Monday, February 9, 2009

Ravenna & the Roman Primacy

An interesting piece from Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

How is it that no other bishop
but the Roman bishop
ever claimed a universal primacy in the Church?

Ravenna and the Roman primacy

by Daniel S. Hamilton

After two decades of modest progress, the Joint International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission, meeting in Ravenna, Italy, October 8-14, 2007, issued a study document on ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority (1) that acknowledged the Roman primacy in the universal Church as a historical fact, but called for an extensive study and clarification of its basis and nature, issues hotly debated for centuries.

My purpose here is to outline the conflicting positions on the basis and nature of the Roman primacy as these issues are presented generally by leaders and scholars of the two Church communions, including Anglicans, and to suggest how these mutually opposed positions may be brought closer together, followed by a personal reflection.

The Catholic position

Some may be surprised to learn that Orthodox leaders and theologians, together with classical Anglicans, do not dispute the historical fact of Rome’s universal primacy from the earliest Christian centuries; but they differ radically with the Catholic Church regarding the basis and nature of this primacy, arguing, in some cases, that because of heresy it has been lost.

The Catholic Church has insisted from time immemorial—and, indeed, has dogmatized this conviction—that our Lord Jesus Christ gave the ministerial leadership of his Church to Peter and intended this office (like the Church itself) to continue permanently and, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to continue in the leadership or episcopate of the Roman Church, in the city where Peter (with Paul) exercised Church leadership and where both Peter and Paul were martyred, and in which was the capital and center of the Church’s first principal missionary field—namely, the Roman Empire.

This leadership derived from Peter, the chief apostle, was first exercised, then specified and later defined by the Church itself in the course of history, as a leadership of real and final authority to be invoked when needed for the good and, above all, for the unity of all the churches. This authority was spiritual, doctrinal and governmental—and in all cases decisive. Vatican Council I, reaffirmed by Vatican II, described the office as episcopal, ordinary and immediate; namely, that the Roman bishop has the same authority within the whole Church that a diocesan bishop has within his own diocese, that this universal authority inheres in the Roman bishop’s office and that it can be exercised independently (canonically speaking) and personally without need for recourse to any other authority. Inherent also in this office of the Roman bishop is the charism to teach inerrantly under precise conditions specified by the conciliar definition.

The Catholic teaching on the Roman primacy is thus clear, precise, forthright and, for many, overwhelming.(2) It is accompanied by a long list of supportive testimonies from Scripture, the apostolic and post-apostolic Church, the patristic age and subsequent centuries.(3)

The Orthodox and Anglican position

The Orthodox and the Anglicans generally have no dogmatic position on these issues; but they nonetheless have a long tradition of firmly rejecting the Catholic position. They have evaluated the factual and historical Roman primacy as, variously, 1) an office inconsistent with the nature of the Church as a Eucharistic communion of local churches all of which are equally the Church, where primacy on all levels is exercised only in a conciliar context; 2) an office needed in the universal Church and one that was perhaps providentially initiated but that was actually conferred upon the Roman See and its bishop by the other ancient local churches, as witnessed by ecumenical or other councils such as Nicaea (325), Sardica (342), Constantinople I (381) and Chalcedon (451).(4)

This designation of Rome as having the universal primacy came, it is maintained, by reason of Rome’s position at the center of the world in which the Church was then planted and growing—the Roman Empire. The city and its Church also enjoyed the unique heritage of the two apostles Peter and Paul both having ministered there and been martyred there; and, as the centuries followed, it boasted a Church whose authority grew tremendously in the religious and political circumstance of the times and, also, it is said, by arrogating authority to itself within the communion of churches.

Such commentators view the legitimate original Roman primacy of leadership—in the sense of a norm of faith and practice—as having evolved or devolved into a “papalism” or “papal supremacy,” terms and phrases that signify a kind of distortion or wrongful aggrandizement of the original office, which was Peter’s or was conferred on the Roman See by its ancient sister churches. The Roman primacy became, in this perspective, a supreme, monarchical and dictatorial office analogous to an oppressive secular power.

Thus, though universal primacy may have emerged in the Church because of a need for such leadership, the kind of primacy that factually developed rather quickly, asserting its foundation in the indemonstrable claim of the Lord’s gift to Peter, had, in any case, evolved into an objectionable papal supremacy that ever since has become a stone of stumbling for Christians who do not admit it.(5)

A resolution?

How are these conflicting positions to be harmonized? Clearly, the path of resolution will be neither easy nor short. In 1995, however, Pope John Paul II (in Ut Unum Sint)(6) invited the leaders and theologians of all the Christian church communities (a sparse response) to join him in a dialogue as to how the Roman primacy, its essential mission preserved, may best be exercised in our time. This dialogue was not to obscure, however, the basis and nature of this primacy.

All parties to this dialogue would need to commit themselves to a thorough and objective examination of the extant data, beginning with the Scriptures and the very early Church testimonies and those of the Fathers, of the major councils, and of the Eastern and Western Churches’ twenty centuries of mutual relations and doctrinal teaching, distinguishing the various levels of authority in this teaching. A sifting and evaluating of all this material would follow. Joint committees would appropriately pursue these tasks, as well as individual theologians.

True, this task has been done in large measure before. But, today joint committees of scholars are needed to replicate, authenticate and, if need be, correct the work of the past and accomplish new research called for now. Scholars striving equally for objectivity will evaluate evidence differently. Scholarly thoroughness and objectivity will, therefore, not eliminate all differences but will narrow them. Ultimately conclusions from a scientific point of view will need to be drawn in some cases on the basis of the preponderance of evidence and possible alternative interpretations noted.

But scholarship alone—even the most professional and objective—is not enough. Beyond scholarship there is needed prayerful intercession. The Church is not a community of scholars but the Mystical Body of Christ into which we are ingrafted by faith and baptism for the conversion of hearts, the healing of memories and the gift of reconciliation. We must have an intensified dialogue of love and that mutual cooperation which the Church communions have sought with greater or lesser success over these last fifty years. We must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for a full reconciliation and we must dearly want it.(7)

Read the full piece here.

Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton, Ph.D., a former editor of The Long Island Catholic (1975-1985) and chairman of the Rockville Centre Diocesan Ecumenical Commission (1968-1988), is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Lindenhurst, New York and consultant to the Anglican Use Society and the Pastoral Provision.

This article appears in the February 2009 issue of HPR.

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