May 2004

You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy.  By Olivier Clément. New City Press. 112 pages. $12.95.

John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, says that although the See of Peter is the intended and established way that God guides His people on earth, it can still be a stumbling block for some. The scandal of the particular may continue in the successor of St. Peter, but the world’s pastor nonetheless wants to know: How can Christians allow the Spirit to heal the lamentable tear in the Body of Christ?

The Holy Father’s call for a fruitful exchange on the role of Peter in the Church has occasioned this excellent study by one of today’s most distinguished Eastern Orthodox theologians, Olivier Clément of the University of Paris. Originally published in French in 1997, the first half of this work acts as a historical survey, examining the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, while the second half analyzes the relationship between the pope and ecumenical councils. Together, these 12 brief essays provide the reader with a very sobering look at the way much of the East views the See of Peter and what might possibly be done to improve communion between these “two lungs” of Christ’s apostolic Church.

Clément naturally opens with “ecclesiology” as it stemmed from the second century and the rise of episcopal authority. Rome was one of many major dioceses (the “pentarchy” of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) and although the doctrine of Petrine primacy was complete by the time of Leo the Great (440-461), Clément argues that most understood this primacy as Ignatius of Antioch did, who called it a primacy of charity, or as St. Ambrose did, who wrote that it is “one of confession, not of honor; of faith, not jurisdiction.” According to Clément, collegiality and a genuine unity manifested by representation of all the bishops was the tradition of the early Church. He nowhere denies that the Bishop of Rome was the major voice among the other patriarchs, and he does an evenhanded job of taking the reader through what this type of primacy meant at the early councils (he even acknowledges that it is mainly the popes who have preserved the “transcendence of the Church” in a way that other bishoprics, with their over-involvement in politics, could not have achieved). What Clément does deny, however, is that the pope has the right to act alone: His mind on any given matter must be received by the other bishops, and not determine what those bishops must hold.

This shift occurred when, in the eighth century, the pope needed to insulate himself against the state (e.g., the use of Frankish armies in defense against the Lombards) in order to preserve some sort of ecclesial immunity. This growing independence reached a crescendo with Gregory VII (1073-1085) and his Dictatus Papae, giving the pope power to appoint and remove bishops without imperial approval. The conciliarism of the later Middle Ages, the Reformation, as well as the secularization of the modern state all led to Pius IX’s declaration of papal infallibility, ex sese non ex consensu (out of his office and not out of any agreement). Clément sees this sort of increasing autonomy and monarchical rule as the major point of contention regarding how the successor of Peter exercises his charism to guide and rule.

Such criticism must be read alongside the West’s understanding of how the Spirit has been shaping the Petrine ministry over the centuries. Even the most ultramontane among us will admit that Peter did not understand the full scope of his commission, but this does not exclude a development of doctrine whereby future Bishops of Rome — Victor and Stephen, for example — very early on came to see that they were the final arbiters of Catholic doctrine and thus had no problem settling ecclesial disputes anywhere in the Church. In his strident support of conciliarism, Clément nowhere wrestles with the contention that only the Bishop of Rome has never erred in dogmatic essentials, whereas many local and regional synods have been either swayed by false thinking or coerced by political pressure to maintain a position contrary to the Faith. It is with this type of historical awareness that this book must be read in one hand while holding something such as Stephen Ray’s Upon This Rock (Ignatius, 1999) or Kenneth Whitehead’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (Ignatius, 2000) in the other. Together, may Christ’s Body begin to breathe as one again.

- David Vincent Meconi



Roman Catholics and Shi‘i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, and Politics.  By James A. Bill & John Alden Williams. University of North Carolina Press. 194 pages. $24.95.

Catholics who follow the workings of the U.N. cannot help but note that when questions of morality arise, the greatest allies the Vatican has are also the propagators of one of the greatest, and currently the fastest growing, heresies — Islam. How could it be that two religions with such a mutually bloody past could be such strong allies? Bill and Williams’s exposition provides a straightforward answer backed by history — both the Catholic and Muslim tradition, particularly the Shi‘i branch, have an unswerving trust in the power of reason. Historically, the intellectual tradition of Catholics and Muslims is very closely intertwined, drawing heavily from Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. As such, it is not surprising that remaining faithful to the intellectual tradition would produce some strong similarities, especially in matters of morality rooted so deeply in reason. Though much of the scientific and rational thought of Muslims has been overwhelmed by fanatical extremism, the Shi‘i have kept the tradition and have always sought, like Catholics, to show compatibility between faith and reason. In fact, like the Catholic Church, the Shi‘i have argued for the need of an infallible authority to maintain the purity of the faith. There are numerous other similarities as well that all find their root in the joined intellectual traditions of the two faiths.

There are, however, obvious differences. It is much more difficult to explain the differences because they, for the most part, draw from disagreements regarding revelation, and in matters such as these reason does not reign supreme. Bill and Williams present an almost side-by-side comparison of the Catholic Church and the Shi‘i Muslims, filled with fascinating historical data that helps bring some clarity to the differences and shed light on whence they arose. Their exposition, however, and this is the book’s main weakness, is always to present things from a political view — matters of faith and morals are explained politically. One example is their treatment of the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding birth control. Bill and Williams’s take is that the Church would change her position if she didn’t fear looking like she flip-flopped. In other words, regardless of whether there really is something intrinsically wrong with using artificial birth control, the Church cannot allow it because she claims infallibility and cannot appear to waiver without losing power. Infallibility becomes a tool of power and, regardless of the truth of the matter, trumps whatever needs trumping in order to preserve this power.

In spite of this weakness, the book is definitely worthwhile, enjoyable, and stimulating. I find myself much more disposed to pray for the heretics and hope the Pope’s dialogue with the Shi‘i bears some fruit.

- Tom Ellis



Vexilla Regis: Devotions and Intercessions for All Affected by War.  By Robert Hugh Benson. Roger A. McCaffrey Publishing. 96 pages. $15.95.

“Vexilla Regis prodeunt, Fulget cruces mysterium. Forth comes the standard of the King, All hail, Thou Mystery Ador’d.” So begins one of the Church’s most famous processional hymns, one associated with military banners, the feasts surrounding the glory of the True Cross, and, in times more recent, the prayers enlisted for Holy Week. So it is an apt title for this wonderful collection of devotional prayers for those afflicted by hostilities: combatants, nurses, families, and not least, the dead.

Originally published on the eve of England’s entrance into World War I, this slight volume includes intentions unabashedly pleading victory for her suffering countrymen, but also makes requests of mercy for the enemies of the realm. The language is poetic and rich in a way that most of us no longer recognize as proper to address God, and the author’s deliberate use of sources “consecrated by centuries” rather than original compositions reminds us immediately of the heritage of ritual the Catholic Church possesses.

Benson, of course, had no difficulty penning beautiful prayers. As the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was, in his time, a sensational convert to Rome, as well known as Chesterton or Knox. Before dying at age 50, he was recognized as a prolific and imaginative novelist, poet, and preacher. But in this collection, assembled just before his death, we see not so much the creative man as the devout one, the priest more than the artist. That is the one we have most need of, for the 21st century appears to be equally perilous as the last century.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink





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