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The Orthodox Understanding of Primacy and Catholicity

Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria

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Paper read at the meeting of the theological commission of the Swiss Bishops' Conference in Basel, 24 January 2005

In the Orthodox tradition the theme of primacy is closely connected with that of church authority, which, in its turn, is for the Orthodox theologian indivisible from the idea of 'catholicity' or 'conciliarity.'

As is well known, for various historical reasons the Orthodox Church never had and to this very day does not have a unified administrative and governing structure. Among the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches the Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the 'first among equals,' who has borne the title 'Ecumenical' since Byzantine times. However, neither this title nor the pre-eminence of honour accorded to him give the Patriarch of Constantinople any jurisdictional rights outside the boundaries of his own patriarchate.

The primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople took form gradually. Decisive events in its genesis were the elevation of Constantinople to the capital of the empire and the granting of the status of 'New Rome' in the fourth century, as well as the division of the Churches in the eleventh century. The Second Ecumenical Council (381) in its third canon decreed: 'The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honour after the Bishop of Rome, since this city is the New Rome.' The Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) indicated the following motivation for this decision: 'The fathers properly gave preference to the see of the Ancient Rome since this was the imperial capital. For the same reasons the 150 holy bishops also granted equal privileges to the most holy see of the New Rome, rightly judging that the city that received the honour of being the city of the emperor and the senate and having equal privileges with the Ancient Rome should also be elevated in church matters, just as the formr was, and that it might be second after it.' Thus, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was viewed by the Eastern Fathers not as something conditioned by the succession of this bishop from Apostle Peter, but as based upon the political significance of Rome as the capital of the empire. In exactly the same way the privileges of the see of Constantinople were based not on its ancientness (the sees of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch were more ancient) or any ecclesiastical grounds, but exclusively on the political significance of Constantinople as the 'city of the emperor and the senate.'

However, after the unity between the Western and Eastern Churches was disrupted in the eleventh century, the pre-eminence of honour among the Orthodox Churches went over, as it were, automatically to the Patriarch of Constantinople. This primacy was kept even after Constantinople ceased to be the 'city of the emperor and the senate' in the middle of the 15th century and the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoyed privileges as the 'ethnarchos' of the Greek nation and in fact headed the entire Orthodox population of this empire. However, his authority did not extend beyond the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. The formation of nation states in the 19th and 20th centuries in territories that were formerly under the Turks led to the emergence of new autocephalous Churches outside the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

At present there are 15 Local Orthodox Churches, each of which is fully independent in questions of internal governance and is in no way subject to Constantinople. This structure of governance gives rise to an entire array of inconveniences, one of which is the absence of a supreme arbiter in cases when differences or conflict arise over ecclesiastical questions between two or more Local Churches. In the Orthodox tradition there is no mechanism to guarantee the resolution of such differences. Therefore in each concrete case questions are solved differently: sometimes inter-Orthodox consultations are convened, the decisions of which, however, have only a consultative character and are not binding for the Local Churches; in other cases two Churches in conflict seek solutions through bilateral negotiations or invite a mediator.

Another inconvenience caused by the absence of a single administrative system of governance in the Orthodox Church is the impossibility of resolving the question of the pastoral care of the so-called 'diaspora.' The essence of the problem can be explained thus: since the 1920s the Patriarchate of Constantinople has laid claims to the right of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over those countries which do not belong to the Orthodox tradition, while other Local Churches continue to have their diasporas in Europe, the USA and in other continents and do not intend to give them up. As a result in certain European cities, for example, there are several Orthodox bishops, each of whom takes care of the flock of his own Local Church. The question of pastoral care of the diaspora can be resolved only by a Pan-Orthodox Council. Preparations for such a Council were made rather intensively over the course of 30 years (beginning with the 1960s and continuing until the beginning of the 1990s), but at the curent time they have been stopped due to differences between Churches over the status and agenda of this Council.

Thus, in the Orthodox Church there is no world-wide, external mechanism to guarantee conciliarity, there is no external authority - neither one person nor in the form of a collegial organ - to guarantee the unity of the Church in ecclesiastical questions. This, however, does not mean that catholicity in the Orthodox Church exists only in theory. In practice catholicity at the inter-Orthodox level is expressed, firstly, by the fact that all Local Orthodox Churches are in full Eucharistic communion with each other. Secondly, Orthodox Churches are concerned to maintain the unity of doctrine, for which inter-Orthodox consultations are convened in case of need. Thirdly, the primates or official representatives of Churches meet with each other from time to time to discuss important questions, or exchange official letters. Thus, even in the absence of a Pan-Orthodox Council the Orthodox Church world-wide maintains its character of catholicity, in spite of the absence of clear mechanisms to guaratee this conciliarity.

