On Papal Independence

I am reading Adam DeVille’s “Orthodoxy and the Roman Primacy” at the moment. And a thought has occured to me.

In one very useful chapter, DeVille surveys the writings of recent Orthodox theologians on the Roman Papacy. Most seem to have no problem with the primacy as such, the problem is how it is exercised.

In that light, many of these theologians share the objection of Vsevolod Majdansky that the Bishop of Rome acts as “the unique holder of a still higher position” which enables him to “ride roughshod over the [other] bishops” of the Church (p27). The argument is that the primacy should be exercised only in concert with the agreement of all the other bishops of the Church, an agreement reached via councils or synods.

In general, that sounds well and good. Yet one of the strengths of the Roman primacy as an instrument of unity seems to me (and many Western theologians) to be the very capacity of the Pope to act with the full authority of the Church when there isn’t agreement between “all the bishops”. There appear to be times and circumstances when the Pope has to act for the good of the whole Church precisely when there is disagreement. (Apart from which, an ecumenical council can be a very unwieldy instrument in this day and age, when there are simply so many bishops throughout all the world.)

I am thinking of three instances in recent times, for instance, when the Pope has unilaterally determined issues about which there is disagreement:

1) On artificial contraception (Humanae Vitae)
2) On women’s ordination (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis)
3) On the restoration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Summorum Pontificam)

These were – and are – controversial issues in the Church, but needed to be clarified and established in the light of the Church’s dogma and sacred tradition. The Orthodox, as far as I can tell, would have no difficulty with the decisions of either (2) or (3) above – I am not sure where they stand on (1). But in all three cases, the Pope DID “ride roughshod” over the bishops (especially on (3) above).

So, here is my thought and my question: Is the primacy of the Bishop of Rome not a good thing when it grants him the independence to act in order to protect and establish the tradition of the Church?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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4 Responses to On Papal Independence

  1. Alexander says:

    The Orthodox disagree (with Rome and amongst themselves) on (1), but I would have thought that in cases (1) and (2) the pope was simply reasserting the traditional teaching of Church. New ideas came up, and the pope said “no, the consistent teaching of the church through the ages is right”. I wouldn’t have thought that the Orthodox would have a problem with this: At least, this seems to me to be much the same as the way the Pope exercised his power pre-schism.

    In fact, I think the Orthodox would have had more of a problem with (3), when the pope over-rode the jurisdictions of the local bishops. He said: “You can’t decide what form liturgy your bishops will use; that’s up to me”.

  2. Tony Bartel says:

    This is slightly off topic, but the US 60 Minutes program had a special on Mount Athos on Pascha. It was very well done and captured the monastic spirit beautifully:


  3. Byzantine Dixie says:

    I am far from an authority on Orthodoxy (This past Lazarus Saturday marked only the fifth anniversary of my Chrismation) but I can comment a bit in general.

    The Orthodox have always understood the Bishop of Rome to be the “first among equals”…primacy, if you will. In fact Metropolitan Kalistos Ware reported in his talks here in Atlanta a few weeks ago that in recent ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church and the Orthodox (he is a participant) primacy was agreed upon…of course, the definition of primacy is still on the table to be worked out. And this does not mean “supremacy”. The key lies in the subsequent words “among equals”. An equal does not “ride roughshod” over another. Even though the Orthodox have a great understanding and commitment to being under authority and in obedience to authority, the Orthodox are a conciliar body. Our Bishops painfully must hash things out and gain agreement because we know that the Cup cannot be divided.

    And another key piece is that the Orthodox are big on free will because God is big on free will and being big on free will we do not believe a person like the pope is always going to make infallible decisions – ex cathedra or not. Because all of us are sinful and can succumb to our own will as opposed to following God’s. Rather, the work of the Holy Spirit is understood in conciliar agreement. So in terms of primacy…there is less a concept of authority than there is one of respect.

    Honestly, I think much of this is rooted in cultural things. On the Roman / Latin / Western side of things Law and Order is held in highest esteem and is sought (you even see this emphasis making its way into theology). With Law and Order being so prized a dependence upon a single ruler who can make the final decision seems to be highly desired, almost needed. The cultural nature of the other Four Sees seem to lack this phenomenon. The Byzantines, the East, accepts, even thrives, in more chaos. Dependence on a single authority to make a final decision is not only unnecessary but doesn’t make sense when the conciliar approach has been the history and has proven itself.

    I have read amateur Catholic apologists argue that the Catholics have one man, the pope, who ensures unity and this is something they cling to. One man guarantees unity. The Orthodox first of all do not think one man can guarantee unity…that this is God’s work. And for 2000 years this system has worked sufficiently without having the one man “riding roughshod”.

    So the answer to your question from an Orthodox point of view would be “no”. The overarching act of a single decision maker absolutely does not protect and establish the tradition of the Church – the single decision maker could likely be wrong. Rather, this is ensured in conciliarity.

    Wish I had the time to stop in more often…things are always interesting here!

  4. Chris Jones says:

    Dixie put her finger on it when she said “primacy does not mean supremacy.” The Orthodox have never had a problem with primacy as such; but they have never equated primacy with supremacy.

    Primacy, as traditionally understood, is, and must be, defined in terms of conciliarity, and can never be understood apart from conciliarity. A primate is precisely the protos, the “first” or “chief,” among a group of brethren — that is, the synod of all of the bishops of the region of which he is the primate. Without the synod, without the brethren, the primate cannot exist. The locus classicus for this is Apostolic Canon 34:

    The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent but neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all

    So if the Pope exercises his primacy “with independence,” he has in fact gone beyond primacy, rightly understood, and actually destroyed the primacy. So no, it is not a good thing.

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