Eucharist rather than in the functioning of one office.” (46)  The last objection is that the pope must exercise his office primarily “as a bishop” and not as an office apart from other bishops.

There are many interesting things to say about his list of areas of agreement, but I will limit myself to a couple.  First, the theologians he cites are nearly from those parts of the Orthodox world which are willing to countenance reunion with Rome, and it is not clear to me that they are representative of Orthodox opinion generally speaking.  More to the point, and this is something I will return to, it is not clear to me who would be able to speak authoritatively for the Churches of the East as a whole, something that makes talking about “Orthodox opinion” on unsettled doctrinal issues problematic.   In addition, as Hilarion Alfeyev, the Orthodox Bishop of Vienna, and the late Alexander Schemann have noted, the Orthodox have not really given a great deal of thought to what primacy at a universal level would actually mean.  But DeVille does recognize this, and cautions his readers against seeing his recommendations as something more than preliminary.


Patriarchates & Synods

And what is his primary recommendation?  DeVille thinks that the Roman patriarchate should be revived in the person of the bishop of Rome.  He proposes this for several reasons.  One is that it would help separate out the functions of the Pope as head of the Latin Church from those that he exercises as the successor of St. Peter, and therefore help clarify what they are. (119)  Another reason is that it would make the government of the Latin Church more acceptable to the Orthodox Churches (i.e., less centralized in the hands of the pope or his curia). (145).   DeVille also argues that it would help make for better governance in the Latin Church by relieving some of the burdens that the Vatican now shoulders alone by “devolving” some of them to patriarchal synods. (146)  This is a point he stresses again and again, how much synods have played in the life of the Eastern Churches, and that they also had a greater role in the first millennia of Christian history in the West.

DeVille spends a whole chapter surveying ten different patriarchates in the Orthodox world (including three of the “Oriental” Orthodox patriarchates), again attempting to identify features which might be suitable for imitation in the Latin Church.   He emphasizes that there is no one single model of the patriarchate in the Orthodox Churches, but finds the most helpful model for the revived Roman patriarchate in the Armenian Church, which has not one but two patriarchs and two “Catholicos,” the princple difference between which seem to be that the former are ecclesiastical leaders with jurisdiction over a given geographic area, while the former are heads “of a people.” (108)  He emphasizes the involvement of lay people in electoral and administrative matters in the various Eastern patriachates (while noting that some do not involve them very much) and in particular that of the Armenian Patriarchate, holding the Armenian Church up as a model for the Latin Church to imitate, especially for Catholics that believe that “popular election of bishops…would somehow result in or be concomitant with, a liberalization and destruction of the Church.” (114)  (Just as an aside, I have to say that I admire any writer who uses the word “concomitant” in their work.  It is a wonderful latinate word which is horribly underused.)


Roman Patriarch & Successor of Peter

On the basis of this review of the Eastern Patriarhates, and a review of the literature among Catholic theologians (including Joseph Ratzinger) on the viability of the patriarchate in the West, DeVille goes on to outline what a renovated papacy, its office separated more clearly from that the bishop of Rome as patriarch, would look like.  On the need for a Roman patriarchate, he makes three recommendations:  1), that the Latin Church should set up regional patriarchs to assist the Pope, six for each of the inhabited continents, 2) these regional patriarchs would be assisted by a full synod made up of all diocesan bishops and a permanent synod comprised of the presidents of the various episcopal conferences along with the patriarch himself, and 3) that  these patriarchates so constituted would “take over almost all the functions that currentlly performed for them by the Roman Curia,” thereby reducing the burden on the Curia and giving to the Latin Church a form of governance “recognized by the East.” (146)  Thus the powers over the election of bishops, the supervision of clergy and educational establishments, the maintenance of liturgical life and other duties currently exercised from Rome.  All this would, on DeVille’s reading, help clarify what the unique prerogatives of the bishop of Rome are as Successor to Peter.

