Continued from Part II. And now we come to it. When all is said and done, when we’ve argued theology and doctrine into the ground, the only issue that REALLY matters in the Catholic and Orthodox dialogue is the role, rights, and authority of the Bishop of Rome in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It took us a while to figure this out. In the Middle Ages, the reunion council of Florence spent most of its time bickering over the Filioque and Purgatory, while the issue of Papal authority was a mere footnote. In light of Vatican I and history, though, it becomes clear the the only really important difference between we Catholics and them Orthodox is the Pope. The schism did not occur because of the Filioque or disagreement over Communion bread or Original Sin or any of that nonsense, though they certainly helped get the ball rolling. No, when all the minutia is dusted out, the only hard brick wall left to full reunion is the issue of the Papacy. And so I hope to address, though hopefully in an original way, my feelings about the Papacy and its role in a reunited Church.
When we look back through history at the ecclesiology of the first millennial Church, we notice it doesn’t look much like either the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. It was nowhere near as centralized and Papal-centric as the modern Latin Church, but neither was it as chaotic and loosely governed as the modern Orthodox Church. What is constant, though, is a special recognition of the See of Rome as the presidential See of the Universal Church. As early as Pope St. Clement I, who is early enough to perhaps be mentioned in St. Paul’s letters, Christians were appealing to the Roman Pontiff to settle Church disputes. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John’s, says that the Roman Church “presides in love”, and indeed throughout the first millennium that’s what we see. Throughout all of the theological controversies and heresies which afflicted the East, Rome remained the stalwart defender of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox would have us believe that after one thousand years of perfect loyalty to the true faith, that after Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch had fallen to Arians, Monophysites, and Iconoclasts over and over again, the Roman Church suddenly got too big for its britches and fell into heresy. Forgive me if I find this a little far-fetched.
The primacy of the Roman Church is derived from its founding by the Apostles Peter and Paul, especially Peter whose authority the Bishops of Rome inherit. St. Peter’s primacy of authority was given to him by Christ because he was the first Apostle to openly confess the divinity of Christ, as is famously recorded in Matthew 16. Though it is true that St. Peter founded several Churches, a fact the Orthodox are ever eager to reiterate, Rome was where he died for his faith and where the fulness of his authority is handed down to his successors. The Latin Church believes that when the Pope teaches on faith or morals he is protected from error by virtue of his inheritance of the “Keys” given to St. Peter by Christ in the aforementioned Gospel. From an Eastern perspective, one might say that, just as Metropolitan Archbishops can speak for their entire synod, and Patriarchs for the entirety of their respective Churches, the Roman Pontiff can, because of his “primacy of honor”, as the Orthodox love to put it, speak for the whole Universal Church and that since the Universal Church is protected from error, the Pope when he speaks for the Church is also preserved from error. Thinking like this won’t make the Orthodox very happy. It might not even be that amenable to the sensibilities of some Eastern Catholics, but it’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard to an Eastern formulation of the dogmas of Papal supremacy and Papal infallibility.
As much as I appreciate the more collegial structure of the Eastern Churches, and often wish the Pope would act more like a “first among equals”, I would be lying if I said I believed a conciliar model of ecclesiology to be sufficient for safeguarding the Faith of the Apostles. We all know what happens when a group of Christians abandons Apostolic authority entirely. We get Protestantism and all its chaos and warring factions. Orthodoxy is no Protestantism, thank God, but its separation from the See of Peter has had extremely unfortunate results. Though they have for the most part maintained Apostolic tradition through their Bishops, small but concerning errors have crept into the Church over the years. Their allowance of divorce and remarriage, their constant waffling on the issue of contraception, and the insidious doctrine of the Aerial Toll Houses* are among the most unnerving. True Catholic Bishops though they may have, they are doomed to loose Orthodoxy because the Bishops have no authority separated from the See of Peter.
Rome is the fount and safeguard of Orthodoxy, as are all Churches in union with it. The Orthodox Church is an authentic Christian Church, but severely compromised. Their rejection of the Papacy and the authority which Christ gave it** has given them up to innumerable problems. When a reunion was briefly achieved after the Council of Florence, the Orthodox faithful rebelled against the Bishops who had been received into Communion with Rome. I have heard it from the mouths of Orthodox Christians that if the Orthodox Church were to come into union with the See of Peter, they would join a schismatic group, as if schism from Rome were somehow essential to Orthodoxy. What is this kind of disobedience to their pastors than a high church Protestantism or Eastern sedevacantism? Let us pray then, for the return of all Churches to the Universal Church, that, as Father Robert Taft has put it, Catholics might become Orthodox and Orthodox might become Catholic, that we all may be one as Christ and the Father are one.