Papism - the insurmountable obstacle of Christian unity

By Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

Introductory Remarks

Following the totally unexpected escalation in provocations from the Vatican, under BENEDICT XVI, towards other Christians (especially the Orthodox, as we shall see below!), it is as plain as the sun that we are unfortunately entering a period of complete uncertainty, to mention nothing of strange ‘obscurity’.

The medieval audacity of ‘Papism’, which we all believed was a thing of the past – in spite of the highly controversial dogmatism of the ‘doctrine of papal infallibility’ at Vatican Council I (1870) – is making a surprising return, and indeed in a manner that is completely incompatible with the deeper cultivation of persons, and the sincere efforts towards ‘purification’ which the Western Christian world in general has presented during the past two centuries.

Therefore, given the general tendency of the ‘Ecumenical Movement’ on the one hand towards revitalization and reconstitution, coupled with the official decision of the Roman Church expressed through Vatican Council II concerning a substantial purification of ‘institutions’, ‘functions’ and ‘persons’ on the basis of the genuine sources of the common first Christian millennium, the terrible impression may be given that all these things are not only doubted, but in fact ridiculed.

We should then say bluntly: that it appears that the approach of the hard-line cardinals of the Roman Curia has prevailed, which establishes ‘Papism ’ (not as the ‘Primacy of one Bishop’, but as an unbearably totalitarian ‘ideology’) as the truly INSURMOUNTABLE OBSTACLE,firstly for the ‘reunification’ of divided Christians, but also simply for peaceful ‘unity’ among themselves. Not to mention with non-Christians and ‘atheists’.

  For this reason we are obliged today to make several brief comments and observations in simplified language (as much as this is possible, for the benefit mainly of the everyday Christians of East and West), in relation to the very recent revival of Papal Primacy and Infallibility, under the most unexpected circumstances, and at the expense of Christianity as a whole.

The observations presented here become even more urgent in order to prevent possibly greater problems between the Christian Churches and Denominations, but also in terms of the Churches’ imperative creative relations with the rest of the world, which finds itself before enormous impasses, and for which Christianity still claims to ‘maintain’ unchanged the only saving truth from Revelation for all.

 Brief overview of the historical evolution of Papism in the Church

Whoever has happened to study Church history seriously, i.e. without prejudices, would no doubt have observed (sometimes with astonishment, but on most occasions with justifiable indignation) an almost incredible fact: Before the Roman Emperors’ frightful persecutions of Christians had ceased on an institutional level (312-313AD), their Bishops – who were considered to be the immediate Successors to the Apostles – began to show signs of an unhealthy ‘ambition’ which was incompatible with the teaching of Christ.

What was initially a reserved rivalry between them for ‘Primacy’, ‘Seniority’ and ‘Presidency’, very soon developed almost into a war of ‘fratricide’, when Christianity became the ‘legal’, and then ‘official’, religion of the State under Constantine the Great.

The insatiable thirst of the Bishops was for Primacy and Seniority, in cases where their ‘Sees’ were in large cities and therefore acquired secular prestige and glory. First in this regard, and without compare for a considerable time, was Rome.

Just as the pagan Roman Emperor of the day was called Augustus (= ‘worthy of respect’, an epithet of the gods!), and Ancient Rome was characterized as Roma aeterna (= ‘the eternal city’!), so it happened that the Bishop of Rome did not delay to gradually claim, first for his local Church and then for his person, analogously impious titles, and indeed to a superlative degree.

The Vicarius Christi (= ‘representative of Christ’) we could say was the approximate translation, in Christian vocabulary, of Pontifex Maximus (= ‘Supreme Bridge-Maker’).

There is perhaps no other issue which has occupied so intensely and continually the Synods of the ancient Church (whether Regional or Ecumenical) during the common first millennium as the order of ‘Seniority’ between the Episcopal Thrones, especially of ‘Rome’ and ‘New Rome’ (Constantinople), before the formation of the well-known Pentarchy of Patriarchs (of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem).

