Getting to One

Book cover
Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacyby By Adam A. J. DeVilleUniversity of Notre Dame Press. 280p $38

The schism between the Eastern and Western churches resulted from ecclesiastical, not doctrinal causes. Historians usually identify this rupture with the mutual anathemas instigated in 1054 by Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople.

Subsequent developments contributed to a millennium of estrangement. Not least were: the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade; rejection in Byzantine territories of the Council of Florence’s formula of reunion prior to the fall of the eastern empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453; the effort, known disparagingly as uniatism, to incorporate communities of Orthodox Christians into the Catholic Church beginning around 1596; and the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870.


Only in the mid-20th century did Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI begin a true reversal, typified by their consigning of the mutual anathemas to oblivion on Dec. 7, 1965, as the the Second Vatican Council drew to a close. Though ongoing theological dialogue began in North America in September 1965, a joint international commission for dialogue did not convene until 1980. The North American dialogue encouraged a second commission, a bishops’ dialogue in 1981; both have produced over 30 official statements. The international commission meets less regularly and has produced six statements.

In a clarification published in English in 1988, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, suggested that “with the Orthodox, the Catholic Church need not necessarily insist on acceptance of the dogmas of the second millennium [including Vatican I]...the latter after all only unfolded what was already there in principle in the time of the undivided Church” (Church, Ecumenism and Politics [New York: Crossroad, 1988]). Complicating matters, however, in the first edition of the Vatican yearbook (Annuario Pontificio 2006) after he became pope, Pope Benedict chose to drop Patriarch of the West from the list of his official titles. It is the principal designation through which the Orthodox could relate their ecclesiastical offices to the papacy. Meeting at Georgetown University last October, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation reiterated that “the root obstacle” preventing East-West unity is “the role that the bishop of Rome plays in the worldwide Catholic communion.”

Enter now Adam A. J. DeVille—assistant professor of theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.—with a scholarly study of this obstacle, purposely focusing on the patriarchal office in the church and proposing its restoration and extension in the Western church as a step toward reunion.

DeVille seizes on the concluding paragraphs of John Paul II’s monumental encyclical on ecumenism, “That All May Be One” (“Ut Unum Sint,” 1995), to begin his work by examining in detail the papal invitation to discussion with ecumenical partners on the role of the papacy in service to the unity of the church.

The heart of DeVille’s book comes, however, in the third chapter, where he takes up the controversial dropping of the title Patriarch of the West in 2006; and after examining principal Orthodox reactions, he begins a timely proposal for “a serious and substantial reconfiguration of the papacy so that the papal and patriarchal roles are much more differentiated.”

DeVille amasses considerable theological opinion, historical information and church teaching. The notes alone account for nearly a third of the pages, and the notes and bibliography together make up 40 percent of the contents. The book’s strengths are its contemporary focus on a topic of considerable ecumenical importance and its scholarly attention to the rich diversity of views and developments with regard to the patriarchal office vis-à-vis the papacy. DeVille’s contribution is his thoroughgoing accumulation of fact and opinion in a contemporary ecumenical contex. In doing so he informs readers about the depth and breadth of efforts by so many currently dedicated to restoring East-West unity in the church. His concluding two chapters argue for his detailed proposal for restoring and extending the patriarchal office in the Catholic Church.

Though DeVille’s work provides an up-to-date resource on Orthodox Christianity and the papacy, there are a few shortcomings. While there is a helpful synthesis at the conclusion to a chapter on recent Orthodox positions on the papacy, no such synthesis comes at the conclusion of the next chapter about Catholic positions regarding a renewed Roman patriarchate. Even so, readers must decide the weight of each of the multitude of opinions, in both chapters, a task that DeVille could have made easier by putting the contributors in some helpful order. The survey of Eastern patriarchates concludes with a summary but could have included suggestions of strengths and weaknesses with the patriarchal office. The author gives insufficient attention to official dialogues, which have carefully reached agreement according to plan so as to address the papacy on the firm footing of consensus. In short, amid all this interesting information, one must ask, What is truly decisive for reconciling the papacy with the Orthodox Church?

There are imprecisions. The strength and core of “That All May Be One” are not its concluding invitation to dialogue on the papal service of unity, though this is clearly DeVille’s view, but its endorsement of the method and achievements of ecumenical dialogue and its suggestions for future tasks. It is not in keeping with the scope and substance of Vatican II to identify, as DeVille does, the “Decree on Ecumenism” as its greatest fruit.

In at least one place, DeVille reports that Benedict XVI “abolished” the title Patriarch of the West. In fact, the pope only renounced the title. Later DeVille shows from history that a pope acting alone cannot abolish this title, which has been in use for centuries, and suggests that the renunciation might be and should be only a temporary one.

