A new season for Christian unity?

In the past two months, relations between the three main Christian bodies -- Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican -- "have moved in more promising directions than perhaps during the past 50 years of uninspiring liberal dialogue", according to Adrian Pabst in an interesting piece in the Guardian. His evidence is a little thin: (1) a September visit by Archbishop Hilarion, the Moscow Orthodox point man for ecumenism, resulted in agreement with Rome that they must stand together against relativism and secularism -- which is certainly Pope Benedict's mssion. (2) An interview with an Italian newspaper by the Catholic Archbishop of Moscow. in which he says that union between Catholics and Orthodox "is possible, indeed it has never been so close".

That is true. The chill which descended on Catholic-Orthodox relations over church properties and the Uniates seems to have thawed. Pabst is also right to point out that Metropolitan Kirill wrote a foreword to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's recent book on Catholic social teaching -- which would have been unheard of a few years ago. 


Yet the locus of disagreement with Rome over papal  primacy remains as strong as ever. It is this which both Orthodox and Anglicans consider to be incompatible with the conciliarist forms of government they hoth practise.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's recent speech in Rome issued a strong challenge in this regard. He asked three closely related questions. The first was over the way authority is exercised – a matter dealt with in previous stages of ARCIC but over which there was continuing disagreement. Is there a mechanism in the Church that has the clear right to determine for all where the limits of Christian identity might be found?” he asked. The second was over the nature of papal primacy. “Is the integrity of the Church ultimately dependent on a single identifiable ministry of unity to which all local ministries are accountable?” The third was over the nature of the universal Church. “Is it an entity from which local churches derive their life, or is it the perfect mutuality of relationship between local churches – or indeed as the mysterious presence of the whole in each specific community?”

These three questions, he was too polite to point out, have been at the heart of ecclesiogical debates within the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, which came to the fore in the public disagreement between two German cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and Cardinal Kasper, now head of the Vatican’s Christian Unity council, back in 2001 in the pages of America.  Their dispute was over which came first – or was “ontologically prior”, in theologian-speak: the universal Church, as Cardinal Ratzinger maintained, or the local Church, as Cardinal Kasper insisted. The answer to that question has very direct significance for the way the Council’s doctrine of collegiality is to be understood – is it the bishops, “with and under Peter”, who govern the Church, or is it the Pope through his bishops? In practice, that question has been resolved in favour of a more centralised model, for the bishops’ synods that meet every few years are largely toothless, and national bishops’ conferences -- as Cardinal Ratzinger reminded the US bishops at the time of 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, ‘The Challenge of Peace’ -- have limited authority to teach.

The question is key for Anglicans and Orthodox, and therefore for the long-term prospect of healing the divisions in Christendom, because both Churches oppose “executive” papal authority, seeing the See of Peter more as a “focus of unity”. The disagreement between Catholics and Anglicans (and the same is true of the Orthodox), Dr Williams said in Rome, “comes over whether existing forms of primacy are – on the one hand – despite all their historic ups and downs, fundamentally unavoidable embodiments of the agreed principle or – on the other – so allied to juridical privilege and the patterns of rule and control .... that they simply fail to do what they say they are there for”, namely to unite Christians. In the Anglican view, it is the way papal authority is exercised that is the real barrier to that unity. (For Catholics, on the other hand, it is the absence of coherent ecclesiological structures within Anglicanism that pose the barrier.)

In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the local Church – in so far as it is mentioned at all – is seen as gravitating around the universal Church; in the 1983 Code, the emphasis shifts: the universal Church ‘subsists in’, but is not limited to, each particular Church in a way that is analagous to the way in which Christ is entirely present in, but not limited to, each eucharistic celebration. C. 368 identifies the particular Church with a diocese, which is in turn (c. 369) identified as ‘a portion of the people of God which is entrusted for pastoral care to a bishop’.

This leaves open the possibility that the universal Church is temporally and ontologically prior to the local Church, as the CDF maintained in 1992. Critics of the letter pointed out that ‘such priority seemed to imply the existence of an invisible Church which exists apart from its particular, concrete, historical manifestations’ – as reflecting, in other words, a societas perfecta ecclesiology in which the bishops are effectively papal agents and servants of the Curia, rather than the Curia being at the service of college of bishops, as collegiality implies.

As long as the notion persists of the universal Catholic Church as an entity prior to and outside the local Church -- and this means, of course, Rome -- ecumenical agreement will be much harder, for this notion demands that the other Churches adjust themselves to that 'Catholic thing', as Dr Williams described it. If authentic collegiality is restored - -and no one quite knows what that would look like: executive power vested in synods? Local churches appointing bishops? -- the chance for unification is greatly enhanced. 

Dr Williams cleverly alluded in his speech to the Church as a "community of communities", reprising an expression taken from the 1987 Synod on the Laity. It is this, collegial, notion of ecclesiology which is acceptable to the Orthodox and the Anglicans, not the notion of papal primacy which John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in continuity with their predecessors, have been keen to assert.

"The next step for Rome is to incorporate the Orthodox emphasis on conciliarity as a counterweight to papal authority," says Pabst, as if this were a simple matter. But given the history of the way the Catholic bishops' synods begun under Pope Paul VI have been eviscerated and controlled, "incorporating conciliarity" would be a massive step indeed.

Of course, it doesn't follow that because the chance of Orthodox-Anglican-Catholic unification would be greatly enhanced through effective collegiality, it should be done for that reason alone. If the current Catholic ecclesiology is intended by Christ, then why fiddle? The Orthodox and the Anglican Churches both have blemished records in their subordination to national states, after all.

And yet ....

Papal centralism is the fruit of the Church's long battle with secularist and totalitarian states. That battle has been over since World War II. The Second Vatican Council called for collegiality, and it hasn't been implemented. As long as it isn't, the scandalous divisions in Christendom remain, and Jesus Christ's desire in John 17 "that they may be one" is frustrated.

Historically, it's clear -- at least I think it is -- how this should go. Rome should become more collegial and conciliarist, and Anglicans and Orthodox should look to the Pope as the successor of Peter.

But that's not going to happen as long as Rome resists "effective" -- and not just "affective" -- collegiality. That's why this isn't yet a "second spring" in relations between the three Churches, even if the worst of winter seems some way behind. What can be said is that Pope Benedict is actively seeking way for them to stand together, and that he sees this as one of his principal tasks -- a role eminently suited to the successor of Peter. In that sense, there is a new phase opening up in the history of Christendom. But if Spring is to be its season, the decades-old debate over collegiality within the Catholic Church will first have to be resolved.

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Pearce Shea
9 years 1 month ago
This was interesting, but I think it downplays the fact that the Anglican communion, for all Abp. William's conciliatory approach, and the Orthodox Church have strong veins if not tenets central to their respective faiths that make a more full communion with the Catholic Church problematic if not impossible.
Indeed, I would suggest that perhaps the biggest obstacles aren't necessarily at the "universal" level but the local one (to twist your formulation). Try suggesting otherwise to a Catholic/Orthodox couple trying to marry and keep their respective religions or to an Anglican who sees women with clerics collars as a cornerstone of Christ-centered unity.


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