The fact that before the year A.D. 325, synods were held everywhere in the church demonstrates that the bishops realized, as the author Msgr. Michael Magee put it, that “no bishop was entitled to exercise his office in isolation from the common good of all the Churches, or from his brothers in the episcopacy.” Bishops understood that their judgments and acts were not the private acts of an autocrat. They were the judgments and acts of a bishop in communion. The monarchical episcopate—in the sense of a single bishop in each church—had become universal during the second century. And with this development, synods provided a counterweight to excesses in the exercise of episcopal authority by an individual bishop in his local church.
The Council of Nicaea, however, shows that there was still a further development underway. A structure that would include more than one metropolitan province was taking shape. And so we read in Canon 6 of Nicaea I, “The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places, since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved.” Two things should be noted, however: The Council of Nicaea does not use the term patriarch, which was only to develop later. And the council did not create the patriarchal structure. Rather, it refers to this arrangement of several provinces under the authority of a protos as already an “ancient” custom.
The position of most scholars is that Canon 6 is talking about what later was called a patriarchate and not just a large metropolitan province. The patriarchate consisted of several provinces with their metropolitan bishops. It was, therefore, the prerogative of the bishop of Alexandria to ordain the metropolitans of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis. In this prerogative of ordaining the metropolitans lay the basis for the title patriarch: the bishop of Alexandria was the father of the other fathers, the first father.
The Council of Nicaea mentions four sees as having a certain pre-eminence: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, which in the canon is called Aelia. Alexandria is the only one mentioned that has a specific territory identified. Canon 7 makes it clear that the bishop of Jerusalem did not have “the dignity proper to the metropolitan,” but it is not clear that the authority of the bishops of Rome and Antioch extended at that time to a whole civil diocese. Nevertheless, the reality later known as the patriarchal office was making its appearance in the case of Alexandria. In the case of Rome, the bishop of Rome did exercise authority in central and southern Italy and the Italian islands. This was comparable to the authority exercised by the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch.
At this point (the early fourth century), what role did the protos, called the archbishop, play in these groupings comprising several provinces? He presided at the regional synods and ordained all the metropolitans. But what principle lay behind this structural development?
It was not a drive toward conformity within civil territorial boundaries. We know this because Alexandria, which had authority over several metropolitan provinces, belonged to the civil jurisdiction of Antioch. What lay behind this whole development was a movement toward ever-increasing unity, unifying the churches around a center. And the center was determined not so much by its civil prominence as by the fact that the center had been the origin of the other churches that shared its theology, spirituality and liturgy. Unity and communion lay behind the development of these larger groupings.
Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea, then, is a recapitulation and a description of church order. The council did not create or originate that order. It affirms that what would later be called the “patriarchal” ordering of the church was an “ancient” tradition in regard to Alexandria. Msgr. Michael Magee maintains that it was the liturgical and spiritual traditions that gave rise to the patriarchates and that these, therefore, belong to the very definition of the patriarchate. However, other scholars see the origins of the patriarchates also in the recognition that, in larger territories, there had to be a protos (a head or first bishop) to serve the needs of order and communion among the churches. In fact, the first prerogative of the protos mentioned in the Council of Nicaea is the administrative act of confirming the election of bishops in the province.
The patriarchal ordering of the church has endured in the Eastern Orthodox churches and in six of the Eastern Catholic churches, namely the Coptic, Melkite, Syrian, Maronite, Armenian and Chaldean churches. In the Latin Catholic Church, the only patriarchate has been Rome. There were, in the first-millennium West, great metropolitan churches, like Carthage in Africa or Arles in France. But the gathering of several metropolitan churches into a larger structure, a patriarchate, did not develop in the Western church. The only see functioning as a patriarchate was Rome. For many centuries, the pope had the title “Patriarch of the West.” But Pope Benedict suppressed that title in 2006. While it is not entirely clear why he did this, we do know that both Joseph Ratzinger, as a theology professor, and Yves Congar, O.P., had raised serious questions about whether the pope could function in any really effective way as patriarch of the West in the modern world.
Exercising Papal Authority
As we have seen, the Council of Nicaea affirmed that the bishop of Rome did have authority extending beyond the limits of his province; and over the course of the first millennium, this authority of the pope came to be recognized as extending over the whole western half of the Roman Empire. But in the first millennium, there was a distinct difference between the way the popes exercised authority in the western half of the Empire and the way they exercised it in the eastern half. For instance, the popes appointed the bishops of Thessalonica as their vicars in the easternmost part of the western empire but never attempted anything like that in the eastern patriarchates. This fact is one of the reasons for describing the exercise of authority by the bishop of Rome as patriarchal in the western half of the empire, as distinguished from his exercise of truly papal authority in matters concerning the whole church, like essential questions of doctrine.
