In my dialogue with Eastern Orthodox, a great many have thought it appropriate to appeal to Fr Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, whom they interpret as saying that Eastern Orthodox are really the one’s who have kept to the sacred tradition of the Apostles and the holy Church. I have here below a portion of a letter written on February 20, 2001 by Fr. Ratzinger to Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland, and in it he describes how it is that the Papal dogma of primacy of jurisdiction, in its essential concept, has its roots in Patristic theology and can be re-shaped to match the language and thinking of the early church fathers. He also makes it clear that the theory of the Papacy was not innovated during the emergence of the second millennium, but that the way in which it was exercised had drastically changed. At no point does he concede that the Orthodox ecclesiology is a better reflection or is in deeper continuity with the ancient fathers. One last point, and then you can read from the genius himself, will be to offer a brief reflection on how this concurs with my own research. In the Patristics, we get this idea that the Church of Christ is one, and that it is a visible communion expressed in a shared creed of faith, sacramental cult, and governmental discipline (i.e. the order of bishops). From the same, we also read of an institution which serves to sustain a unity to this communion or ecclesial society, and that institution is the primacy of St. Peter, whose responsibilities for this end were passed to his successors in the bishopric of Rome. It is precisely because of this responsibility to unify the churches that the primacy must be one with the character of authority, i.e. the keys of the church. If it is the Roman see whose communion is the standard of catholicity, then there must be a right granted to the Pope to determine the conditions (faith/morals/discipline) for entry, maintenance, and/or excommunication from that communion. Otherwise, as Fr. Ratzinger tells us, the Pope would be restricted to being as all the other bishops are, and thus giving the potential of fragmenting into divisions, since his voice would be incapable of creating a definitive bind. I plan to write more on this with ample justification from the fathers.
JOSEPH CARDINAL RATZINGER
To His Eminence
Metropolitan Damaskinos of Switzerland
February 20, 2001
………..And so at least I come to your questions, and I am beginning with the ‘main obstacle’ to the full restoration of unity, the pope’s primacy of jurisdiction, where you highlighted in particular the difficulties in the formula iurusdictio in omnes ecclesias [jurisdiction in all chuches]. I should like to distinguish two aspects of this thorny problem, which we certainly cannot resolve in our exchange of letters.
First, there is, it seems to me, above all a problem of language. The concept of a jurisdiction over the whole Church, and, indeed, the legal terminology of the second millennium as such, is foreign to the East and disturbs people whenever they are aware of it. I believe it is right and also possible to trace the essential concepts, and especially those that are proving to be an obstacle, back to their basis in Patristic theology and, in that way, not only to make them more comprehensible, but also of course to discover starting points for a usage more in keeping with the thinking of the fathers. You remind me of the unforgettable address of Patriarch Athenagoras, on the occasion of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Phanar, when the Patriarch applied to the Pope the titles from the Patristic era, ‘first in honor‘, and ‘president in love‘. I believe that we could correctly define ‘jurisdiction over the whole church’ on that basis: the ‘honor’ of the first is not, indeed, to be understood in the sense of the honor accorded by worldly protocol; honor in the Church is service, obedience to Christ. Then again, agape is not just a feeling entailing no obligations, still less a form of social organization, but is in the final analysis a eucharistic concept, which is as such connected to the theology of the cross, since the Eucharist is based on the cross; the Cross is the most extreme expression of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
If the Church in the very depth of her being coincides with the Eucharist, then the presidency of love carries with it a responsibility for unity, which has a significance within the Church yet, at the same time, is a responsibility for ‘distinguishing what is Christian’ as against worldly society, and therefore it will always bear a martyrological character. You know that a little while ago (in the course of the dispute over woman’s ordination), I tried to interpret the ministry of the pope as a ministry of obedience, with him as the guarantor of obedience: the pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but quite the opposite — he always has to try and resist arbitrary self-well and to call the Church back to the standard of obedience; therefore, however he must himself be first in obedience…. A Patristic interpretation of the primacy is in any case encouraged by the First Vatican Council itself, when it says that the constant practice of the Church stands for the teaching proclaimed there, as do the ecumenical councils, especially those in which East and West met together in unity of faith and love; here Vatican I refers to the Fourth Council of Constantinople (DS 3065f).
The second point I should like to mention here concers the distinction between theory and practice — or perhaps, better, the span of dogma in practice. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, the Pope pointed this out and asks for suggestions for a renewal of the practice of primacy. Here, as ever, history is instructive. R. Schieffer, who presided over the Monumenta Germaniae historica, writes in one place in this connection, ‘that at the moment of passing from the first to the second millennium of Church history a qualitative leap was made, not in the theory of primacy, but in the way people dealt with it‘.
You will permit me to add one more personal reflection. The primacy — Paul VI himself said it — is in certain respects the ‘main obstacle’ to the restoration to full communion. Yet it is at the same time the main opportunity for this, because without it the Catholic Church would long ago have fallen apart into national churches and churches of this or that rite, which would make it impossible to gain any general view of the ecumenical landscape, and because the primacy makes it possible to take definite steps toward unity. You recently referred to this yourself in an important article, pointing out that it will be of decisive importance to the future of Orthodoxy to find an appropriate solution to the problem of autocephalous churches, so that Orthodoxy’s inner unity and its capacity for common action should not be lost or, perhaps, that is may be restored. I believe that the problem of autocephaslous churches shows the necessity for an instrument of unity, which must of course be correctly balanced with independent responsibility of the local churches: the Church cannot and should not be a papal monarchy but has her points of orientation in the communion of the bishops, within which there is a ministry of their unity among themselves — that is, a ministry that does not do away with the responsibility of the bishops, but is directed toward that end. ” (Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, page 232-235)