Olivier L. Clément
You are Peter
New City Press, 2003
Olivier Clément, one of the leading theologians from the Greek Orthodox tradition, has written this concise reflection on the Orthodox Church's understanding of the exercise of the papal office, as a contribution to the debate inaugurated by John Paul II in 1995.
In that year, the Pope issued an Encyclical letter, Ut unum sint (That they may be one), in which he requested a dialogue within the Catholic Church and between Christians, on the future exercise of the Petrine office, as a means of bringing together the disparate components of Christianity.
Professor Clément, from the St Sergius Institute in Paris, has written a clear account of the fact that the Eastern Christian churches accepted the primacy of the Bishop of Rome until the great schism of 1054, when the Greek Orthodox Church, under the Patriarch of Constantinople, separated itself from Rome.
The roots of the dispute between Rome and Constantinople went back centuries, but were partly based on political differences reflecting the decline of Rome and the growth of Constantinople as the "New Rome", as well as theological differences.
Basically, the Orthodox Church saw the Bishop of Rome as having no more authority than the other Patriarchs (of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem), although having a position of honour as the senior Patriarch.
Additionally, they believed that the Petrine office could not be exercised independently of the Ecumenical Councils.
These theological differences were overlaid on political divisions, particularly after the sack of Constantinople by Western crusaders, and the subsequent appointment by Pope Innocent III of a Latin patriarch of Constantinople. These events have never been forgotten - or forgiven.
Interestingly, the Orthodox Churches were faced with the same problems which had led to the increased authority given to the Popes of Rome.
In 1592 (after the Council of Trent had confirmed the role of the papacy in the Catholic tradition), the Orthodox Bishops, meeting in Council, declared that "the apostolic throne" of Constantinople was the "head and primate of the other patriarchates."
However, as Professor Clément observes, the growth of Russian Orthodoxy and the growing sense of nationalism have transformed the Orthodox Church de facto into a grouping of national churches united on doctrine, but administratively independent of each other.
In the West, in contrast, there has clearly been development in the opposite direction, culminating in the declaration of the doctrine of Papal infallibility in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, and restated by Vatican II in the 1960s.
The role of the Pope in expounding doctrine, and appointing bishops, archbishops and cardinals loyal to the Petrine office, has become a central feature of Catholic practice.
The development of these different traditions over many centuries means that the road to union will be long and difficult. Professor Clément believes that Rome should adopt the Orthodox tradition.
There are a number of Eastern-rite Churches which are in full communion with Rome. In my view, these provide an alternative model which might be examined by the Orthodox Churches, as a basis for full unity.