Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Pope wants to downgrade his supremacy

On Thursday, the Vatican intends to present a theological document that could fundamentally change the relationship between the Christian churches in East and West

The text was drawn up by the Pope's ecumenical dicastery under the leadership of the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch.

The paper is entitled "The Bishop of Rome". The subtitle is: "Primacy and synodality in ecumenical dialogues and responses to the encyclical Ut unum sint". 

In the 1995 doctrinal letter, the Polish Pope held out the prospect of a different way of exercising the papal office, particularly with regard to the churches of the East.

At the time, John Paul II had invited the other Christian churches to seek ways in "fraternal, patient dialogue" with Rome in which the papal office could be understood as a "service of mercy" to all churches. 

In response, the Vatican's ecumenical department set up its own dialogue forums with several churches, which deliberated for decades. The results are now available.

"Patriarch of the West"

The project was given a further boost by Pope Francis. From the outset, he defined himself as the "Bishop of Rome". He also decreed the revival of the historic title "Patriarch of the West", which had been cancelled by his predecessor Benedict XVI in 2006. 

However, he initially left open how he intends to harmonise this role with his other historical titles ("Vicar of Christ" and "Supreme Pontiff/Bridge Builder of the Universal Church").

As a further step towards rapprochement with other churches, Francis has decreed a"synodal" constitution for the Catholic Church. Bishops, theologians and lay people are now to be involved in consultations on fundamental issues of the church and the Pope will no longer decide alone. 

This will make the Catholic Church more similar in structure to the Eastern churches, which have always had a synodal constitution, and the Protestant churches.

However, the central question of whether the Pope will continue to claim a superior position among the Christian church leaders remains unanswered. The Catholic Church has asserted this supremacy, known as the "primacy of the pope", since the early Middle Ages. 

Most recently, in 1870, the First Vatican Council underpinned and expanded this universal claim to power in dogmatic and canonical matters. These resolutions are now to be relativised and reinterpreted as partly time-related.

Recognition by other churches too

According to the Vatican, the paper, which is to be presented on Thursday, is a "study document" that has been approved by Francis. It is intended to bring together the responses to "Ut unum sint" and the ecumenical dialogues on primacy and synodality.

In the end, the document aims to propose a renewed form of papal office that could also be recognised by the other churches. Some in the Vatican believe it is possible that the Pope will meet with other patriarchs and church leaders on an equal footing for consultations in future in accordance with the proposal.

A first meeting of this kind could take place in 2025 to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, which is still recognised by almost all Christian churches today. 

At that time, it was also possible to agree on a common procedure for determining the date of Easter between the Eastern Churches and Rome, which was only later abandoned. 

According to information from the Vatican, Pope Francis is prepared to go a long way to accommodate the Eastern Churches on this symbolically important issue.