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Book Review -- You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy

David Carlson Ph.D.

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You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy
Olivier Clement
New City Press, 2003
112 pgs. $12.95

One of the characteristics of John Paul II's papacy has been his persistent overtures toward the Orthodox Church. Through encyclicals, meetings with patriarchs, and visits of pilgrimage and penance to Orthodox lands, the pope has vigorously pursued the goal of reunion of Christianity--East and West (what he terms the "two lungs" of the Church--distinct, yet meant to breathe together).

Ut unum sint represents Pope John Paul II's clearest contribution to this endeavor. In that encyclical, he suggests that the Church of the first millennium must serve as the model for reconciliation in our time. Perhaps even more significant is his challenge in the same encyclical for the Orthodox and other Christian communities to help Rome exercise Petrine primacy in a way "open to a new situation" and in a way which accomplishes "a service of love recognized by all concerned."

Olivier Clement, the noted Orthodox theologian from the Institute of St. Sergius (Paris), has accepted this challenge. You Are Peter offers both an historical overview of Rome's relation to the other Churches and Clement's vision of what form of Petrine primacy might be acceptable to the Orthodox.

Much of Clement's survey of the Church of the first millennium counters commonly held views of both Orthodox and Catholics. A "certain amnesia" set in, he suggests, during the damaging centuries following the schism of 1054, an amnesia that must be dispelled if reunion is to be achieved. In essence, Clement agrees with Ut unum sint -- the key to the future is in bypassing the highly conflictual second Christian millennium and recovering the genius of the first. In short, densely-written chapters, Clement analyzes the pertinent documents of the period (from both East and West) to recover the following picture.

The Church of the first millennium recognized the Holy Spirit's leading through three primary means: ecumenical councils, the see of Rome, and the witness of the faithful (even one lone witness to truth, such as in the case of St. Maximus the Confessor).

The Church of Rome over the first four centuries moved incrementally to view herself as inheriting Peter's special charism of responsibility, concern, and right of appeal for the entire Church. She was the first of the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). By Leo's time (440-446), the pope was "the head (princeps) of the entire Church."

It has to be admitted that the Church of the East recognized the papacy as having special privileges. From the 5th century onward, various Eastern Fathers were referring to the pope as the successor of Peter, and it was to Rome that the East turned when the harmony of the Church was threatened.

And from the earliest centuries, Rome had the special honor of being the city where Peter and Paul, as martyrs, were still "present."

In the period of the Ecumenical Councils, East and West found a way to work together despite differing assumptions and language. The West understood papal tomes as "the faith of the Church as the apostle Peter first proclaimed it" and therefore as the dominant, decisive word in council deliberations. The other bishops, in Rome's view, had the secondary, though important, role of guaranteeing the presence of the Holy Spirit by their ratification of Rome's direction.

During the same period, the East viewed papal primacy differently, as a "prestige of honor and moral authority," but not a primacy of jurisdiction. Papal primacy was valid only when it worked "in communion with the council" and "at the service of the Church." Thus, the East, Clement maintains, "emphasized conciliarity without...denying papal primacy."

Clement argues that we should not overly stress the divergent language for the papacy that East and West developed in this first millennium. Rather, what must be recalled and recovered is the behavior of the united Church during that period. What resulted in practice was a "creative tension", Clement maintains, "an admirable complementarity, a providential collaboration between popes and councils."

Recovering the first millennium's "creative tension" between Rome and the rest of the Church is Clement's hope for the future. The path ahead will not be easy, given the separate and mutually deforming development of West and East in the second millennium. But the new beginning inaugurated by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagorus in 1965 and subsequent steps toward reconciliation bear, for Clement, the sign of the Holy Spirit's presence.

You Are Peter demands a thoughtful reconsideration of the key issue separating these two "sister Churches." Clement is not shy of suggesting where Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope John Paul II could do more. For those in both communions who have never viewed the schism of 1054 as a divorce, but a tragic marital separation, Clement's work makes a major contribution to mutual understanding and reconciliation. The foreword by Avery Cardinal Dulles suggests that You Are Peter will receive serious consideration by the Vatican. Orthodox readers owe the book the same.

Dr. David Carlson is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin College, Franklin, Indiana, and a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Posted 4/5/04

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