However it must be stated that the problem is not as simple as it may at first appear to be. It did not only arise out of the practical need for the ‘First among Equals’ (Primus inter pares) to preside, according to the spirit of the 34th Apostolic Canon. There also intervened difficult historical circumstances, according to which the ‘more practical solution’ was a great temptation, with the price in terms of ‘ethical deontology’ being not only heavy, but utterly devastating.

Yet if the 34th Canon, which is relatively old and very ‘Apostolic’ in spirit (although its date is not in fact from the time of the Apostles!), was respected, it is certain that historical Christianity as a whole would have avoided many perils.

An equal number of perils, if not more, would have been avoided also by the non-Christian populations which, for centuries now, have undergone the colonial callousness and invasive exploitation by so-called Christian leaders of the West, accompanied and assisted by so-called missionaries who equally saw material aspirations and interests (look at the peoples of what we call the ‘Third World’ today!).

The concise text of the 34th Apostolic Canon must be quoted here in full, so as to make clear to all the unimaginable ‘renewal of the world’ (!) that might have been achieved over the centuries, had this golden Canon been fundamentally applied by those considered to be ‘spiritual’ Fathers and Leaders of Christianity.

This astonishing text is as follows:

It behoves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them  who is the premier or chief, and to recognize them as their head, and  to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval; but, instead, each of them should do only whatever is necessitated by his own eparchy and by the territories under him. But let not even such a one do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For thus there will be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (The Rudder, by Priest-Monk Agapios and Monk Nicodemos, translated by D. Cummins, Chicago, 1957)

Already from a first glance, the careful reader of this Canon can see where its theological weight is to be found. The ‘mutuality’ of honour and confidence which is established as an inviolable ‘condition of peace’ in the Church, also safeguards a much higher good. This is the true doxology or glorification of the Trinitarian God, which can only be achieved through ‘concord’ among the Bishops.

In this way, we have vividly before us an Ecclesiology founded upon Trinitarian theology, i.e. derived from the most sacred and indestructible ‘Model’ of the Holy Trinity. This in turn means of course that the relations between the three divine Persons must be reflected directly and convincingly in the relations between the Bishops, together with each of the local Churches.

Only then is the ‘unity’ on the one hand, and ‘communion’ on the other, safeguarded in the Church.

Following the mystagogical vision of the “primordial Mystery of the Church”, as described with astonishing theological consistency in the 34th Apostolic Canon, it would be a terribly backward step and vain endeavour to comment here on the ‘pseudoclementine’ and ‘pseudoisidorian’ textual claims concerning primacy, which have long ago been refuted by objective historians and theologians.

These and other manipulations or casuistic interpretations were employed by Rome on more than a few occasions, so as to ‘support’ the ‘primacy’ of the Apostle Peter initially, and of the Bishop of Rome subsequently, who was considered to be the only Successor of Peter.

An exhaustive and systematic negation of what was dared by the Papists of the West was presented in our doctoral thesis (The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology, Athens, 1965), the English translation of which shall, God willing, soon be published.

We will therefore restrict ourselves to presenting concisely, and directly to the current Pope Benedict XVI, just a few fundamental questions.
These questions should – in spite of his high office – be answered by the Pope himself, as they concern him directly. At any rate, in the dialogue between Christians, and especially Bishops, avoidances are impermissible, in accordance with Christ’s command to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

We consider it just for Benedict XVI to answer personally the questions we present below, for two main reasons:

First question:

Can he who made his mark as the Theologian Joseph Ratzinger deny that the function of the ‘First’ in the Church – regardless of whether it refers to the Apostle Peter, or to any other of the sacred group of ‘The Twelve’, or even to the Bishops who are their Successors – had from the outset an absolutely soteriological character, with the corresponding and consequent administrative implications upon the entire ecclesiastical life of the ‘Church militant’ in each local area?

Second question:

Is it possible for the soteriological character of the ‘First’, in general, to be ‘bound’ and indeed ‘predetermined’ by a particular geographic region or city?
If the continually changing underlying historical and geographical conditions, which sometimes lead to decay or disuse, were of such decisive significance for SALVATION, would not the Primacy of Jerusalem have from the very beginning prevailed upon world Christianity, since this is where the saving drama of the divine economy had unfolded historically and geographically, with Christ at the very centre?

