Christians explore possibilities for, problems with papal ministry

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Anglican, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox believers agree with Catholics that “the unity in truth of the Christian community demands visible expression,” an Anglican archbishop said, but agreeing that the pope should fill that role is another question.

Archbishop Ian Ernest, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See, said that as early as 1981 Anglicans and Catholics agreed in their official dialogue “that such visible expression is the will of God.”

The archbishop, speaking by video call from England, was one of the panelists at the press presentation June 13 of a “study document” titled, “The Bishop of Rome. Primacy and Synodality in the Ecumenical Dialogues and in the Responses to the Encyclical ‘Ut unum sint.‘”

Summary of ecumenical responses

The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, author of the document, said it summarizes about 30 official responses to St. John Paul II’s invitation in his 1995 encyclical, “Ut Unum Sint,” (“That They May be One”), for an ecumenical exploration of ways the pope could exercise his ministry as a service to the unity of all Christians.

The dicastery also published “Towards an Exercise of Primacy in the 21st Century,” a series of proposals approved in 2021 by the cardinals and bishops who are members of the dicastery.

In its summary of the publications, the dicastery said all the official responses to “Ut Unum Sint” and all the bilateral ecumenical dialogues that have discussed the role of the pope as bishop of Rome, “agree on the need for a service of unity at the universal level, even if the foundations of this service and the ways in which should be exercised are subject to different interpretations.”

Synodality and the ministry of the bishop of Rome

The publication of the documents also coincides with the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality — an event that the dicastery said, “sheds new light on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome” along with “the communal aspect that includes the whole People of God and the collegial dimension of the exercise of Episcopal ministry.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, told reporters that “if there is a ‘place,’ a context where there can be — and where there is — seen a new mode of exercising primacy it is precisely in the synodal process.”

Pope Francis has affirmed “the necessity and urgency of thinking about ‘a conversion of the papacy,’” Cardinal Grech said.

In view of increasing synodality in the church, the cardinal quoted Pope Francis, who in 2015 affirmed that “the Pope is not, by himself, above the Church, but within it as one of the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as a Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time — as Successor of Peter — to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.”

Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the dicastery, told reporters that in calling the text a “study document” the Vatican was saying it “does not claim to exhaust the subject nor to summarize the Catholic magisterium on the matter,” but aims to present the status of the question in official ecumenical dialogues and theological research.

Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See, speaks by a video call during the press presentation of a study document titled, “The Bishop of Rome. Primacy and Synodality in the Ecumenical Dialogues and in the Responses to the Encyclical ‘Ut unum Sint‘” at the Vatican June 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Armenian Orthodox and Anglican views

Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See, speaking by video from his church’s headquarters in Armenia, said he hoped the document would “give new impetus to reflect together on a new model” of primacy for the bishop of Rome, “a model not of jurisdiction but of communion.”

“Jurisdiction” or the direct authority of the pope is one of the key sticking points as Christians seek greater unity.

“All the theological dialogues with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches emphasize that the present relationship of the Eastern Catholic Churches with Rome cannot be considered a model for future communion,” Archbishop Barsamian said, because the pope does exercise jurisdiction over their internal life, although not to the extent that he does over the life of the Latin-rite dioceses.

Archbishop Ernest said that for Anglicans another “major stumbling block” is the understanding and interpretation of the First Vatican Council in 1869-70 and its teaching on papal primacy and infallibility.

Balancing primacy and collegiality

Cardinal Koch said that while the Vatican is open to further dialogue and study, “we already have an official interpretation of Vatican I in Vatican II” and its “balancing of primacy and collegiality,” or the shared responsibility of the world’s bishops gathered with the pope.

“Everyone talks about the infallibility of the pope, but the Second Vatican Council spoke of the infallibility of the church. The pope cannot have an infallibility that is not the infallibility of the faith of the Catholic Church,” the cardinal said. In addition, only two dogmas — the immaculate conception of Mary and her assumption body and soul into heaven — have been formally proclaimed infallibly, “but before proclaiming these dogmas, the popes asked the opinion of all the bishops of the world.”

Addressing internal and ecumenical challenges

Cardinal Koch also was asked about threats by Oriental Orthodox bishops to break off ecumenical dialogue after the publication of “Fiducia Supplicans,” the declaration issued in December by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Francis opening the possibility for priests and other ministers to give non-liturgical blessings to gay and other couples not married in the church.

The document “did not provoke problems only in ecumenism but also within the Catholic Church if you consider that many bishops in Africa” insisted the document would not be applied in their dioceses, Cardinal Koch said. “It’s a big thing that a continent opposed a decision of the Holy Father.”

After the Coptic Orthodox Church threatened to stop ecumenical relations with Rome, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the doctrinal dicastery, traveled to Cairo in May to explain it to Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

“I think, I hope, that with his explanations we can overcome the problems,” Cardinal Koch said.

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