The Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (what a mouthful! ”JICTD” from now on) wrapped up its 11th plenary session in Cyprus last week. On the agenda was a discussion of “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium.” Some Greek monastics, fearing that the meeting was an attempt to subjugate the Orthodox to the authority of Rome, organized protests and circulated misleading information about the nature of the event.
According to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the commission is making “Little steps forward in the right direction.” The JICTD worked on a draft document that will be finalized at the next session in Vienna, Sept. 20-27, 2010.
In the interim, I thought I might share some reflections on this, and other ecumenically-relevant topics from various sources. Today, a selection from Olivier Clement’s You Are Peter:
A Creative Tension (Chapter 7)
From the fourth to the ninth centuries, pope and council never ceased to reinforce each other; like waves meeting and mingling, they clashed, yet, transcending the structures, they always ended by collaborating. As Father Yves Congar points out in his introduction to Wilhelm de Vries’s book, Orient et Occident, the emperor had the authority to convoke a council. He gave its decrees the force of law but, by and large, except in the period of iconoclasm, he did not claim to have the competence to determine doctrine, and the defeat of iconoclasm was the defeat of an attempt at caesaropapism. The pope could hear an appeal, function as a court of annulment, but the canons protected the autonomy of local churches. Councils, almost always with papal accord, clarified doctrine and established the foundations of Church discipline. Nevertheless, as far as truth is concerned, it asserted itself of itself, transcending the contradictions of ecclesial procedures, imposing the confession of the apostolic faith, the faith of Peter.
Widening the focus, one could say that the Church had several aerials for receiving what the Spirit had to say to her:
– The Council as an expression of universal communion.
– The pope as being charged with care for this communion and watching over the petrine and pauline correctness of the faith.
– But also the utilitas of the people of God, its “sense of the Church,” which can express itself in times of major crisis through the witness, the martyrdom, of a lone prophet. ”Anyone who is not with me is not with the truth,” exclaimed Maximus the Confessor when nearly everyone was content either to keep quiet or to compromise. And Theodore the Studite, witness of orthodoxy during the second outbreak of iconoclasm and persecuted by the majority of bishops and the patriarch himself, affirmed most evangelically that “three believers who were united in the orthodox faith constitute the Church.”
The East did not experience primacy in the form that it was to take in the West after the Gregorian reform and the Council of Trent. It refused it in anticipation. But at the time of the ecumenical councils it acknowledged a true Roman primacy and the petrine charism which that presupposes. And this was by no means a simple “primacy of honor,” a primus inter pares, in the purely honorific sense of these expressions.
What did it entail? It is difficult to say exactly; any precise, juridical definition of the modern type seems out of keeping. On either side theories were evolving which seemed in disaccord; in fact, ecclesial practice ended by transcending them. The pope would write to the council with the intention of imposing an authoritative solution to some problem; his letter was received and listened to with the utmost respect, but freely and in the context of free reflection. The faith of Peter, indeed, but could it be separated from the vicariate of Peter, if God wanted this latter and this charism that goes with it? But did he want it? The East, at the time of the ecumenical councils, said yes, but differently — differently, that is, from Catholic theologians who in modern times have hardened the texts of a Leo the Great, making them more authoritarian. Certainly, that risk was there already; an evolution could be discerned. Nevertheless Leo never ceased affirming that the purpose of Roman primacy was to serve ecclesial communion, fidelium universitas, itself founded upon the “unity of the catholic faith.” Moreover, he says time and again that he cannot exercise his charism except in communion with his “brothers and co-bishops” whose rights he respects and safeguards.
It is, in the end, an admirable complementarity, a providential collaboration between popes and councils. The councils only achieved their full ecumenicity through the fruitful contribution of the Roman tomes, however freely debated and amended, through which both the West and the petrine charism expressed themselves. If the councils had not been complemented in this way, the rule of faith by which we live could not have been worked out. Without the popes, more distanced from the political center of the empire and hence more independent (in which particular they joined hands with the monks), the ultimate transcendence of the Church could not have been preserved.
Each of the two structures, taken alone, can be seen to have failed. Under Celestine the papacy vacillated, under Honorius and Vitalian it bent before the wind. From the eighth century on, militarily abandoned by Byzantium, rescued from the Lombards by the Carolingians, it fell back on the West, hardening its pretensions to the point of creating another emperor. In this, too, the tension inherent in the Byzantine “symphony” was replaced by logic of another kind: the absorption by the “spiritual” of the “temporal.” Thus was the ground prepared for the schism between West and East.
For its part, the council could not prevent the tearing asunder of the Church in the ancient Christian lands of Egypt and Syria in the fifth and sixth centuries. Clearly the dogma of Chalcedon was an immense accomplishment; even today it is pushing back the horizons of Christian thought. But how can one forget all those bishops in the Middle East who claimed that the new definition ran counter to Tradition? Philoxenus of Mabbug, for example, who was no heedless theologian of little consequence, disputed the claim that the council had been “received” by the entire Church, a reception which alone, for him, would have obliged acceptance of its decisions. Who was right, one might naïvely ask? Choices are often influenced by geographical, social, cultural, even ethnic factors, but at this time in the East choices were also made according to conscience, as they would be in the West at the time of the pre-Reformation and Reformation, as Maximus the Confessor had made his at the decisive moment. Conscience protects and justifies itself first through polemic. Burrowing deeper over time, it seeks communion, so that it is today that Chalcedon (and Ephesus) can be universally received; it is today, too, that ways can be found of bridging the schism between Orthodox East and Catholic and Protestant West: not through compromise, but through a clearer discovery in the Holy Spirit of the original core of the message.
These schisms aside, the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely that the power of decision reseted with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling. All thought they had the final word, which meant that no one had it except, rightly, the Holy Spirit.
This greatness was more lived out than conceptualized. Roman primacy defined itself in terms of a legalistic logic where tensions were crushed out of existence by a forcible slotting together of structures: the faithful were locked into the power of the episcopate and the latter into the plenitudo potestatis of the pope, the prophet was subordinated to the priest, Paul to Peter, perhaps even the Holy Spirit to Christ, as would be achieved in the mediaeval filioque quibbles. In the East, the persistence and recurrence of schism was ensured on the one hand, from without, by force of historical circumstance, i.e., the dominance of Islam; on the other, from within, by the mental petrifaction imposed by closed systems, which confer on details a quasi-magical value.
It is our task today, going beyond the words — words which “stick out their tongues at each other,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in Citadelle — to reflect on the lived ecclesial experience of a period when, through compromise and miracles, tensions were resolved throughout the greater part of Christendom neither through forcible insertion, nor through violent schism, but after another fashion: and that was surely the free communion of personal consciences in the Holy Spirit.
[The English translation of this work, an Orthodox theologian’s response to John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, is published by New City Press.]