Yet in such a case, how are we to understand the radically contrary statements of Christ to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob? What is the meaning of those striking messages: “neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21)?

Third question:

From when was it possible, and with which theological arguments, for Rome to be ‘differentiated’ so radically from the common teaching of the Christian Church of both East and West, concerning ‘Apostolic Succession’ (succesio Apostolica), making the succession of the Bishop of Rome such a weighty matter? Would it ever be possible to seriously claim that the local Bishop is the successor of only one specific Apostle (eg. Peter by the Bishop of Rome, Mark by the Bishop of Alexandria, Andrew by the Bishop of New Rome, and so on)?

If this was the meaning of Apostolic Succession, would it not follow that the number of Bishops throughout the entire Church would never be more than 12 in number? And then should not Rome, as a result, be speaking specifically about successio Petrina, rather than insisting on the more comprehensive term Apostolica?
On the contrary, the correct conviction and teaching of Scripture and Tradition concerning succession is that all Bishops succeed the eschatologically significant Group of Twelve, and this is why the Church always essentially included in the meaning of Apostolic Succession not only the Bishops, but also the Presbyters, as differing very little from them in terms of the ‘saving’ mission of the Church.

Fourth question:

Can the current Pope state responsibly as a theologian that the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church - who as all know are appointed directly by the Bishop of Rome without being elected by the Synod of their local Church - are to be considered as equal in authority to the Orthodox Bishops ‘elected’ by a canonical Synod?
Does the holy Father recall that, as the official Theological Dialogue’s Co-Chair on behalf of the Orthodox delegation for 20 years, I had personally protested to him because the Vatican had still not restored its Bishops in general to their most sacred office, just as the undivided Church [of the first millennium] knew it, and that the Orthodox justly demand it so that we may consider the election of Roman Catholic Bishops ‘valid’? Is it not then highly ‘lenient’ and ‘tolerant’ on the part of Orthodox Bishops that we still – while officially dialoguing with Roman Catholic Bishops – silently accept them as our ‘counterparts’?

Fifth question:

If the non-acceptance by Orthodox of the ‘primacy’ and ‘infallibility’ of the Bishop of Rome constitutes for Pope Benedict XVI a deficit of Orthodoxy, in order to be considered by Rome a complete and true Church, then what was the point of the axiomatic common statement concerning the official Theological Dialogue, that it is being conducted “on equal terms”?

Sixth question:

The characterization of the Church militant as a “perfect society” (societas perfecta), which became prevalent among Roman Catholics through the influence of Augustine (civitas Dei) was justly and most correctly replaced in the texts of the Second Vatican Council by the terms “People of God” (populus Dei), to express as a journey of pilgrimage (perecrinatio) the dynamic and evolving character of all categories of faithful (Clergy, Monks, Lay) in the present world. No theologian who has studied the Second Vatican Council can ignore that the Professor of Dogmatic Theology Joseph Ratzinger had also contributed in no small measure to the formulation of the mentioned renewed texts.

How is it that today the same Dogmatic Theologian, now as Pope, proclaims indirectly the reviled theory of societas perfecta which, even if unwittingly, competes with the most secular forms of narcissism in modern globalization?

Seventh question:

In closing with the symbolic number of seven (7) questions arising from today’s ‘isolation’ of Pope benedict XVI (both from his deeper self, as well as from his most sincere friends and admirers which he had acquired by his tranquil and ever-modest presence), we would wish to know the position the theologizing Pope takes at this time on two of his better known works, which also showed the broadest horizons that the name Ratzinger represented for many decades.

We refer to the following enthusiastic and enthusing studies:

Today, unfortunately, it sounds like a tragic irony to hear the praise offered by the Archdiocese of Freiburg, on the occasion of the new edition of that book, and in particular the assertion that “according precisely to this spirit the current Pope still acts and wishes to be understood”!

If only that were the case; nothing indicates that it is.

From Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 26(8),
July &  August 2007, the official publication
of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia


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