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See Vatican I in its historical context, says Rome in new paper on an ecumenical Petrine ministry

14 June 2024


A gust of wind blows the Pope’s mantle during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on Wednesday

A gust of wind blows the Pope’s mantle during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, on Wednesday

THE Vatican has published proposals for making papal primacy acceptable to other Churches, which would emphasise the part played by the Pope in a “conciliar fellowship” with other Christian leaders.

“The understanding and exercise of the Bishop of Rome’s ministry entered a new phase with the Second Vatican Council — since then, the ecumenical dimension has been an essential aspect of this ministry,” a new “study document”, released on Thursday, says.

“The invitation to find, with the help of pastors and theologians of all Churches, a way of exercising primacy ‘recognized by all concerned’, marked an epochal moment in ecumenical awareness. That invitation finds particular support in the pontificate of Pope Francis, whose teaching and practice emphasises the synodal dimension of his ministry.”

The passage appears in a 146-page text, The Bishop of Rome, published by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

It says that long theological dialogues initiated at Vatican II in 1962-65, have revealed a “new and positive ecumenical spirit” in seeking a “ministry of unity at the universal level”.

Pope St John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (”That They May be One”) also elicited a “wide range of responses” from other Christian denominations, testifying to a “growing awareness of mutual accountability between Christian communions” and an interest in seeking an “acceptable form of Papal Primacy”.

The document continues: “One of the fruits of these theological dialogues is a renewed reading of the ‘Petrine texts’, which have historically been a major stumbling block between 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.

“Hermeneutical clarifications have helped to put into new perspective a traditional dichotomy, by considering primacy as both de iure divino and de iure humano, that is, being part of God’s will for the Church and mediated through human history.”

The text says “dogmatic definitions” adopted at the 1869-70 First Vatican Council, notably on infallibility, remain a “significant obstacle for other Christians”, but should also be viewed today in a “historical context”.

It adds that new approaches to papal primacy since Vatican II, including current Catholic moves towards decentralisation, “inspired by the model of the ancient patriarchal Churches”, have opened up “new perspectives” for reconciliation, in line with missionary requirements in a “contemporary context of globalisation”.

“The principle of subsidiarity means that no matter that can properly be dealt with at a lower level should be taken to a higher one — it is an important principle if the exercise of primacy is to guarantee participation of the whole Church in the decision-making process,” the document says.

“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 universal level, and suggest a voluntary limitation in the exercise of his power.”

Ecumenical dialogues, launched in the 1960s, have achieved progress on aspects of faith and sacramental life, as well as practical co-operation between Churches, but have long been impeded by failure to agree a mutual understanding of papal primacy.

The latest Vatican text, subtitled Primacy and synodality in the ecumenical dialogues, collates and summarises about 80 documents drawn up since Ut Unum Sint by various church bodies, including Churches Together in Britain and Ireland in 1996, and the Church of England’s House of Bishops in 1997.

It lists six reports by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), and others by joint commissions with Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, and Orthodox Churches, and says that the latest dicastery document was produced after consultation with “numerous scholars from various Christian traditions”.

Among milestones towards a new “understanding and exercise” of papal primacy, the text says that Pope St Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam conceded that the “pastoral office of unity” was not “a supremacy of spiritual pride and a desire to dominate mankind, but a primacy of service, ministration and love”.

It goes on to say that the pursuit of a “patient and fraternal dialogue on Primacy” with other Christian leaders was maintained by Pope Benedict XVI, whose resignation in 2013 also “contributed to a new perception and understanding of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome”.

The commitment of Pope Francis to building “a synodal Church at all levels”, expressed through the current 2021-24 Synod on Synodality, also has “significant ecumenical implications”, the document says, in showing a readiness to “learn from other Christians” and contribute to a “new image of the Petrine ministry”.

Among practical suggestions, the Vatican document calls for a “reinterpretation . . . or even rewording” of Vatican I teachings, “integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current cultural and ecumenical context”.

It recommends a “clearer distinction” between the Pope’s “patriarchal ministry in the Church of the West and primatial ministry of unity in the communion of Churches, both West and East”, also marked off from his “political function as head of state”.

“Conciliar fellowship” should be promoted through “regular consultations” with bishops and Primates of other Churches, as well as through “meetings among Church leaders at a worldwide level”, to “make visible and deepen the communion they already share”.

Speaking in Rome on Thursday, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, told journalists that Pope Francis had “affirmed the necessity and urgency of thinking about a conversion of the papacy” to suit modern ecumenical needs.

The Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, told Vatican News that papal primacy was “no longer seen only as a problem”, but, rather, as “an opportunity for common reflection” on the Church and its mission in a globalised world. The release of a “study document”, he said, indicated that discussions remained open.

In an editorial, Vatican News said that the “ecumenical journey” appeared to be “taking significant steps” after past “schisms, mutual excommunications, divisions and struggles determined more by politics than by theological differences. . . There is, or at least there could be, a form of Petrine primacy acceptable to the other Churches.

“Catholics are rediscovering and coming to a deeper understanding of the importance of synodality as a concrete way of living communion in the Church — an awareness already present and experienced by other Christian traditions.”

Speaking after addressing the Rome panel by video link, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Personal Representative to the Holy See, the Most Revd Ian Ernest, told the Catholic News Service that Anglicans and Roman Catholics had agreed, through ARCIC, as early as 1981, that a “visible expression” of unity was willed by God.

He said, however, that it was “another question” whether the part should be filled by the Pope.

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