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Vatican publishes papal primacy document aimed at ‘a reunited Church’

Statue of St. Peter in front of St. Peter's Basilica. | Credit: Vatican Media

Vatican publishes papal primacy document aimed at ‘a reunited Church’



By Courtney Mares

The Vatican published a 130-page study on papal primacy on Thursday containing suggestions from Orthodox and Protestant Christian communities for how the role of the Bishop of Rome might look in a future “reunited Church.”

The study document, titled “The Bishop of Rome: Primacy and Synodality in Ecumenical Dialogue and Responses to the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint,” is the first Vatican text since the Second Vatican Council to outline the entire ecumenical debate on papal primacy.

In addition to identifying the theological questions surrounding papal primacy in ecumenical dialogue, the document goes a step further to provide suggestions “for a ministry of unity in a reunited Church,” including “a differentiated exercise of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.”

The end of the text published on June 13 includes a section of proposals from the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity on “the exercise of primacy in the 21st century,” including recommendations for “a synodal exercise” of papal primacy.

Synodality

The dicastery concludes that “growing synodality is required within the Catholic Church” and that “many synodal institutions and practices of the Eastern Catholic Churches could inspire the Latin Church.” 

It adds that “a synodality ad extra” could include regular meetings among Christian representatives at the worldwide level in a “conciliar fellowship” to deepen communion.

This builds off of dialogue with some Orthodox representatives who have asserted that “any restoration of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches will require, on both sides, a strengthening of synodal structures and a renewed understanding of a universal primacy – both serving communion among the churches.”

At a Vatican press conference on June 13, Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary-general of the General Secretariat of the Synod, said that this study document is being released as a very “convenient time” as the Church prepares for the second session of the Synod on Synodality in the fall. 

A representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who joined the press conference via video link, underlined that “the synodality of the Catholic Church is an important criterion for the Oriental Orthodox churches on our way to full communion.”

Defining responsibilities of the pope

The Catholic Church holds that Jesus made Peter the “rock” of his Church, giving him the keys to the Kingdom and instituting him as the shepherd of the whole flock. The pope as Peter’s successor is the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful,” as described in one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium.

The new study document proposes “a clearer distinction be made between the different responsibilities of the Pope, especially between his ministry as head of the Catholic Church and his ministry of unity among all Christians, or more specifically between his patriarchal ministry in the Latin Church and his primatial ministry in the communion of Churches.”

It notes the possibility of “extending this idea to consider how other Western Churches might relate to the Bishop of Rome as primate while having a certain autonomy themselves.”

The text notes that Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches emphasized the importance of regional leadership in the Church and advocated “a balance between primacy and primacies.” It adds that some ecumenical dialogues with Western Christian communities also applied this to the Catholic Church by calling for “a strengthening of Catholic episcopal conferences, including at the continental level, and for a continuing ‘decentralization’ inspired by the model of the ancient patriarchal Churches.”

Invoking the principle of subsidiarity, which means that no matter that can properly be dealt with at a lower level should be taken to a higher one, the text describes how some ecumenical dialogues argued that “the power of the Bishop of Rome should not exceed that required for the exercise of his ministry of unity at the universal level, and suggest a voluntary limitation in the exercise of his power.”

“In a reconciled Christianity, such communion presupposes that the Bishop of Rome’s relationship to the Eastern Churches and their bishops […] would have to be substantially different from the relationship now accepted in the Latin Church,” it says.

‘Rewording’ of teachings of Vatican I

Another concrete proposal put forward by the dicastery is “a Catholic ‘re-reception’, ‘re-interpretation,’ ‘official interpretation,’  ‘updated commentary,’ or even ‘rewording’ of the teachings of Vatican I,” particularly with regard to definitions on primacy of jurisdiction and papal infallibility.

The First Vatican Council, which took place between 1869 and 1870 under Pope Pius IX, dogmatically defined papal infallibility in the constitution, Pastor Aeternus, which said that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he officially teaches in his capacity of the universal shepherd of the Church on a doctrine on a matter of faith or morals and addresses it to the entire world, the defined doctrine is irreformable.

An Anglican representative who spoke at the Vatican press conference highlighted how certain aspects of Vatican I have been a particular “stumbling block” for Angelicans. 

The study document released by the Vatican pointed to how arguments have been made in ecumenical dialogue that some of the teachings of Vatican I “were deeply conditioned by their historical context” and suggested that “the Catholic Church should look for new expressions and vocabulary faithful to the original intention but integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current  cultural and ecumenical context.”

It describes how some ecumenical dialogues “were able to clarify the wording of the dogma of infallibility and even to agree on certain aspects of its purpose, recognizing the need, in some circumstances, for a personal exercise of the teaching ministry, given that Christian unity is a unity in truth and love.”

“In spite of these clarifications, the dialogues still express concerns regarding the relation of infallibility to the primacy of the Gospel, the indefectibility of the whole Church, the exercise of episcopal collegiality and the necessity of reception,” it adds.

‘That they all may be one’

The document summarizes responses by different Christian communities to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint (“That They All May Be One”).

In particular to the Polish pope’s invitation in the encyclical for Christian leaders and theologians to engage in a patient and fraternal dialogue on papal primacy.

“It is out of a desire to obey the will of Christ truly that I recognize that as bishop of Rome I am called to exercise that ministry. I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek — together, of course — the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned,” John Paul II wrote.

Ut Unum Sint says that the bishop of Rome as the successor of the Apostle Peter has a “specific duty” to work for the cause of Christian unity.

The study document published by the Vatican is the result of more than three years of work summarizing some 30 responses to Ut unum sint and 50 ecumenical dialogue documents on the subject.

Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholics experts were consulted in collaboration with the Institute for Ecumenical Studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, noted at the press conference that one of the fruits of the ecumenical theological dialogue in the past three decades has been “a renewed reading of the ‘Petrine texts,’” in which dialogue partners were invited to “consider afresh the role of Peter among the apostles.”

The Vatican notes that the “the concerns, emphases and conclusions of the different dialogues varied according to the confessional traditions involved.”

As a study document, its goal is only to offer “an objective synthesis of the ecumenical discussions” on papal primacy, and “does not claim to exhaust the subject nor summarize the entire Catholic magisterium on the subject.”

Cardinal Koch explained that Pope Francis gave his approval for the dicastery to publish the document, but this does not mean that the pope approved every sentence.

Ian Ernest, the director of the Anglican Center in Rome, thanked Catholic leaders for publishing the new document, which he said “opens up new perspectives for ecumenical relations on the much debated question of the relationship between primacy and synodality.”

“As the personal representative of the archbishop of Canterbury, I am delighted that one of the most comprehensive and detailed responses to St. John Paul II’s invitation in Ut unum sint was given by the House of bishops of the Church of England in 1997,” he said.

Ernest described the Anglican Lambeth Conference and Primates’ Meeting as examples of “synodality at work,” which enable the Anglican communion “to prayerfully understand the ecumenical dialogues and new perspectives which touch on … important doctrinal aspects.”

In response to questions from journalists, Cardinal Grech acknowledged that different Christian churches have different ways of conceiving synodality.

Grech noted that the synthesis report from the 2023 assembly of the Synod on Synodality asked theologians to examine “the way in which a renewed understanding of the episcopate within a synodal Church affects the ministry of the Bishop of Rome and the role of the Roman Curia.” 

He added that “the debate is still open” as the Church continues the synodal process with the second assembly in the fall. 

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