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Gerard O’ConnellJune 13, 2024
Saint Peter, c. 1529, by Grão Vasco. (Wikicommons)

On June 13, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity released an important study document on the role of the bishop of Rome and how that role is viewed by other Christian churches as expressed in the ecumenical dialogues since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Significantly, it concludes by proposing four “practical suggestions” on how to carry this discussion forward in a synodal church. 

This study document comes 29 years after Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Catholic Church’s commitment to Christian unity, “Ut Unum Sint” (“That They May Be One”), which invited the pastors and theologians of other Christian churches to “see—together, of course—the forms” in which the ministry of the bishop of Rome “may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.” 

The Polish pope issued the invitation aware of how the primacy of the bishop of Rome has caused and still causes roadblocks to other Christian churches on the journey to the unity willed by Christ. 

The new study document contextualizes John Paul II’s invitation. It recalls that “the understanding and exercise of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome entered a new phase with the Second Vatican Council. Since then, the ecumenical dimension has been an essential aspect of this ministry, as illustrated by successive popes.” John Paul II’s invitation in “Ut Unum Sint” “marked an epochal moment in this ecumenical awareness,” the study document stated, adding that “that invitation finds particular support” during Francis’ papacy, which has emphasized the synodal dimension of the papal ministry. 

The 147-page study document bears the title, “The Bishop of Rome: Primacy and synodality in the ecumenical dialogues and in the responses to the encyclical Ut Unum Sint.” It was presented at a press conference in the Vatican today, June 13, by the Swiss-born Cardinal Kurt Koch, 74, the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, and by the Maltese-born Cardinal Grech, 67, the secretary general of the synod.

Unlike the controversies of the past, Cardinal Koch said, “the question of primacy is no longer seen simply as a problem, but also as an opportunity for a common reflection on the nature of the church and its mission in the world.”

Nevertheless, Cardinal Koch recalled that in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis remarked that “we have made little progress” in response to John Paul II’s request to find “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” 

Cardinal Koch said that the study document is a step forward taken by the dicastery on the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical; “[it] saw an opportunity to synthesize these reflections and gather the main fruits,” as Pope Francis had requested. Moreover, “the convocation of the Synod on Synodality has confirmed the relevance of this project as a contribution to the ecumenical dimension of the synodal process.” 

Pope Francis approved the publication, according to Cardinal Koch, who emphasized that this text “does not claim to exhaust the subject nor summarize the entire Catholic magisterium on the subject.” He said, “Its purpose is to offer an objective synthesis of the official and nonofficial ecumenical discussion on the subject” that reflects both its insights and limitations.

The study document concludes “with a brief proposal from the Plenary Assembly of the dicastery entitled, ‘Towards an exercise of the primacy in the 21st century,’” which identifies significant suggestions for the Bishop of Rome’s ministry of unity, Cardinal Koch said.

Cardinal Koch said the document “is the fruit of almost three years of truly ecumenical and synodal work.” It summarizes 30 responses to “Ut Unum Sint” and 50 ecumenical dialogue documents on the subject. There was consultation not only within the plenary of the dicastery but also with the Roman Curia dicasteries and the Synod of Bishops.

The cardinal, who has been head of this Vatican dicastery since July 2010, presented the main ideas of the document. He pointed out how “numerous” dialogue documents and responses to “Ut Unum Sint,” including some collaborating with other churches, have contributed to reflection on primacy and synodality. He noted that even though some have different interpretations of how this ministry should be exercised, “all the documents agree on the need for the service of unity at the universal level.” 

Cardinal Koch said it is particularly interesting that “the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome is intrinsic to the synodal dynamic, as is the communitarian aspect that includes the entire people of God and the collegial dimension of the episcopal ministry.”

Looking to the future and to the steps to be taken in the theological dialogues, Cardinal Koch said, the study document suggests the need for “a better connection between the dialogues—local and international, official and unofficial, bilateral and multilateral, Eastern and Western—in order to enrich each other.” It also underlines the need for “addressing primacy and synodality together” as “two mutually supportive realities.” It calls for “a clarification of vocabulary” for the People of God and for “promoting the reception of the results of the dialogues at all levels [in the churches].”

He concluded by pointing to four practical suggestions or proposals that need to be addressed within the Catholic church “so that a renewed understanding and exercise of papal primacy can contribute to the restoration of Christian Unity.”

The first suggestion calls for “a Catholic ‘re-reception’, ‘re-interpretation’, ‘official interpretation’, ‘updated commentary’ or even ‘rewording’” of Vatican I’s teachings on the papacy. It said, “some dialogues observe that these teachings were deeply conditioned by their historical context, and suggest that the Catholic Church should look for new expressions and vocabulary faithful to the original intention but integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current cultural and ecumenical context.”

The second suggestion calls for “a clearer distinction between the different responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome, especially between his patriarchal ministry in the Church of the West and his primatial ministry of unity in the communion of Churches, both West and East, possibly extending this idea to consider how other Western Churches might relate to the Bishop of Rome as primate while having a certain autonomy themselves.” It said there is also a need to distinguish the pope’s patriarchal, primatial and political responsibilities.

It suggests that “a greater accent on the exercise of the ministry of the Pope in his own particular Church, the diocese of Rome, would highlight the episcopal ministry he shares with his brother bishops, and renew the image of the papacy.” 

The third suggestion recommends “the development of synodality within the Catholic Church,” emphasizing how this will also contribute to its ecumenical commitment. It identified areas where greater synodality is required within the Catholic Church, especially regarding “the authority of national and regional Catholic bishops’ conferences, their relationship with the Synod of Bishops and with the Roman Curia.” It urges deeper involvement from “the whole people of God in the synodal process.”

The fourth suggestion calls for “the promotion of ‘conciliar fellowship’” through regular meetings, as well as common action and witness, among church leaders around the world.

In his long intervention during the June 13 press conference, Cardinal Mario Grech, “welcomed” the study document and said it came at the appropriate moment, as the issue is on the synod agenda. He recalled that in his speech for the 50th anniversary of the synod’s institution, Pope Francis emphasized “the need and urgency” for “a conversion of the papacy.” He underlined that “The pope is not...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...to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.”

In that speech, Francis also noted that “[t]he commitment to build a synodal Church has significant ecumenical implications” and that synodality might shine a “greater light…on the exercise of the Petrine Primacy.”

Cardinal Grech quoted the synod’s synthesis report, which said that “the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome is intrinsic to the synodal dynamic, as are the communal aspect that includes the whole People of God and the collegial dimension of the exercise of Episcopal ministry. Therefore, synodality, collegiality, and primacy refer to each other: primacy presupposes the exercise of synodality and of collegiality, just as both of them imply the exercise of primacy.” 

He said the synod emphasized that “[t]here is a need for more insight into how a renewed understanding of the Episcopate within a synodal Church affects the ministry of the Bishop of Rome and the role of the Roman Curia.”

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