Friday, June 14, 2024

The Bishop of Rome, servant of unity

The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity presents a new study document that surveys the ongoing ecumenical dialogue concerning the role of the Pope and the exercise of the Petrine Ministry.

The Bishop of Rome is a document of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity that brings together the fruits of the ecumenical dialogues on the ministry of the Pope in response to the invitation made by Pope John Paul II almost thirty years ago in the wake of the advancements made since the Council. The objective is to seek a form of the exercise of the primacy that is shared by the Churches that lived in full communion in the first centuries. Even if “not all theological dialogues have treated the topic at the same level or in the same depth,” it is possible to indicate some “new approaches” to the more controversial theological questions.

Re-reading the Petrine texts

One of the fruits of the theological dialogues is a renewed reading of the “Petrine texts,” which historically have become an obstacle to unity among Christians. “Dialogue partners have been challenged to avoid anachronistic projections of later doctrinal developments and to consider afresh the role of Peter among the apostles.” For example, “a diversity of images, interpretations and models in the New Testament have been rediscovered, while biblical notions such as episkopè (the ministry of oversight), diakonia, and the concept of ‘Petrine function’, have helped develop a more comprehensive understanding of the ‘Petrine texts’.”

The origin of primacy

Another controversial issue is the Catholic understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as an institution of divine right, while most other Christians understand it as an institution of human right only. “Hermeneutical clarifications,” the document reads, have helped to put this traditional dichotomy “into a new perspective,” considering the primacy to be both of divine right and human right, that is, “both part of God’s will for the Church and mediated by human history.”

“The dialogues have emphasized instead the distinction between the theological essence and the historical contingency of primacy” and call “for a greater attention to and assessment of the historical context that conditioned the exercise of primacy in different regions and periods.”

The First Vatican Council

“The dogmatic definitions of the First Vatican Council are a significant obstacle for other Christians. Some ecumenical dialogues have registered promising progress when undertaking a ‘re-reading’ or ‘re-reception’ of this Council, opening up new avenues for a more accurate understanding of its teaching …  in light of their historical context” and of the teaching of Vatican II. This allowed a clarification of the dogmatic definition of the Pope's universal jurisdiction, “by identifying its extension and limits.”

Similarly, it became possible “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.”

Despite these clarifications, the document acknowledges, “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.”

A ministry for the reconciled Church

Many theological dialogues have recognised “the necessity of a ministry of unity at the universal level … Referring to apostolic tradition, some dialogues argue that, from the early Church, Christianity was established on major apostolic sees occupying a specific order, the see of Rome being the first.”

Some dialogues “have maintained that there is a mutual interdependency of primacy and synodality at each level of the life of the Church: local, regional, but also universal. Another argument, of a more pragmatic nature, is founded on the contemporary context of globalization and on missionary requirements.”

“Some dialogues have pointed out that there is a mutual interdependence between primacy and synodality at every level of Church life: local, regional, but also universal. Another argument in favour, of a more pragmatic nature, concerns the contemporary context of globalisation and missionary needs.”

Moreover, “Certain criteria of the first millennium” have been “identified as points of reference and sources of inspiration for the acceptable exercise of a ministry of unity at the universal level, such as: the informal – and not primarily jurisdictional – character of the expressions of communion between the Churches; the ‘primacy of honour’ of the Bishop of Rome” and “the interdependency between the primatial and synodal dimensions of the Church.”

Primacy and synodality

Many dialogues recognise, however, that the “first millennium of Christian history … should not be idealised nor simply recreated,” in part “because a primacy at the universal level should respond to contemporary challenges.”

“Some principles for the exercise of primacy in the 21st century” have also been identified. “A first general agreement is the mutual interdependency of primacy and synodality at each level of the Church, and the consequent requirement for a synodal exercise of primacy.”

“A further agreement concerns the articulation between…  the ‘communal’ dimension based on the sensus fidei of all the baptized; the ‘collegial’ dimension, expressed especially in episcopal collegiality; and the ‘personal’ dimension expressed in the primatial function.”

A further, “crucial issue is the relationship between the local Church and the universal Church, which has important consequences for the exercise of primacy. Ecumenical dialogues helped bring about agreement on the simultaneity of these dimensions, insisting that it is not possible to separate the dialectical relationship between the local Church and the universal Church.”

The role of Bishops’ conferences

“Many dialogues stress the need for a balance between the exercise of primacy on a regional and universal level, noting that in most Christian communions the regional level is the most relevant for the exercise of primacy and also for their missional activity. Some theological dialogues with the Western Christian communions, observing an ‘asymmetry’ between these communions and the Catholic Church, call 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.”

Traditions and subsidiarity

The importance of the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that “no matter that can properly be dealt with at a lower level should be taken to a higher one”

“Some dialogues apply this principle in defining an acceptable model of ‘unity in diversity’ with the Catholic Church. They argue 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 – while recognizing that he will need a sufficient amount of authority to meet the many challenges and complex obligations related to his ministry.”

Practical suggestions

“A first proposal is a Catholic ‘re-reception’, ‘re-interpretation’, ‘official interpretation’, ‘updated commentary’ or even ‘rewording’ of the teachings of Vatican I” that could involve “new expressions and vocabulary faithful to the original intention but integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current cultural and ecumenical context.”

Some dialogues have suggested that “a clearer distinction” be made “between the different responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome, especially between his patriarchal ministry in the Church of the West and his primatial ministry of unity in the communion of Churches.” There have also been calls for “a greater accent on the exercise of the ministry of the Pope in his own particular Church, the diocese of Rome…”

“A third recommendation … concerns the development of synodality within the Catholic Church. In particular, “further reflection on the authority of national and regional Catholic bishops’ conferences, their relationship with the Synod of Bishops and with the Roman Curia” has been called for. “At the universal level” the dialogues “stress the need for a better involvement of the whole People of God in the synodal processes.”

A final proposal involves  “the promotion of ‘conciliar fellowship’ through regular meetings among Church leaders at a worldwide level” and the promotion of “synodality between Churches … through regular consultations and common action and witness.”

You can find the full text of The Bishop of Rome on the website of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.