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Presiding in charity: Ecumenical dialogue looks at pope’s role

28 Dec 2017 – By Robert Duncan

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Many people, including many Catholics, believe the pope always ruled over the Catholic Church as an absolute monarch, appointing the world’s bishops and definitively settling issues of faith and morals. Yet that exercise of the papal office is comparatively new.

The pope’s supreme power, both in governance and doctrine, was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870 and has been seen as crucial to defending the church from hostile governments and cultural forces around the world.

But at the same time, the pope’s universal jurisdiction and doctrinal infallibility have emerged as major obstacles to the long-sought goal of Christian unity.

The idea that the pope, as the “first bishop” of the church, has a leadership role that other bishops do not is an especially large stumbling block for Eastern Orthodox Christians, but one that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are committed to discussing.

Recent popes have sought to explore ways to exercise papal primacy in terms more amenable to other Christians. For instance, in his encyclical letter on ecumenism in 1995, St. John Paul II expressed openness to finding “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.”

According to Dominican Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, an official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Pope Francis has furthered this effort with his frequent references to synodality — the involvement of a gathering of bishops in decision making, as practiced in the Orthodox churches — and by often referring to himself simply as the “bishop of Rome.”

The pope is trying to exercise his office “as St. Irenaeus of Lyon defined the church of Rome: the church that presides in love, in charity,” said Father Destivelle, who is also a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

“The primacy that we know now, which is defined as a primacy of universal jurisdiction, is quite new. The fact that the pope appoints all the bishops is new, it’s from the 19th century; it was not at all the case in the first millennium,” said Father Destivelle, summarizing one conclusion from the current work of the official Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue.

Recent scholarship on the topic challenges both Catholic and Orthodox ways of thinking about the pope’s role, said A. Edward Siecienski. The Orthodox scholar is author of the 2017 book, “The Papacy and the Orthodox: Sources and History of a Debate.”

“Universal jurisdiction, the idea that the pope has in another diocese the same power he has in the diocese of Rome,” Siecienski said, “is not something that the Orthodox could ever accept, because they had never accepted it.”

On the other hand, he said, “the idea that, as the successor of Peter, (the pope) has a universal ministry is very, very different, and I think that the Orthodox could accept that the Petrine ministry does have this universal aspect to it.”

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