What would the Pope do in a reunited church?

In another example of “ecumenical dialogues that I never heard about”, the North American Catholic-Orthodox Consultation put out a document in October 2010 that explores some possible answers to this question.

Steps Towards A Reunited Church: A Sketch Of An Orthodox-Catholic Vision For The Future recognizes ecclesiological issues, and particularly the role of the bishop of Rome, as the “root obstacle” in the way of further unity between Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Its section 3 provides a clear and thoughtful examination of the differing historical circumstances in the East and West that led to different ecclesiological structures in practice, imagination, and normativity. After a brief review of what we share (section 4) and why it matters, especially now (section 5), the real meat of the document occurs in section 6.

What would “the shape of communion” in a reunified church look like? Some of these items seem uncontroversial: mutual recognition, a common confession of faith in the Nicene-Constantinople creed (ideally in its 381 form, without the filioque, accepted diversity of tradition and practice, liturgical sharing, common mission, and a general commitment to renewal and reform. A couple of them touch on issues of authority and governance – I’ve emphasized the points I think would be most controversial from the point of view of existing Catholic juridical practice:

e) Synodality/Conciliarity: the bishops of the reunited Churches would meet regularly in regional synods, which would regulate the common life and relationships of the Churches in a particular region and provide an occasion for mutual correction and support. Bishops of all the Churches would be invited to participate fully in any ecumenical councils that might be summoned. Synodality would operate at various levels of ecclesial institutions: local, regional and worldwide. Aside from episcopal structures of synodality, the laity would be active participants in this dimension of Church life.

g) Subsidiarity: following the ancient principle recognized as normative for well-organized human structures, “higher” instances of episcopal authority would only be expected to act when “lower” instances were unable to make and implement the decisions necessary for continuing union in faith. This would mean, among other things, that in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, at least, bishops would be elected by local synods or by other traditional methods of selection. Those elected to major episcopal or primatial offices would present themselves to other Church leaders at their level, to their own patriarch, and to the bishop of Rome as first among the patriarchs, by the exchange and reception of letters of communion, according to ancient Christian custom. The bishop of Rome would also inform the Eastern patriarchs of his election.

Section 7 is devoted specifically to imagining the role of the papacy in such a reunified church, assuming a serious commitment to collegiality:

– The bishop of Rome’s “primacy of honor” would involve “authority to make real decisions, appropriate to the contexts in which he is acting”

– “In accord with the teaching of both Vatican councils, the bishop of Rome would be understood by all as having authority only within a synodal/collegial context . . . In a reunited Church, this understanding of papal and episcopal authority, as complementary and mutually enhancing, would have to be expanded to include the much more complex patterns of local, primatial, and patriarchal leadership that have developed in the Eastern Churches since patristic times. ”

– “The fundamental worldwide ministry of the bishop of Rome would be to promote the communion of all the local Churches…”

– He would “convoke and preside over” regular synods of patriarchs; ecumenical councils; and, in the West, regular episcopal synods. The Curia would become less centralized, and bishops would have a more active role.

– “e) In cases of conflict between bishops and their primates that cannot be resolved locally or regionally, the bishop of Rome would be expected to arrange for a juridical appeal process, perhaps to be implemented by local bishops, as provided for in canon 3 of the Synod of Sardica (343). In cases of dispute among primates, the bishop of Rome would be expected to mediate and to bring the crisis to brotherly resolution. And in crises of doctrine that might occasionally concern the whole Christian family, bishops throughout the world would have the right to appeal to him also for doctrinal guidance, much as Theodoret of Cyrus did to Pope Leo I in 449, during the controversy over the person of Christ that preceded the Council of Chalcedon (Ep. 113).”

Section 8 suggests some preparatory steps that could be taken now: for example, there’s nothing to stop Catholic and Orthodox bishops from meeting together to discuss and consult on various issues. (Much like the theologians do, I must point out!) Leadership from above emphasizing our status as sister churches, and locally organized prayer and social ministry involving members of both churches, would help. (This last idea is particularly close to my heart.)

Section 9 lists the knotty problems that still remain: Is the papacy biblical, or not? Where are the limits of authority, on popes, patriarchs, and bishops, and how are they to be defined? How much authority does a pope have over a council? What are the limits of recognizing self-governing churches based on national, ethnic, or linguistic origin, and is this really serving us in today’s pluralistic and migratory society? Is there any way we could get back to “one bishop, one place”?

And on a practical, pastoral level, how close do we have to be on these questions before we can start living as if we are one church, at least sometimes? “Would it be acceptable to both of our Churches to allow priests of one Church at least to care for the dying in the other, when no priest of their own is available?”

Section 10 closes the document with a reflection on St Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on John 17, in which he argues that “the unity of the Church, modeled on the unity of Father and Son and realized through the gift of the Spirit, is primarily formed in us through the Eucharist in which the disciples of Jesus share.”

The final paragraph begins:

Conscience holds us back from celebrating our unity as complete in sacramental terms, until it is complete in faith, Church structure, and common action; but conscience also calls us to move beyond complacency in our divisions, in the power of the Spirit and in a longing for the fullness of Christ’s life-giving presence in our midst.

Conscience holds us back, but conscience also calls us forward. In love and in hope, in longing and in the power of the Spirit, we must keep re-discovering in each other the household of Christ.

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