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VATICAN LETTER Oct-22-2004 (860 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Papal primacy: Land mine on the path to Catholic-Orthodox unity?

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Catholic theologian described papal primacy as a land mine on the path to Catholic-Orthodox unity, while an Orthodox theologian described it as "an object of controversy and polemics."

Yet, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, Catholic and Orthodox scholars -- officially representing their churches -- rolled up their sleeves and started to tackle the historically explosive question of the Petrine ministry and how it is exercised in the modern church.

Generally, ecumenical dialogues proceed by stages, finding agreement on small differences and building on one agreement to resolve more complicated divergences.

However, Metropolitan John of Pergamon, a theological consultant to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, said that in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, "All these little steps will make no progress, because we are always stumbling over this issue."

Metropolitan John was one of the Orthodox scholars who made formal presentations at a 2003 Vatican-hosted symposium on the question of primacy, and he spoke in Rome in mid-October at a conference marking the publication of the symposium papers and brief summaries of the closed-door discussions.

Perhaps even more surprising than the topic of the symposium was the fact that it took place at all.

Catholic and Orthodox officials have not managed to agree to have their official dialogue commission meet since 2000, yet the Vatican, the ecumenical patriarchate and five Orthodox churches sent representatives to the discussion on primacy.

"We have to be brave, we have to be courageous and address this issue," Metropolitan John said at the book presentation.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the symposium was designed to launch a joint theological reflection, not to offer practical suggestions on how authority could or should be exercised in a reunited church.

The theologians, he said, set out to identify possible "maneuvering room -- if I can put it that way -- between two positions that seem diametrically opposed."

The Catholic and Orthodox participants at the symposium, like those in their respective churches, disagreed even on the meaning of scriptural references to Jesus naming Peter "the rock" upon which he would build his church.

"Peter is a pre-eminent figure in the New Testament, but not the only one," Father Theodore Stylianopoulos, a retired professor from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., told the symposium.

"No single apostolic figure enjoys universal dominance or exclusive authority in the New Testament," he said. "In other words, the 'primacy' of Peter is not power over other apostolic figures, but an authorized leadership in the context of shared apostolic authority in the common life of the church."

For Catholics, however, when the Scripture passages referring to Peter are read in the light of the tradition of the church -- including the first millennium before the schism between East and West -- Peter's role as the leader of the church becomes clear.

While recognizing that it is likely to be a long time before common ground can be found on how the pope, as bishop of Rome, could exercise his ministry in a united church, symposium participants urged the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches to take some preliminary steps within their own communities.

The Orthodox were asked -- by Metropolitan John among others -- to recognize that when they speak of their patriarchs as being "first among equals" and of the "synodal" governance of their churches, they cannot pretend that their patriarchs have no real authority or power.

Nor can they expect that the pope would have none.

"For the Orthodox there is no primacy without synodality," the metropolitan said, "but there also is no synod without a primate," who must call the bishops together to make decisions.

"Orthodox are learning that primacy is a matter of the essence of the church, a dogmatic matter," he said.

At the same time, Catholic and Orthodox scholars called on the Catholic Church to demonstrate that it supports the Second Vatican Council's recognition of the full dignity of local churches and to ensure its bishops are not treated merely as representatives of the pope.

The Catholic Church's "pyramidal structure," with the pope exercising universal authority, even over what the Orthodox would consider local matters, without being required at least to listen to the local churches, makes the Orthodox wary, Metropolitan John said.

"The Roman Catholic Church must apply fully the notion of the catholicity of the local church," he said. The pope "should not interfere in the local church without its consent."

A German Catholic theologian, Msgr. Hermann J. Pottmeyer, who participated in the 2003 symposium and the October book launch, said one promising idea is to clarify the difference between the pope's role as "patriarch of the West," with full jurisdiction and authority, and his role as primate of the universal church.

While in a united universal church his authority over the Christians in the East would have to be exercised in a less direct way, Msgr. Pottmeyer said, "he would not be just a brother," but would have to have some real power in order to be effective.


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