Generally speaking, in the Orthodox tradition the idea of catholicity is much more organically connected with the idea of the local Church (here we use the term 'local Church' in order to avoid terminological confusion caused by the use of the term 'Local Church,' which, in its current usage, has a different meaning: cf. the explanation of this below) than with the idea of the Ecumenical Church as the totality of local Churches. Originally the Church of Christ was the community of Christ's disciples in Jerusalem: this was the very one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which possessed the fullness of catholicity and conciliarity. Already in the first century Christian communities began to appear outside of Jerusalem, and each local community was viewed not as part of the Ecumenical Church, but as the very 'catholic' Church in all its fullness. The guarantee of the catholicity of each local Church, i.e. the Church of each concrete region, was the presence in it of a single Eucharistic gahering headed by the bishop as the chosen head of God's people.

It is precisely this kind of ecclesiology that is characteristic for the early Church Fathers, including St. Ignatius of Antioch. In his epistles Ignatius untiringly stresses the supreme role of the bishop as the head of the Eucharistic gathering, asserting that 'one should view the bishop as the Lord Himself' (Eph. 6). Everything in the Church should be done with the knowledge of the bishop: 'Without the bishop nobody should do anything that concerns the Church. Only the Eucharist served by the bishop or by those whom he himself authorizes should be considered true. Without the bishop it is not permissible either to baptize or serve the meal of love; on the contrary, whatever he approves of is pleasing to God' (Smyrn. 8). And further: 'He who honours the bishop is honoured by God; he who does something without the knowledge of the bishop serves the devil' (Smyrn. 9). Ignatius constantly underscores the necessity of the unity of presbyters and deacons with their bishop: 'The bishop presids in God's place, the presbyters occupy the place of the council of Apostles, and the deacons are entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ' (Magn. 6); 'The presbytery is in harmony with the bishop like the strings of a zither' (Eph. 4). God's people, according to Ignatius, should 'honour the deacons as a commandment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, Son of God the Father, and the presbyters as God's gathering, as the choir of Apostles' (Tral. 3). This ecclesiology brings Ignatius to the following classical formula: 'Wherever the bishop shall be, there let also the people be, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic Church' (Smyrn. 8).

The supreme role of the bishop, according to the teaching of the early Fathers, is due to the fact that he occupies the place of Christ in the Eucharistic gathering. It is this understanding that explains the fact that the so-called monarchic episcopate - one bishop in each Eucharistic community or Church - became generally accepted in the ancient Church. Being the single leader of the Church of a given locality, the bishop nevertheless governs the Church not single-handedly, but in conjunction with the presbyters and deacons. The bishop does not possess ecclesiastical power or authority by himself, due to his ordination to the episcopate: he is a member of the local church community which entrusted him with this service. Outside the church community the bishop's ministry loses its meaning and efficacy.

Within the local Church the primacy of the bishop is unconditional and uncontested. For the Orthodox tradition, founded both on the theological legacy of the Fathers of the ancient Church (such as St. Cyprian of Carthage), as well as on later polemical writings of Byzantine theologians, each bishop, and not only the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of Apostle Peter. Barlaam of Calabria, an important Byzantine theologian of the 14th century (who, incidentally, ended his life in the Catholic Church), writes: 'Each Orthodox bishop is the vicar of Christ and the successor of the apostles, so that if all bishops of the world were to apostasize from the true faith and only one were to remain the keeper of the correct dogmas. the faith of the divine Peter would be saved in him.' He further writes: 'The bishops ordained by Peter are the successors not only of Peter, but also of the other Apostles; to the same degree bishops ordained by others are the successors of Peter.'

The promise given to Peter, according to this viewpoint, extends not only to the Roman Church, but also to all local Churches headed bishops: 'you have made Peter into the teacher of only Rome', an anonymous author of a Byzantine anti-Latin treatise writes, 'while the divine Fathers interpret the promise given to him by the Saviour as having a catholic meaning and concerning all believers past and present. You attempt to give it a false and narrow interpretation, applying it only to Rome. It then becomes impossible to understand how not only the Roman Church, but all Churches have a Saviour and how their foundations rest on the Stone, i.e. on the confession of Peter, according to the promise.'

How does the catholicity of a local Church relate to the catholicity of the Church throughout the world? Protopresbyter John Meyendorff defines this relationship in the following manner: 'The idea of the local Church headed by the bishop, who is usually chosen by the entire Church but is invested with the charismatic and apostolic functions as the successor of Peter, is the doctrinal foundation of catholicity as it entered the Church from the third century. For the Eucharistic ecclesiology assumes that each local Church, although possessing the fullness of catholicity, is always in unity and concord with all the other Churches, which also have part in this catholicity. The bishops not only bear moral responsibility for this community: they participate in the one episcopal ministry. Each bishop fulfils his service together with other bishops, since it is equivalent with that of the others and since the Church is one.' As St. Cyprian of Carthage writes: 'The episcopate is one, and each of te bishops fully participates in it.'