DeVille’s revamped papacy would operate much a like a super-patriarch, in fact.  There would be a permanent ecumenical synod which would assist the pope in dealing with any “issues transcending patriarchal particularities and affecting the universal Church as a whole, and so requiring a unified response.”  (150-51)  Taking his cue from Ut Unum Sint, he lists six responsibilities the pope would have in this arrangement. DeVille says that the pope would preside over the ecumenical synod, being able to call it to meet and have a veto over its decisions, though he could only send matters back to it for more discussion if he is unsatisfied with their decision. (151)  The synod itself would be the final court of jurisdiction for cases that were unable to be resolved at lower hierarchical levels of the Church.  The pope would be able to admonish opinions deemed deviant from the unity of the faith, but only when the synod agrees; basically, he would be confined to promulgating their adjudication of such doctrinal questions. (153-54)  Lastly, the pope would be able to promulgate certain definitions of the faith ex cathedra but only if “the synod and the pope together agreed with the bishops that it was appropriate to manifest this charism.” (154)   As for prerogatives that he could exercise on his own, DeVille claims that the pope, beside being able to call the synod together and promulgate its decision, will still act as an “unofficial” spokesman for Christianity as a whole, and will still remain sovereign of the Vatican City State, partly as a way of maintaining the pope’s independence from secular authority. (158)  DeVille also outlines a new procedure in which the pope would be elected by representatives from the local dicoses of Rome, from the wider Roman patriarchate, and then from representatives of the other Churches. (156)


Criticisms:  Infallibility and the Problem of Unity

DeVille claims that his proposals, which he wisely says he did not make “overly specific” precisely in order to “leave the door wide open” in terms of how they might be interpreted, avoid both what he calls “Monarchical “papism” ” as well as “headless “concilarism”. ” (147, 123)  First, let us start with his recommendations for the reorganization of the Roman patriachate.  For the most part, I find his recommendations salutary on this point, especially as a practical matter.  DeVille makes the very important point that, aside from the national episcopal conferences, there are few if any mediating structures between the Vatican and the rest of the Latin Church.  Surely it could not hurt to practice a bit more of the subsidiarity that the Church proposes to the secular world by having regional patriarchs, as well as their synods, to advise him.  One advantage of such a “devolution” is that it would allow for a more personal overseeing of the Church by patriarchs who reside in the places they have authority over.  Several years ago in the pages of First Things, the late Richard John Neuhaus speculated that it might aid bishops in their task of overseeing their flock if the size of the dioceses in the U.S. were reduced and more bishops created, so as to relieve them of the burden of managing a large administration and give them a small enough body of people to oversee that they might have better acquaintance with their own priests, for example.  (I cannot recall the date or the issue, but I believe it was in the “On the Square” portion of First Things.)  He was speaking in the context sexual abuse scandals that have so the Catholic Church, and DeVille also makes passing reference to them as well.  To my mind, there is nothing wrong with the idea that differing levels of consultation and authority, and it may very well have some of the good effects that he proposes it will.   And as for the value of distinguishing between the Pope’s patriarchal duties and those he has a universal pastor, one should need little convincing that the papacy would be better served if it had less to do, and so that part of DeVille’s plan seems to me spot on as well.

The difficulties come with some of his specific proposals, since the devil is in the details, of course, but which also highlight problems with the bigger picture that he is trying to paint.  For example, he holds up the Armenian Church as an example of how lay men and women might be allowed a greater role in the Latin Church (he cautions that this does not mean it must be “slavishly imitated”), against the objections of “some Catholics that “popular” election of bishops, including the bishop of Rome, would somehow result in, or at least be concomitant with, a liberalization and destruction of the Church.” (114)  DeVille rightly emphasizes that any resolution to the schism between the Eastern Churches and Rome must be primarily theological in nature, as historical scholarship cannot resolve disputes over the nature of authority, which depend for their resolution primarily on a hermeneutic which interprets the historical data.   Moreover, he wants to make the very crucial point that one can have different types of structures within the Church (i.e., more “democratic” elements along with more “monarchical” ones).  However, inattention to historical and cultural differences may make his proposal seem more easily achievable than it really is.  Part of the reason that some Catholics—including the author of this blog—are suspicious of calls for greater lay involvement in the life of the Church is precisely that so much of the push for it has come from those who would alter the Church’s perennial teachings.   Armenia has had a vastly different history, and has a vastly different culture than those countries of Western European descent, and his failure to take this into account sometimes makes his recommendations seem a bit unrealistic.  Even if he is correct about lay involvement, the ghosts of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, which saw an aggressive assertion of lay authority over the Church, are not easily exorcised.  And even if they are not as important as theological concerns, they cannot be easily ignored.