But after the separation between the East and the West—usually placed around the year 1054—the popes exercised authority only in the West. Consequently, there was no longer any basis for a distinction between the patriarchal and the papal exercise of authority. The result was that the exercise of papal authority in the whole Latin Catholic Church had the characteristics of patriarchal administration; in the second millennium, this developed into a centralized papal monarchy.
With the discovery of the New World in the 15th century and the missionary expansion of the Latin Catholic Church in the 16th century and later, the patriarchal kind of papal government was gradually extended over the worldwide Catholic Church, bringing with it uniformity of liturgical language and practice, the choice and appointment of all bishops by the pope and the appointment of papal delegates in all countries where the Catholic Church had been planted. So in practice there was no longer any distinction between the patriarchal and the papal functions of the bishops of Rome.
While the separation between the East and the West, and the missionary expansion beyond Europe, increasingly blurred the distinction between patriarchal and papal roles of the pope, another development was taking place that served to underline the difference between these roles of the bishop of Rome. Since the 12th century, when a group of Eastern Christians called Maronites formally reconfirmed their communion with Rome, there have been communities of Eastern Catholics who have continued to use their traditional liturgy and language and have continued to have a certain autonomy in the election of their patriarchs.
The number and variety of such relatively autonomous churches in communion with the See of Peter increased as a result of the efforts of Latin Catholic missionaries to bring groups of Eastern Orthodox Christians into communion with Rome. Others, like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on their own initiative entered into visible communion with Rome. The presence of all these Eastern churches in the Catholic Church shows clearly that there is indeed a difference between the pope’s exercise of patriarchal authority over the Latin Church, where he appoints all the bishops and exercises other administrative authority, and his exercise of papal authority over the Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome. This distinction has been made even more explicit by the promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, in which the relative autonomy of these churches is upheld.
It is not surprising, then, that Father Ratzinger would write, “Unity of faith is the pope’s function; this does not prohibit independent administrative agencies like the ancient patriarchates.” And he went on to say: “The extreme centralization of the Catholic Church is due not simply to the Petrine office but to its being confused with the patriarchal function which the bishop of Rome gradually assumed over the whole of Latin Christianity. Uniformity of church law and liturgy and the appointment of bishops by Rome arose from a close union of these two offices. In the future they should be more clearly distinguished.” It is evident, then, that both Father Congar and Father Ratzinger included the administrative dimension in their understanding of the patriarchal office. What is to be said, then, regarding their observations about the need for new patriarchates on the basis of the fact that the present Latin Catholic Church, which comprises such a large portion of the globe, is increasingly unmanageable as a single patriarchal division? Both these theologians saw the weaknesses of what Father Ratzinger called “extreme centralization” when such a vast and diverse territory is involved.
It is an administrative problem because it is self-evident that a central authority cannot, in fact, adequately know and understand such vast and diverse cultures and territories. Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao of Japan, who had studied in Rome and later (after being bishop of Yokohama) served for some years in the Roman Curia, pointed out in an interview that “most people in the Roman Curia are European- and American-minded. They cannot understand the mentality of East Asia and the Far East.” Having had the experience of teaching Latin to the crown prince of Japan, the cardinal said, speaking of Rome’s encouraging of the use of Latin, “It is impossible for Asians…. That is European-centered. It is too much!”
There is no principle or doctrine of Catholic faith, nor any canonical provision that prevents the establishment of new patriarchal structures in the Latin Catholic Church along the lines of the Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches. Creation of such structures could be a way of solving “extreme centralization.” This would not only promote the inculturation of the Gospel but would, as well, open up a more effective way for evangelization. The bishops of Japan, for instance, have said for many decades that their inability to attract many converts is due to the fact that they are made to present Christ with a Western face.
The Second Vatican Council explicitly noted the link between the modern episcopal conference and the ancient patriarchates. How such structures might function in practice and what safeguards would be necessary to ensure Catholic unity not only with Rome but among such different countries and cultures themselves could fruitfully be the subject of a carefully prepared deliberative papal synod. This might include not only an examination of the history of patriarchal structures in the church, their strengths and weaknesses, but would necessarily envision how bishops would need to be prepared for such new structures in order to function effectively in them.