Everything mentioned above about the 'local Church' relates to the ecclesiastical unit which is nowadays called a 'diocese,' i.e. a Church of one region (country, territory) headed by one bishop. In modern Orthodox parlance the idea of the 'Local Church' has come to signify larger church entities - groups of dioceses united into Patriarchates, metropolites or archdioceses. At this level the principle of primacy gives way to collegial forms of government. In practice this means that the primate of a Local Church is the 'first among equals' among the bishops of his Church: he does not interfere in the internal affairs of the dioceses and does not have direct jurisdiction over them, although he is granted some coordinating functions in questions that exceed the competence of the individual diocesan bishops.

Although the rights and duties of the primate vary in different Local Churches, there is not a single Local Church that accords him supreme authority, for it is the council that has always been the final authority. For example, in the Russian Orthodox Church dogmatic authority is granted to the Local Council, in which not only bishops, but also clergy, monastics and laity participate, while the highest form of hierarchical government is the Bishops' Council. As for the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, he governs the Church in cooperation with the Holy Synod during periods between councils, and his name is commemorated in all dioceses before the name of the ruling bishop. In the Orthodox Church of Greece there is no Local Council that includes the participation of laity: the final authority rests with the Bishops' Synod, chaired by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. At church services, however, only the Synod, and not the Archbishop, is commemorated.

The unification of local Churches into larger ecclesiastical units goes back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and is reflected in the canon law of the Orthodox Church. The 34th Apostolic canon states: 'The bishops of all peoples should know the first among them and recognize him as the head, and do nothing that exceeds their authority without his consideration. Each should carry out only that which relates to his own diocese and to areas belonging to it. But the first among them should also do nothing without the consideration of all.' The fourth canon of the First Ecumenical Council (325) prescribes that the ordination of bishops be carried out by all, or at least three, bishops of the given area, while the confirmation and approval of these ordinations are subject to the metropolitan.

Thus, already in the fourth century we can make out a system in which each bishop possesses the fullness of hierarchical authority inside his own ecclesiastical territory (diocese). However, they should consult with other bishops through the first among them - the metropolitan - in all matters that exceed their competence. The metropolitan, who is ordained by a number of bishops (normally, by all bishops of the region), is equal to other bishops in that he governs his diocese, where (and only where) he possesses the fullness of episcopal authority. At the same time he exercises certain authority over the other bishops of the metropoly in all matters that exceed the ecclesiastical authority of the latter. The metropolitan may not interfere in the internal affairs of the dioceses, but guarantees unity between them and resolves disputes. He does all this, however, not single-handedly, but in conjunction with the other bishops. This is exactly how the principle of conciliarity is realized in ractice within the framework of a metropoly.

In the age of the First Ecumenical Council there existed several church territories that enjoyed the rights of metropolies. For example, the 6th canon of this council mentions the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch as having, along with the Bishop of Rome, authority over the bishops of their regions, while the 7th canon grants the same power to the bishop of Jerusalem. (During this period there existed other metropolies as well, e.g. those of Ephesus, Caesarea in Cappadocia, Heraklia, Milan, and Carthage, but later on their significance would weaken). After Constantinople was declared capital of the Eastern Empire, the bishop of Constantinople received the dignity of metropolitan, and was granted second place after the Bishop of Rome, as we already mentioned. It was later that he was accorded the title of 'Patriarch.' At the end of the first millennium the idea of the 'pentarchy' was developed in Byzantine theology, according to which the Ecumenical Church is headed by five Patriarchs - thse of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. It is these Churches, as well as those which arose later on, that are called 'Local' or autocephalous in the Orthodox tradition.

It is known that serious differences between the East and the West in the understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome arose already in the age of the Ecumenical Councils. In the West, the tendency that gradually led to the recognition of the Bishop of Rome as the pontifex maximus of the Ecumenical Church possessing the right to ratify the decisions of its councils, gained in strength. In the East the pope of Rome was seen as the primate of the Local Roman Church and the primus inter pares, reflecting the view that the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils did not require his confirmation. Many scholarly works have been published on this subject, and we do not need to elaborate on this issue. Nevertheless, it would be appropriate to at least give a general outline of the framework in which the primacy of the Bishop of Rome might be acknowledged by the Orthodox Churches should the Christians of the East and West unite into one Church.

