Is the Papacy in Need of Structural Reform?

December 2011By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is an associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.  By Adam A.J. DeVille. University of Notre Dame Press. 268 pages. $38.



Despite its subtitle, this book, written by an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, does not to any significant extent examine the “prospects” of unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Rather, in light of John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, and particularly the late pontiff’s request therein to leaders of other Christian churches and communities for “dialogue” on how papal primacy (or the Petrine “ministry of unity”) could be exercised in a mutually acceptable way, this book considers Catholic and Orthodox views of the papacy since 1960, and advances proposals for a major restructuring of the papacy that would separate the role and functions of the pope as “Patriarch of the West” (or “of Rome”) from those that pertain to his Petrine “universal primacy.”

After an introduction that adumbrates the arguments and conclusions of the book, and which postulates, accurately enough, that the papacy’s claims for itself and its ministry constitutes the fundamental obstacle to East-West ecumenical progress, the book examines Ut Unum Sint (UUS) and the very few official Orthodox responses the Pope’s request evoked — and why there were so few of them. It proceeds with a discussion of the views of twenty-four Orthodox theologians who have written on the papacy in recent decades, and the views of eighteen Catholic theologians. Two of the latter are Eastern Catholics: the current Mel­kite Patriarch of Antioch, Gregorios III, and the Ukrainian Catholic Michel Dymyd. The Western Catholics include Joseph Ratzinger (the fact that all but one of the works cited come from between 1964 and 1971 is, as we shall see, significant); Yves Congar; the Polish ecumenist Waclaw Hry­niewicz; Geoffrey Robinson, the retired liberal auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia; and Walter Cardinal Kasper, the recently retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Some of the Orthodox theologians whose views are discussed are, if not exactly hostile to the papacy, then at least negative and “stand-offish” in tone, while others are much more positive about the ecumenical potential of a “reformed” papacy. DeVille himself draws three positive and three negative conclusions from their writings. Positively, they all acknowledge that the primacy of Rome is a historic fact, and that Rome is the only plausible claimant to such a universal primacy; many of them acknowledge the desirability and necessity of such a primacy, given the current “jurisdictional chaos” of Orthodoxy; and they envisage Rome’s proper function as being “a center of appeal [from the decisions of other churches and patriarchates] of coordination and of solicitude for all the churches.” Negatively, they all reject papal universal jurisdiction as defined by the First Vatican Council; they reject a “juridical understanding” of papal primacy; and they insist that it is as “first bishop” and “patriarch of the first see of Rome” that he must exercise this universal primacy. The gap thus seems nearly absolute.

A notable divergence exists between the views of the two Eastern Catholic theologians and that of the Westerners. The Easterners speak of Rome needing to “recover” the distinction between its “patriarchal” and “primatial” functions, which they see Rome as having lost or discarded after the first millennium of Christianity. The Westerners, for the most part, more cautiously and accurately suggest that Rome should make a distinction between its “patriarchal” ministry and functions vis-à-vis the Western Church and its “primatial” ministry in the Church as a whole. Rome, in fact, first adopted the title of “patriarch” for its bishop in A.D. 642 under Pope Theodore I (642-649), a Greek, and never made much of it; even its use of the title was inconsistent and sporadic.

The Roman attitude toward “patriarchal structures,” even in the first millennium, might lightheartedly be summarized as: “The Easterners like that sort of thing, fine; it doesn’t do any harm, even though we have no interest in it ourselves. But if they want to consider us a patriarchate too, fine; so long as they understand that we are ‘first bishop.’ But they need to understand that this position of ‘first bishop’ does not come from the secular civil status of the City of Rome, or from the enactment of some synod or another, or from immemorial Church custom, but from being what Our Leo termed the indignus heres Beati Petri, the ‘unworthy’ (as an individual human person) ‘heir of St. Peter,’ the one who holds the same unique primacy among all the bishops that St. Peter held among his fellow Apostles.”

That said, it is easy to agree with DeVille in deploring the loss of the term “Patriarch of the West” (dropped from the Annuario Pontifico in 2006) simply because if the goal of reuniting the Orthodox and other Eastern Churches in the communion of the See of Peter should ever be achieved, in what has been envisaged as a “communion of Churches” under the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome, some term will be required to signify the particular relationship he has with his own Latin Church, and “patriarch” seems better than any other.

The works of Joseph Ratzinger that DeVille discusses (with one exception) have as a common thread. Ratzinger’s statements that the “confusion” between the pope’s Petrine primacy as Bishop of Rome and as Patriarch of the West was “the starting point for the split between East and West.” Such a “failure to distinguish” between the roles and responsibilities of the two positions led in time to the “extreme centralization of the Catholic Church.” This could perhaps be remedied, Ratzinger went on to suggest, by the creation of new patriarchates.

But in 2002, as DeVille notes, the future Pope declared in an interview that perhaps in these earlier writings he had overestimated the importance of patriarchates. It is not so much that Ratzinger has had “second thoughts”; rather, he has returned to his first thoughts, expressed in 1961, before the Second Vatican Council, in a book titled The Episcopate and the Primacy, which he co-authored with Karl Rahner. Ratzinger wrote of the “confusion” between the “administrative” patriarchal office and the “apostolic” papal universal primacy, but here as the emergence of the Eastern notion of a “patriarchal constitution” of the Church tending to obscure the apostolicity of “the Roman claim” by casting Rome itself more and more into an administrative light. “The overshadowing of the old theological notion of the apostolic see…by the theory of the five patriarchs must be understood as the real harm done in the quarrel between East and West,” Ratzinger wrote. As a patriarch, he explained, an office created by the Church, the pope is but first among patriarchal equals, though as “holder of the office of the Rock” he occupies a unique position.

