Squaring the circle on papal primacy?

In his general audience on 5 March, in the course of an exposition about St Leo the Great, Pope Benedict XVI focussed on the issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome:
Leo the Great, constantly thoughtful of his faithful and of the people of Rome but also of communion between the different Churches and of their needs, was a tireless champion and upholder of the Roman Primacy, presenting himself as the Apostle Peter's authentic heir ... it is clear that the Pope felt with special urgency his responsibilities as Successor of Peter ... And the Pontiff was able to exercise these responsibilities, in the West as in the East, intervening in various circumstances with caution, firmness and lucidity through his writings and legates. In this manner he showed how exercising the Roman Primacy was as necessary then as it is today to effectively serve communion, a characteristic of Christ's one Church.
At the time, a number of commentators interpreted these remarks as a shot across the bows of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I, who Benedict was due to meet the following day, by restating with clarity the claims of papal primacy for the first as well as the second millennium. Yet there is also a very different way to interpret what is going on here. The crucial phrase is, "communion". But first, it is necessary to take stock of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue.

In October 2007, the joint international commission for the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church agreed the Ravenna statement on ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority (see the ENI and the Catholic News Service articles). The document is too rich to be summarised in a few sentences, but both sides at the Ravenna meeting accepted that before 1054, the Bishop of Rome had the first place among the other bishops, though the Catholic and Orthodox participants disagreed, "on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome". The document also says that there must be "synodality", that is, responsibility exercised by all the bishops together, on the universal level. Central to this convergence in views is the perspective of koinonia/communion. The document concludes:
It remains for the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches to be studied in greater depth. What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia and in view of what we have said on conciliarity and authority in the present text? How should the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy be understood and lived in the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium? These are crucial questions for our dialogue and for our hopes of restoring full communion between us.
There are two interesting aspects about this conclusion: firstly, the specific function of the bishop of the "first see" is to be seen from the perspective of an "ecclesiology of koinonia, and secondly it is the "ecclesial practice of the first millennium" that appears to be normative for interpreting the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy. This latter point seems to have more than some resemblance to the perspective outlined by Joseph Ratzinger himself for the reunion of the Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism in his "Principles of Catholic theology", while seeing ecclesiology as related to koinonia owes much to the insights of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, one of the Orthodox participants at Ravenna. The NCR's John Allen has himself pointed to the parallels between the thought of Zizioulas and Ratzinger:
Zizioulas pioneered the concept of "communion ecclesiology," the idea that the church is constituted by the celebration of the Eucharist around the bishop, which has had great influence also in Roman Catholicism in the period after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In his own theological work, Joseph Ratzinger has written that the "ecclesiology of communion" is a useful point of departure, though he's warned that it must not exalt the local church at the expense of the universal. For his part, Zizioulas has argued that Orthodoxy can accept the universal primacy of the pope, if it is "fundamentally qualified," meaning that it respects the autonomy of local churches and acts through a synodal structure.
Now back to Pope Benedict's general audience on 5 March. It is noteworthy that when Benedict described the primacy exercised by Leo the Great, he twice referred to "communion" as the defining feature of Leo's primacy. AsiaNews, in its report of the the audience, said that Benedict had referred to the "primacy of communion" (though this actual phrase is missing from the official text issued by the Vatican). Ratzinger himself in 1965 had already referred to the idea of a "primacy of communion", noting that "the primacy of the bishop of Rome in its original meaning is not opposed to the collegial character of the Church but is a primacy of communion in the midst of the Church living as a community and understanding itself as such". (Later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with Ratzinger as its prefect would issue what was described in America magazine under the title "Primacy in Communion" as a "remarkable" document, "Reflections on the Primacy of Peter")

But a Google search, at least, turns up precious few other references to "Primacy of Communion". The exception is the work of the German theologian Hermann Joseph Pottmeyer: "Of special interest to us is his exegesis of Vatican II, from which emerges a '(papal) primacy of communion.' What this mean is that it is the pope's role 'to represent and maintain the unity of the universal communion of the Churches.' (Reference) Even more interesting, however, is his exegesis of Vatican I, as in this interview in 30 Days:
In the nineteenth century, because of the concrete historical situation that had been created, the Church felt the urgent need to stress that when Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, the pope can intervene throughout the whole Church, his freedom of action is not subject to the authorization of any human authority and his decisions are without appeal. But when the same criterion of Ecclesiae necessitas demands it, the mode of the exercise of the primacy can and must be changed, without that meaning the truth of the dogma is put in question. And the restoration of unity so as to re-arrive at the condition of the undivided Church of the first millennium is a part of Ecclesiae necessitas.
In other words, approaching the issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome from the standpoint of "primacy in communion", not only links back to the way in which this primacy was exercised in the first millennium (the first task outlined in the conclusion of the Ravenna document), but also offers a way of understanding "the teaching of the first and second Vatican councils on the universal primacy" in the light of the ecclesial practice of the first millennium (the second task).