First of all, the recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome must be preceded by the restoration of the unity of faith, the unity of the dogmatic tradition of the ancient undivided Church. 'We should not contradict the Latins,' wrote St. Simeon of Thessalonica in the 15th century, 'when they say that the Bishop of Rome is the first. This primacy is not harmful to the Church. But only let them show that he is true to the faith of Peter and his successors; then let him have all the privileges of Peter, let him be first, the head of all and the supreme hierarch. Only let him be faithful to the Orthodoxy of Sylvester and Agathon, Leo, Liberius, Martin and Gregory, then we too shall call him apostolic father and the first among hierarchs; then we will be under his authority not only as under Peter, but the very Saviour Himself' (PG 145, 120 AC). The path to restoring the unity of faith thus lies in bilateral dialogue between theologians of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Orthodoxare of the opinion that in this dialogue the Catholics must prove that their faith is identical to that of the ancient undivided Church.

The question of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome over the bishops of the Orthodox Churches in the case of the restoration of unity should also be decided within the framework of an Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. It would be irresponsible now to attempt to anticipate the results of this dialogue. The words of Simeon of Thessalonica quoted above even witness to, as it were, the readiness of the Orthodox to place themselves under the authority of the Bishop of Rome should the unity of faith be restored. However, it seems more plausible that the Orthodox Patriarchs will agree to accept only the 'primacy of honour,' and not the primacy of jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. It seems that the Orthodox would not object to the Bishop of Rome enjoying the privileges of the 'first among equals' just as he did in ancient times and, perhaps, even fulfilling certain coordinating functions within the Ecumenical Church. However, they would hardly recognize the pope as the one head of world Christianiy, which would contradict the centuries-long theological tradition of the Eastern Church.

The dogma of the infallibility of the pope ex cathedra in doctrinal questions is unacceptable for the Orthodox consciousness. This dogma of the First Vatican Council, in the opinion of the Orthodox, places the pope over the Church, for it states that the resolutions of the pope are not subject to changes 'due to the power inherent in them and independent of the acceptance by the Church.' In the Orthodox Church no bishop, including the primates of the Local Churches, possesses infallibility 'independent of the acceptance of the Church': it is precisely the acceptance by the Church that serves as the guarantor of truth and the main instrument of catholicity.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the question of primacy within the Ecumenical Church has not been solved even within world Orthodoxy, a fact which makes the discussion of this subject between the Orthodox and Catholics significantly more difficult. All the Orthodox agree that in the Orthodox Church there is no single head on a world-wide scale, no single supreme high priest. However, the Orthodox disagree in their understanding of the primacy and the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople. It is evident that a serious and responsible discussion of the theme of primacy at an inter-Orthodox level must precede theological dialogue over this topic between Orthodox and Catholics. Otherwise the Orthodox will not be able to express a unified point of view, which would inevitably bring the dialogue to a dead-end.

Summarizing that which was said about the relationship between primacy and catholicity in the Orthodox Church, it seems possible to assert that the principle of primacy in the Orthodox tradition is expressed most fully at the level of the single diocese, in which supreme authority rests with the bishop, who governs the diocese in conjunction with the clergy and laity. The principle of catholicity, on the contrary, is expressed most fully at the level of the Local Church, governed by a council of bishops headed by the primate chosen by this council. At the pan-Orthodox level the principle of primacy has not yet been wholly clarified, while the principle of catholicity exists without any stable mechanisms of its practical realization. Given such a decentralized structure of governance, some Catholics might see as a miracle the fact that the Orthodox Church continues to maintain the 'unity of the spirit in the bond of peace' (Eph. 4:3), and has not broken up into numerous independent ecclesistical units having no communion with each other.

In the Roman Catholic Church, on the contrary, the principle of primacy finds its fullest expression in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, whose jurisdiction extends to all subsections of this Church without exception: the canonical authority of all other bishops is derived from the authority of the pope as the successor of Peter. If the council is the highest organ of authority in the Orthodox tradition, to which all bishops without exception are subject, and infallibility is ascribed to the entire fullness of the Church, in the Catholic tradition the pope stands above the council, and it is he - independent of councils and even, as it were, independent of the Church itself - who possesses infallibility. For many Orthodox it may seem paradoxical and inexplicable that bishops' councils continue to be convened in the Catholic Church in spite of the complete centralization of power and its concentration in the hands of one person.

The extent of the compatibility of the two ecclesiological models outlined above can be revealed only by a full-fledged dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the question of the primacy. However, such a dialogue requires careful preparation, demanding serious theological efforts from both the Catholic and Orthodox sides. It is to be hoped that such efforts will be undertaken and that the dialogue will take place.

Translated from Russian by William Bush

Read this article on the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions website (new window will open).

Posted: 22-Mar-05



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