DeVille goes on to examine the ways in which ten Eastern patriarchates are structured, ranging from the highly centralized Constantino­politan patriarchate (with almost no lay involvement in its governance) through the decentralized Bulgarian patriarchate (with a high degree of lay involvement) to the highly decentralized structure of the Armenian Apostolic Church (with two patriarchs and, above them, two “universal bishops,” or catholicoi). And this brings us to the heart of the book. In a chapter titled “Patriarchates within the Latin Church,” DeVille insists that a “structural” reform, not simply a “moral” reform, of the Church is necessary. He proposes dividing up the Western Catholic Church into six regional patriarchates, arranged roughly by continent, of which Rome would be one (for Europe). Each regional patriarchate would have, along the lines of the Orthodox model, a full synod of bishops that would meet frequently and regularly, and a permanent or “standing” synod, which would meet continually to advise its patriarch. These synods would replace the Roman curia and be responsible for electing bishops, regulating liturgical and sacramental practice (including “enculturation”), canonizing saints, and exercising vigilance over doctrinal questions, among other matters.

DeVille does consider potential objections to his proposals — e.g., that such “reforms” would be foreign to the structure and history of the Latin Church, constituting a “byzan­tinization” or orientalizing of it; that it would introduce a risky element of “democracy” into the Church, with dangerous consequences; and that, as things stand today, it would unleash moral, doctrinal, and disciplinary chaos in the Church. He has answers to these objections, or at least responses, but the sagacious Catholic reader will find himself less moved by the responses than dissuaded by the objections.

In the succeeding chapter, “Papal Structures and Responsibilities,” DeVille turns his attention specifically to the papal “universal primacy” over the Church as a whole. Here he is deliberately tentative, and also vague. He discusses the specifically “primatial” papal functions spelled out in UUS, which can be further condensed here as: “keeping watch” over the episcopate and the sacramental life of the Church in general; “ensuring the communion” of all the Churches of which he is universal primate; “admonishing and cautioning” concerning heterodox ideas and practices (and reprimanding those who put “personal interests” ahead of “the common good”); and, under specific conditions, declaring “ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith.”

DeVille proposes a “permanent ecumenical synod” composed of all the Eastern and Western patriarchs, which would meet infrequently or when summoned to assist the pope in the exercise of his responsibilities. He also proposes what seems to be a cumbersome method of electing popes by a tricameral electoral assembly consisting of lay and clerical representatives of the Roman diocese, representatives of the pope’s European patriarchate, and all the other patriarchs. The pope would thus remain, DeVille concludes, CEO of his patriarchate, the “global spokesman” for Christianity, and the sovereign of Vatican City State, a role and position of which DeVille, in contrast with most Orthodox critics of the papacy, thinks highly of as securing the pope’s “independence” and transcendence of “ethno-nationalist narrowness.”

While the theological or doctrinal objections to DeVille’s proposals are few, there are also scant benefits commensurate with the upheaval they would entail. Moreover, the alleged “necessity” of far-reaching structural changes in the Church is not as obvious as DeVille thinks, nor would the outcome be as felicitous: One can imagine the North American patriarchate’s bureaucracy embracing the causes of women’s ordination or homosexual pseudogamy, the Latin American one “encul­turating” into Marxist revolutionary agitation, the Asian one trying to “enculturate” a kind of syncretistic Hindu or Buddhist “Christianity,” and the European patriarchate riven by theological conflict over the appropriate responses to the seemingly terminal decline of much of Western European Christianity. It is enough to cause one to shudder at the prospect of an attenuated yet “synodalized” papacy trying to respond to it all.

Again, the subtitle of the book is misleading: It is not clear how the “reforms” DeVille proposes would further the prospects of Catholic-Orthodox unity. Possibly, if adopted, they would narrow to some uncertain extent the width of the gap that separates the two Churches, if only because they would substantially “Orthodoxize” the structure and appearance of the Latin Church. But they would not reduce the doctrinal depth of the gap.



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Not having read the book I cannot comment on the review qua review. But I note that the penultimate paragraph appears to become commentary, not of the book but of the ideas previously reviewed, and thus we understand that Dr Tighe thinks that the upheaval such a change as proposed will create is not worth the trouble. Alas, this sort of reaction means no progress seems likely. The true "conservative", is one who wishes to conserve what is, even if it perpetuates a problem, rather than have a go at achieving a solution, though there is a risk of discomfort along the way, rather like refusing the amputation of a gangrenous leg. Posted by: Stephen K
January 19, 2013 08:05 AM EST
I agree with Stephen K.

The truth must be known.
The emphasis upon the local church is the most historic and important aspect of the Orthodox Catholic Faith.

If in fact most of the Latin rite Roman Catholic Church is currently barely being held back from schism and heretical views overtaking it - this is but an artificial construction.

Either the bishops of the Latin Catholic Church are "right believing " or they are "wrong believing". The Pope is the one who excommunicates the heretics.

Me thinks it is time for some excommunicating and decentralizing !

And for the record - I am a true conservative!

Let the problems begin, and let the truth prevail, where the latin church is today is not an eviable position ! (of course the eastern orthodox have their modernist issues as well, no doubt, but plenty of advantages too, I dont intend to be a partisan for either side.)
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February 16, 2013 08:44 PM EST
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