Catholics and Orthodox on papal primacy (Update)

In 1976 Joseph Ratzinger made some remarks about facilitating an eventual reunion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, remarks that have been widely quoted ever since and particularly since he was elected pope. On the one hand, he said, Catholics cannot give up the claim to papal primacy; on the other hand, they cannot regard "as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." He went on:

Although it is not given us to halt the flight of history, to change the course of centuries, we may say, nevertheless, that what was possible for a thousand years is not impossible for Christians today.... In other words, Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium.When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Popes visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had. ...My diagnosis of the relationship between East and West in the Church is as follows: from a theological perspective, the union of the Churches of East and West is fundamentally possible, but the spiritual preparation is not yet sufficiently far advanced and, therefore, not yet ready in practice.

To advance this spiritual preparation for an eventual reunion of East and West, he said that

it is the task of every responsible Christian and, in a particular way, of theologians and leaders of the Church to create a spiritual climate for the theologically possible; under the compelling mandate of a unity without sameness, to see and experience the antithetical at all times without specious superficiality; to inquire always not just about the defensibility of union, of mutual recognition, but even more urgently about the defensibility of remaining separate, for it is not unity that requires justification but the absence of it.

I was reminded of these remarks of Ratzinger the theologian when I read the message that Ratzinger the pope sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch on the feast of St. Andrew, where he referred to the recent meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which, like the North American Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue, is now studying the question of primacy. Was the Pope possibly thinking of his earlier proposal when he wrote:

The theme of the plenary session, The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium, is certainly complex, and will require extensive study and patient dialogue if we are to aspire to a shared integration of the traditions of East and West. The Catholic Church understands the Petrine ministry as a gift of the Lord to His Church. This ministry should not be interpreted in the perspective of power, but within an ecclesiology of communion, as a service to unity in truth and charity. The Bishop of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity (Saint Ignatius of Antioch), is understood to be the Servus Servorum Dei (Saint Gregory the Great). Thus, as my venerable predecessor the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote and I reiterated on the occasion of my visit to the Phanar in November 2006, it is a question of seeking together, inspired by the model of the first millennium, the forms in which the ministry of the Bishop of Rome may accomplish a service of love recognized by one and all (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 95). Let us therefore ask God to bless us and may the Holy Spirit guide us along this difficult yet promising path.

I am interested in the meaning of that phrase "inspired by the model of the first millennium."Update: Two pieces in today's Zenit are relevant: (1) the response of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the visit of Cardinal Kasper to Constantinople; (2) the publication by the Patriarch of Moscow of writings of Pope Benedict XVI. Here is the link to the first of these.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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