(And it's worth noting that both Zizioulas and Pottmeyer took part in a 2004 symposium on papal primacy.)

So far, so good, but ... three days after the Pope's general audience on the primacy of the bishop of Rome, Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he had concerns about the Ravenna document, saying that it appeared to rely too heavily on Orthodox terminology and did not give enough emphasis to the Catholic position that the jurisdictional primacy of the pope is an essential part of the structure and nature of the church.

So, is the circle squared? Only time will tell.

Rehabilitating Martin Luther?

So, The Times is reporting that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to rehabilitate Martin Luther. A Times beat-up, at first sight, with the only person quoted directly being Cardinal Kasper, and even then without it being clear in exactly what context the good German cardinal was pronouncing these words. The Vatican meanwhile has issued a denial of the story. At least though it has got the blogosphere going.
(PS: Philip Pullella on the Reuters FaithWorld blog has explained the genesis of the Times piece, which then went round the world.)

And yet, it is less than ten years to the 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 theses being nailed, so the story goes, to the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche. Back in 1983, at the celebrations in Leipzig of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Luther, the then president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands, said the following:
... notwithstanding the contrasts that separate us, it is worthwhile to enter into an open and factual dialogue with Martin Luther. This is a difficult road, but a necessary one. We have to follow it, firstly in an endeavour to obtain a better insight into truth, and also out of love for those of our brothers and sisters who today seek to shape their Christian life in accordance with Luther's fundamental theological insights and convictions of faith; lastly and above all we have to follow it for the sake of the one holy Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the sake of His coming Kingdom. We have to proclaim Christ in all the untimeliness of this world, and we have to do this trusting in all the embracing force of the Holy Spirit and to the greater glory of God.
In 1985, when asked if the Catholic Church would lift the excommunication on Luther, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) responded, "Luther's excommunication terminated with his death because judgement after death is reserved to God alone. Luther's excommunication does not have to be lifted; it has long ceased to exist." He added, however, "it is an entirely different matter when we ask if Luther's teachings still separate the churches and thus preclude joint communion." Ratzinger himself has in the past shown himself to be interested in a serious, if critical, dialogue with the thought of the Protestant Reformer, and has been credited with rescuing the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, one of the central and contentious issues of Lutheran theology, in which the two sides declared that the condemnations of the past did not apply to the teaching on justification as set down in the document. In his "Principles of Catholic Theology", Ratzinger referred to research that concluded that the fundamental Lutheran confessional text, the Confessio Augustana, "was understood with inner conviction as a search for evangelical Catholicity--an effort to filter the seething discontent of the early reform movement in a way that would make it a Catholic reform".

Yet, looking towards the 2017 anniversary as a Lutheran-Catholic event is perhaps casting the net too narrowly. Luther was not, of course, the first or the last reformer, yet the events of 1517 are symbolic not only of the founding of a denomination but mark a massive break not only in Western Christianity but also in Western culture as a whole: literature, language, politics. economy. Yet it also extended beyond the West, and in the 16th century there were contacts between the Protestant reformation of the West and the Orthodox Church of the East, which was coming to terms with the sack of Constantinople 40 years before the birth of Luther (there was even a translation of the Confessio Augustana into Greek). The Reformers felt a certain kinship with the Orthodox since Rome considered both the Christian East and the Reformers to be heretics.

On the other hand, various anabaptist movements were themselves persecuted by Lutherans, while Lutherans and Calvinists pronounced mutual condemnations that were overcome formally only in 1973 in Europe with the Leuenberg Agreement. Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran who is moderator of the World Council of Churches, has recently spoken of the anniversary of 1517 serving as an ecumenical opportunity (translated press release here). The German political authorities have already started preparing for 2017, yet the churches worldwide seem not to have caught up (the Evangelical Church in Germany has nominated a "Beauftragter" ). Still, it's not too late for someone to take the initiative to start a process to use the 2017 anniversary for a new look at the Reformation from a genuinely ecumenical perspective - the legacy of the Reformation is too important to be left to Lutherans and Catholics alone!

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