Three major questions remain after DeVille’s elaborate suggestions for restoring and expanding the office of patriarch with six continental patriarchates in the West, each with full (inclusive) and with permanent (administrative) synods. Does the Catholic Church today truly need such additional layers of hierarchical structure when lay participation even in diocesan structures remains undeveloped? How will regional synods ensure better governance of the church when episcopal conferences seem weaker than ever and Paul VI’s vision for the permanent synod of bishops remains unrealized? Finally, even if these proposals were enacted and met with significant accommodation in the Orthodox Church after a successful great and holy synod similar to Vatican II, would longstanding objections by the Orthodox to the exercise of universal juridical authority by the pope be any closer to resolution.

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Norman Costa
7 years 5 months ago
@ John:

Thanks for the review. By no means am I a scholar of the subject, and probably cannot even say I am well informed. However, a few thoughts and questions come to mind.

In my view, the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870 has done a great deal to alienate the Roman Church from other Christian denominations, not to mention other religions and secular institutions. Considering the escape clause that states that if a Pope should demonstrate ex cathedra fallibility, then he would cease to be Pope at that very instant, the whole thing makes no sense. The Pope is infallible except when he makes a mistake, in which case he is no longer the Pope. 

The only sense I can make of it is that it was, and still is, a desperate attempt to preserve authority when it could no longer claim to be arbiter of truth in science and secular matters, was losing all material assets in the Papal States, could no longer raise an army, could no longer legislate and enforce secular matters, and lost all prerogatives to execute people under Church law.

What the Church is left with is a near impenitrable barrier to real union with other Christian communities. If one believes in the guiding power of the Holy Spirit, then why limit the functioning of the Holy Spirit to a Declaration of Infallibility with a silly 'crossed-fingers-behind-your-back' escape clause?

You argue that regional Patriarchs and Synods would make for more complexity through the addition of another layer of bureaucracy, management, and administration. That could very well be true, but it may have value. For example, my preference is for a Papacy that is more of a first among equals. This means a lot more power for the Cardinals and bishops acting together. Regional synods would give legitimacy and a voice to regional issues within the church.

Broadly speaking, the Eastern Church is more a mystical Church. The Roman Church is more a 'heady' rational Church. I do not think it must be this way, but that's how it worked out. In my opinion the West is worse for the trouble. The Roman Church is missing something. (Again, this is a broad generalization, and not an absolute demarcation.)

For example, Eastern factions cautioned their Western counterparts not to take the concept of the Trinity too literally. It was a profound and powerful spiritual idea. The best that many in the Western Church can do to communicate this conception of God is to draw a picture of three-leaf shamrock. Another example of being more literal than substantive is the prescription of how God works. God's idea of himself becomes his Son, and the love between the two becomes the Holy Spirit. Is this really helpful in developing a sense of spirituality, a connectedness to all of creation, a transcendence, and the numinous?
Angela Marczewski
7 years 5 months ago
This is a subject very dear to me and one I have studied for years, but I'm by no means an expert. Mr. Costa in his comment says it beautifully! I think it is to our great detriment in the West that for so many centuries we have insisted on concrete explanations of the mystical. While I understand why this was, perhaps, needed in the times of Augustine and Aquinas, why do we persist in these efforts; why do we not acknowledge that theologians of the Patristic period and the middle ages saw thier work as ongoing effort and not as arriving at specific answers to questions that have no specific, concrete answers? Theologians have progressed much in this area, but the church hierarchy seems to be threatened by any efforts to tackle the same questions and, perhaps, arrive at different conclusions or at least an expansion upon prior knowledge.

I have struggled with the whole Papal Infallability question my entire adult life, but was completely unaware of the "escape clause" as Mr. Costa refers to it. In my opinion, that almost makes the question moot! I have done much ecumenical work in the course of my career and can say, without a doubt, that Mr. Costa is absolutely correct, when he says that we are left with an impenitrable barrier to unity among Christians in the teaching on Papal Infallibility, a teaching that the majority of Vatican I did not even accept. It only went through because many of the bishiops in attendence at the Council were so disgusted with the discussion that they left the council early. Pius IX essentially made an executive decision, with the support of his few followers, and we continue to live with the fallout almost two centuries later. How sad for those of us who've come along after!

It sounds from the review like there may be some problems with Mr. DeVille's book, but I give him much credit for tackling this question. We need to do more of that, and we need to begin treating the Orthodox and other Christians as more than pesty younger siblings, who just aren't maturing fast enough to see things our way!


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