But even bigger problems are noticeable in his discussion of the Pope’s restructured office.  He claims that there is nothing in Pastor Aeternus which would preclude the Pope from consulting with the bishops before the exercises his charism of infallibility, which is true, but as he must surely know, both the Vatican I and Vatican II explicitly affirm that the bishop of Rome’s decisions on faith and morals “need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment” (Pastor Aeternus Ch. 4, sec. 9; Lumen Gentium, §25).   This is something that,the Pope could not do in his vision of the Papacy’s new role.  Given the fact that Vatican I binds the members of the Church to believe that he could do this on pain of excommunication, it is not clear how his plan would reconcile what would appear to contradict earlier pronouncements which proclaimed the doctrine to be irreformable.  He does mention in his footnotes, I believe, a private remark by Paul VI to the effect that the post 1054 councils in the West were merely “general councils” and not ecumenical councils, but he does not elaborate on it, and as it stands it’s not much of an argument.   Not only would it undermine the papacy and the Western Church’s credibility to make such an obvious reversal of previous teachings, it would make the Latin Church open to the not unreasonable claim from some Orthodox Christians that the teaching of papal authority had been heretical all along—why else would the Latin Church jettison a doctrine it so often proclaimed was irreformable?

Part of the problem, I think, is that DeVille has the laudable intention of attempting to construct a synthesis of Western and Eastern models of the Church to resolve the schism.  But in his attempt he makes practical proposals before evaluating the premises on which Orthodox and Catholic eccelesiologies rest (such as, for example, what counts as legitimate development of doctrine, or indeed, for the Orthodox, whether there can be development of doctrine or not) so that one can better gauge where (and whether) they can be “mixed” in the way he attempts to do.   He does this, to a certain extent at least, for the Orthodox, but not for the papacy as presently understood by Roman Catholics.  Therefore we get no sense of why medieval and modern Catholic theologians came to ascribe the powers to the pope that they do, so as to discern whether or not there can be a theological justification for the papacy as presently understood by Rome.  All we get instead is the assertion that the Orthodox will never agree to it, and that it is simply unacceptable, because it is too “juridical” (while at the same time DeVille complains that we don’t really know what jurisdiction means-a rather paradoxical complaint).  Medieval and modern apologists built around the papacy a web of privileges that, yes, came to be overgrown and grossly abused, but in the process they made what I think is a genuine theological development, namely that the locus of infallibility (whether papal or conciliar) was the Church’s center of unity, but that to be so its decisions must be final, that is, beyond them there could be no appeal.   DeVille’s proposal makes the exercise of the pope’s exercise of his infallibility dependent on the agreement (and consensus?  how many patriarchs have to agree?) of the ecumenical synod but the promulgation of the synod’s  decisions on matters of doctrine subject to a papal veto.   He seems to assume there will never be disagreement in these cases, but if there is, there is no way in his plan to resolve the impasse.   In either case, it is not clear to me in his plan as he presents who the actual primate is—is it the pope, or the synod?

And this to me is the real issue when it comes to the primacy—who has the final authority to authentically, and in a way binding on all the faithful, to determine what the deposit of faith means throughout time and history, as those far more learned than myself have pointed out.   And this authority must be clearly visible so that the faithful know where to look for guidance.   In theory, it does not really matter if this authority is vested in a single person or an assembly of bishops, as long as its authority is truly final and cannot be appealed against, though I must admit I think fairly highly of the “papal monarchy” many Eastern Orthodox find so objectionable.  Obviously, this authority must have,  as DeVille has rightly insisted, a theological rationale, but if he is right that the concepts of “juridiction” and “canonical territory” need to be investigated, then surely it might be worth considering what exactly it means to say that “the papacy’s theological justification must be Trinitarian in nature,” as so many Eastern theologians do.  For, as it stands, even in DeVille’s outline, what it sounds like it means in practice is that, at least to me, what is most essential about the papacy’s authority is to be jettisoned for the sake of satisfying Orthodox objections.  For me, this is something at this point I am not willing to accept.

I should stress that I am a layman, and I submit my opinions, such as they are, to the judgement of the Church.  And in all humility, I hope I have not unjustly or uncharitably criticized Mr. DeVille’s  book, which is indeed a very important one, not the least for helping get such a discussion started in the first place.


~ by Alypius on March 27, 2011.

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